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Lessons learnt from an internship in India

Lessons learnt from an internship in India

This reflective piece was written soon after I returned from an internship working with refugees from Burma in India. I had the opportunity to work with a team of interns and staff through the University of New South Wales, helping to facilitate a dialogue between refugees from New Delhi and Mizoram and UNHCR staff. The conditions we witnessed and stories that we heard were shocking. They still shake me to my very core now.

It is now several months after, and as I read back on the piece, I acknowledge how raw and unpolished it is. My initial reaction to my experience there was a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, guilt and sympathy. These emotions soon gave way to an overall feeling of hopelessness. Once that dissipated, with the realisation that continuing to feel this was just another form of self indulgence, my emotions started to even out more as I had more time to process what I felt. What was written below was therefore the most raw, immediate reaction that I had upon returning to Australia.

I am amazed at how the context of a visit can change your impression of a country. Three years ago, I spent six weeks travelling throughout India. As a backpacker, my impression of the place was that despite the poverty and all the problems faced by the country, it was an overall happy place. I found pieces of evidence to support this view the entire time, whether it was the chuckling auto drivers, or the children playing cricket in the streets. I chose to block out the lepers and beggars, lined up like dominoes along the street pavement, sleeping in swags because they had no where else to go.

This time, there was none of that. There was no doubting the fact that the overwhelming impression I got from India was one of hopelessness. That the entire country is so full of problems, that there really is no hope for groups at the bottom of the pile, such as the refugees.

What makes it so hard for refugees in a country like India? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head. There are over 1.1 billion people all fighting for that last piece of the pie. Whoever doesn’t have access to it, or whoever is at the back of the queue, well, they don’t have much of a chance. As the Indian government always says – how can we provide a high standard of living for refugees when so many of our own countrymen live in absolute poverty? That argument is both irrefutable and ultimately unsatisfying, because it stratifies human beings into classes, where one class of person deserves one lot, whereas another class of person doesn’t. Which explains a little of the background to the next possible reason. In India, in a country where the caste system is still so obvious, there are  still well-defined classes and boundaries. And there’s no doubt that the refugees are at the bottom of this pile.

The refugees are not only the lowest class, but they are divided into classes themselves. Out of the Somali, Afghani and Burmese refugees, it was definitely the Somalis who had the worst conditions. They were not allowed to have basic registration, while other groups could. The only possible reason why this might occur is quite simply because they are black. Because they are black refugees, not only are they another sub-class, they are simply sub-human.

I can’t claim to know enough about Hinduism, spirituality and reincarnation, but I get the strong feeling that through a mixture of these things, there’s the acceptance of my lot in life, no matter how bad it is. Maybe it’s because of reincarnation, because of something I did in a previous life. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t have a choice. But in India, lots of people look down on people below them with glee. One story that will always stick with me is the story of how refugees from Burma have to go to the night market to pick up rotten fruit and vegetables at the end of the day, because they cannot afford to feed their families otherwise. This is produce which is not good enough for Indian people to sell to other Indian people. It is simply thrown on the floor. The Indian people know this happens, so some of the men will deliberately urinate on the fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough that the refugees have to scavenge for food without nutrients, but some of the locals need to rub it in their faces and humiliate them. What does this say about how we, as people, treat others?

What does it say about their ability to live lives with dignity when there are 7 or 8 people living in a room not much bigger than 3m x 3m, in conditions where it’s often impossible for all family members to lie down at the same time? Where sometimes family members have to go and sleep on the roof, causing their fathers and mothers to be afraid for their safety? We heard about the lack of sanitation, where more than 40 or 50 people have to wait to use one bathroom in the building. Where Indian landlords take advantage of refugees, because without proper documentation, they don’t have any legal rights. Often landlords would force the refugees to pay for the electricity bills of the entire building (including the landlord’s own home) instead of just their own apartment. And when the refugees were unable to pay up in time, or were late on rent, they would either rape the women, or simply kick them out.

This sort of stuff goes on all the time. When we were there, one man came to a day of our consultation and told the story of how he and his wife were kicked out of their apartment that morning, and then spent the morning wandering around looking for new accommodation before coming to be with us. Which amazes me – the dedication to attend despite all that – it showed that he really thought he was getting something out of it.

For refugees, they face all these sorts of problems continuously, but they don’t give up. They say they want to, but they don’t. I’ll never forget some of the things that were spoken – “Life is difficult in Burma, we don’t want to die, but here (in India) we want to die”.  Somali refugees told us something similar, that they would rather UNHCR sent them back to their home countries, so they could at least die there, rather than in a foreign land.

I think in the entire two weeks, I felt the most disturbed and upset when I heard about the desperation that was coming out of the groups. Because when people are really desperate, they become irrational, and you can feel that straight away. They requested us (the interns) to go and work in the local offices of the implementing partners because Indian people feared Westerners, and they wouldn’t cheat the refugees anymore. The fact that this seemed like a rational solution that could solve a problem was so distressing.

It’s also distressing to hear about the problems that children are facing, and the fact that for most of them, they really don’t have a future worth talking about. And you can feel the pain in the voice of the parents when they say this. We met a husband and wife in their mid 30s who were just so in love with each other, and so gentle and kind to us. They had left 6 children behind in Burma – with no hope of ever seeing them again. If they ever did, it would be a miracle. But in some ways, a lot of the other refugees with children are not much better off. Because the children don’t have access to good education, and so there really is nothing that’s going to help them lift themselves out of this situation. And even if they do go to schools, they are bullied, teased and hit. Sometimes even raped. There’s nothing really on the horizon for future generations.

