We all piled on the ferry one by one, stepping over the chasm between dock and boat as I lugged my backpack up the ladder to the deck of the boat. Afterward, we descended down the stairs to the cabin where rows of seats with ineffective life vests were harnessed for every person. If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, you know safety standards aren’t really a thing. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. There’s always a slight chance for something pleasantly disastrous and adventurous to happen.
As I was in the rickety ferry filled with other farangs and tourists, I couldn’t help but think my journey on the Andaman Sea is so much different than many other people’s. I am going to stay in bungalows, lay on the beach and go snorkeling. It’s my choice to go and my choice to leave. The greatest discomforts I’ll experience are mosquitos and sunburns. Today I got attacked by red ants.
For the Rohingyas last summer, it was not their choice. “No one puts their child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” As monsoon season ends, many are expected to flee again.
The Rohingya are ethnic Muslims who have lived in Myanmar for generations. Their life, their health, their happiness is being slowly suffocated. They live in outdoor prisons with no access to school or healthcare. Disease is rampant. They dig holes in the ground to “filter” their water. They were not on a boat by choice. Freedom of choice doesn’t mean choosing between two different kinds of hell. Some were on the boats for up to five months.
I began to feel claustrophobic in the ferry with all my leg room and fresh air as I began to imagine up to 500 people sitting knee to knee, beaten if they cried. Beaten if they complained. They were thirst, they were hunger. When Thailand cracked down on human traffickers, these boats were left stranded at sea with no help. Malaysia and Thailand sent the ships back out to sea initially, sending people to their death. Through international pressure and attention, these people were eventually rescued. Aceh, Indonesia welcomed thousands with parades, clothes and food. Partners Relief and Development supplied playgrounds so a kid could be a kid again.
It takes a lot of energy to live every day feeling guilty for what you have in comparison to what others don’t. I don’t think that’s how we’re meant to live our lives and it’s definitely not a healthy sentiment to live in guilt. But I do think these sobering moments should always lead us to action, to live and speak differently. Instead of living out of guilt for what we have, I think the better way is to live out of compassion. I used to think of compassion as a weak word, it meant having a soft heart, emotionally driven. I thought that was the reason why I cried a lot as a kid. But really compassion is having the strength to let your heart be broken and then being moved to action to do something about it. Compassion is accompanied by empathy and justice.
Compassion is courage to walk towards brokenness with the hope of light and not become hard.