Feelings of helplessness
by Sophia Lee
Posted on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, at 1:53 pm
WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style.
BANGKOK, Thailand—What do you say to a grown man who weeps in front of you?
During my week in Bangkok, I met with four Pakistani refugee families with different personalities and backgrounds but similar experiences: They met intense discrimination and persecution in their homeland because of their Christian faith, so they packed up a few bags and fled. Here in Bangkok, their physical lives are safe—but their sanity and security are not.
Thailand doesn’t recognize these migrants as refugees but as illegal immigrants, and lately the government has been cracking down on them. When they’re caught, families are separated and thrown into stinking cells packed five times above their maximum capacity with sweaty bodies.
The families I visited hide all day inside tiny, stuffy rooms, afraid to be free, desperate for a job, digging for peace and prayer answers amidst unbearable insecurities and fears. It was during these visits that several fathers—once successful men of the house in Pakistan, now crushed with guilt about their inability to protect and provide—choked with sobs when they tried to communicate their hardships to me in broken English.
As a journalist I’ve had numerous sources shed tears in front of me as they shared their difficult experiences. But I doubt I’ll ever get used to it. Most of the time, when their eyes pool and they turn away in embarrassment, always apologizing profusely, I wonder if I too should turn away to give them privacy. But usually I watch them subtly so that once I see that they’ve regained their composure, I can plow on with my questions, my ballpoint pen scratching noisily across my notepad. As heartless as it seems, I still have a job to do.
When I first ventured on this reporting trip throughout Southeast Asia, I knew I was going to be covering some emotionally heavy topics. But selfishly I still saw my travels as an adventure first. I was grinning like a silly clown when I marched off the plane on my first stop in Singapore, excited to learn something new and fascinating. But now, six weeks into my trip, my heart feels swollen and the faces of certain people I’ve met frequently flash in my mind, reminding me of tales that bleed grief, helplessness, and loss.
These stories aren’t novel. In school we studied famous wars and genocides, historical diseases and disasters. Today we hear and read about the same kinds of sufferings on Facebook and Twitter: the current refugee crisis, dozens more civilians blown up to smithereens somewhere in the Middle East, another celebrity death due to suicide or overdose. Such news of human suffering has become so common, so clichéd, so clinical that I can’t even pinpoint when I started developing calluses; reports of tragedies no longer grip me emotionally as much.
But it’s different when I see, hear, and touch these human sufferings in person. It can be something small and mundane. For example, every day and evening, I pass by the same crippled young man selling mini-doughnuts for 25 baht outside the neighborhood’s 7-Eleven store. Every few minutes he peddles his pastries in loud Thai that sounds more like a moan, as if he’s bone-tired of uttering the same phrase a thousand times a day. I always wonder how much other verbal interaction he has with people. At times I dread walking past him because his wails clutch my pity and I wish I could do something, say anything, to help—but what?
After meeting the Pakistani refugees, I mentioned that feeling of helplessness to a missionary in Bangkok, and she said, “Your sense of ‘I wish there were more we could do’ is how so many of us feel here.” One of the Pakistani refugees she introduced me to later reported that after sharing his story with me, old memories raked up fresh sorrows and despair. The missionary immediately shot me an email requesting me to “pray that Jesus’ love and hope will break through the enemy’s plan to drag him down.”
I got the adventure I craved during this trip. It’s fun to land in a completely new city, bumble around hectic night markets, and gorge on exotic, pungent tropical fruits. But the human stories here taste just as raw and “the enemy’s plan” smells just as poisonous here as it does back home, reminding me to pray for my once-invisible brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.