Senior Virginia Johnson reflects on work with refugees in Bangkok, Thailand
Before you go abroad, part of the anticipation is knowing that you’re about to embark on a journey that will completely alter your life, but you have no way to conceive how exactly it will be altered.
When I left for my semester abroad in Bangkok, Thailand, I was incredibly anxious for all the transformative experiences that were ahead of me, but I never expected to find so many professional outlets abroad that would shape my career goals.
Some of my closest American friends at my Thai university were from the University of California school system, and, through their program, they could do internships for course credit during their time abroad.
A few girls I knew interned together at a humanitarian and immigration law firm teaching English to refugees, and they invited me to go. Not having a very busy schedule, and already wanting to volunteer while abroad, I went with them.
That decision ended up being one of the best I’ve ever made. I ended up sticking with the internship all the way through the semester. I met inspiring people while learning about the world and myself.
Beyond teaching English at the law office, we also had to make regular trips to the city’s Immigrant Detention Center where we visited incarcerated refugees and immigrants to talk about their cases, bring them non-prison food and be someone showing up for them.
The center was an intense place. Everywhere you looked there was clear pain and filth, as well as clear apathy from the Thai officials that worked there. The first time I went to visit, not having the guidance of the lawyers or other workers, I selected a client at random off a list. All I knew before going into the facility was that he was an older Vietnamese man.
After I went through security, I looked around at the facility and was shocked. Beyond the metal detectors and guards was a line of fences. On one side of them were visitors, family, lawyers, NGO workers and religious leaders, and on the other side were the prisoners with their fingers wrapped around the chain link as they yelled to get the attention of people on the other side.
I noticed a guard holding up a printed copy of my passport. He spotted me and motioned me to follow him. Warily, I walked with him to the other side of the fence, so now we were behind where the prisoners were standing, and he pointed to the floor at the foot of a cell, motioning for me to sit.
Sitting at the edge of the cell, I looked past the bars to see an elderly man sitting on the floor on the other side of the cell door. He looked at me and smiled. I noticed that he had neither of his legs and realized that was why I was brought to the cell and not with the other visitors.
I bowed deeply to him and he bowed back. It dawned on me immediately that he spoke no English, and I spoke no Vietnamese. I tried signing to him that I had brought him food and water. He nodded, but I still couldn’t read if he understood me.
We sat in silence for a few minutes more. I looked beyond him into the cell, which was quite small, and saw that there were about six other prisoners living in the room, all of whom were either elderly or disabled. I looked behind me and saw a group of Muslim visitors praying over a prisoner.
Why was I here? I felt very overwhelmed and helpless. I didn’t know what to do, so I bowed once more to the man, got up and left. I cried the whole taxi ride home, afraid that the work I had been wanting to do for years, humanitarian work, was something I couldn’t even handle.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I went back to the office to unpack my experience and was encouraged to keep coming back and visiting the center. I did, and it got easier. I connected with my students and learned to navigate the immigration center, as well as overcome my emotions.
Once that happened, this internship became one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I gained so much insight into issues, cultures and politics I would have never encountered otherwise. In fact, doing that work abroad helped me realize I want to dedicate my life’s work to refugee and immigrant rights.
Study abroad is what granted me this wild, enriched work experience that has become a cornerstone in my life and identity. I am incredibly fortunate for these opportunities, as overwhelming as they were at times, and I encourage anyone who is interested to seek them out as well.