I cannot fathom sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). It is not something that I have personally had to deal with, or know anyone from my childhood who has faced it. I think the most distressing thing about SGBV is that it occurs everywhere. There was the perception that this was something that happens late at night, in dark alleys. But the truth is that it occurs in the workplace, in the homes, in the hospitals from the doctors when women work as interpreters, even by police. There is no respite. It seemed like wherever the women turned, it was there – there was no escaping it. Which is why traditional and outdated solutions to SGBV do not work. Many of these solutions tend to be victim focused, which not only shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, it also means that victims have some level of choice in placing themselves in dangerous situations. But as I mentioned earlier, women are in dangerous situations anywhere they go. They cannot choose to come home before dark because they work till 9 o’clock at night for almost nothing, or because they need to go to the night market to scavenge for food. Any solution that has any chance of working has to address core problems that are being faced, such as the lack of decent income that underlies their lives, and most importantly, the solution has to come from the refugees themselves.

Ultimately, I felt that coming from the refugees, the only solution that would solve the vast majority of their problems was resettlement. But who wouldn’t think that? I wouldn’t want to be without rights and dignity in a country like India. But the sad thing is that for most of them, this isn’t going to happen. They will be stuck in India until they die. For most of them, their dreams of living in a country with relative freedom and rights and happiness – it just isn’t going to happen. And for me, that’s the saddest part.

I don’t feel hopelessness now. Just a wider recognition that the world is full of problems that people are facing on a daily basis, and that there are little things that we can do to help. That maybe we won’t be able to change the underlying factors that are causing all this suffering. I won’t be able to stop wars, end climate change, put an end to genocide or persecution. But I can make a noticeable difference to people’s lives. And this was backed up by the faith and trust shown towards us by the refugees. The first thing I need to do is start listening to them.


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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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12 thoughts on “Lessons learnt from an internship in India

  1. […] working in Madagascar, like in so many developing countries, was emotionally and culturally challenging, besides, I wanted to improve my French. I sent out email after email to organisations all over […]

  2. Johnny Brown

    As I was progressing through this post, I could deduce that the tone of this write up was rather patronising and condescending towards a country of 1.1 billion people. For a moment, I could not help myself and assume that this was yet another rambling from a so called white messiah out to save the dark heathens from eternal damnation. When I finished reading the article I was bewildered to see that the author was someone of East Asian decent. Then it got me to ask this simple question, “Are the East Asians the new white messiahs of the 21st century”? I find it totally rich that someone like you can write such an abhorrent article on India when people from your countries of origin have so much dirt in their own backyard it was take 1000 years for it to decompose. Who are you to criticise India’s treatment of refugees when the Chinese government have actively driven out the Tibetan community to have that region totally populated by the Han Chinese people? While India is at least trying to accommodate refugees, countries like China, Burma or Somalia are CREATING refugees because they have scant respect for their own citizens. India is an open and free society where people are free to visit, commend, criticise or condemn to their hearts content and need not fear any government reprisal. Indeed consider yourself lucky that you have the luxury to berate India as freely as you do. I find it disgusting how so many Asians think that they can look down on brown people just because they think they are supposedly superior to us. You did get one thing correct though, your knowledge of Hinduism is indeed pathetic at best and if you think that the caste system is somehow intertwined with Hinduism, it is fair to say that Christianity and racism go hand in hand. Just look at the recent shootings of African Americans in places like Fergusson at the hands of their white christian brethren. Maybe Christianity is inherently racist too? India has its problems but that really is none of your goddamn business. You make me sick and I think you are totally a despicable person. Fix the shit in your own countries before you shed your crocodile tears for other people.

  3. D

    Thank you for writing this.
    India is not only a poor country, but a poor country by choice.

    As an Indian who has grown up overseas, I can see what’s wrong with the country with the ‘cultural context’ that many Indians use to justify discrimination and injustice.

    1. Let me be clear. Indians are human beings jut like everyone else, so any ‘cultural context’ or ‘India is different’ stuff is irrelevant. I am an Indian and feel sad to see the daily victimization that every Indian turns a blind eye to. But guess what, things catchup and now in 2014 rape, injustice and hopelessness have become the main issues for Indians themselves.

    2. We cannot stop wars and we cannot change the world, BUT we can educate and enlighten, so that we will never have to stop anything.

    Contrary to popular belief, Indians are not educated or smart. Yes they may some some numbers and a A+, but they cannot solve even the basic real world problems and are pathetically lazy when it comes to self improvement, let alone social improvement. It wasn’t always like this. After ‘independence’ from the British there was a small glimmer of hope, but it was soon crushed by the usual caste system and religious hocus pocus gurus that most Indians follow to the dot.
    Indians need true education the most. This means Emotional Education, General knowledge, ethics, and tolerance. No Indian should be allows to hide behind ‘white people are the ones who are the slave owners’ or ‘in India, it is like this’ argument.

    3. Thank you again for writing this. As an Indian I feel sad that my country has come to this, but it has. What’s worse is that no one acknowledges this fact. You are even put down for raising it.

    God only help those children, as I can say that India is definitely a pedophiles dreamland. I want to change this someday, as I know that Indians turn a blind eye to this, and no one is we jailed and no justice is ever done.

    Having a large population is no excuse for abhorrent behaviour

  4. Aaron

    Top post mate. Quick question: in the final paragraph you seem (in my reading) to come to the conclusion that as an aid worker you can't solve big problems, but you can do "little things" that will make "a noticeable difference to people's lives". A very valid point and a nice piece of positivity to take from an otherwise horrible and depressing situation. But is this the full extent of aid work? Do you think aid work can solve, or work towards solving, the big problems? Or is it ultimately about the "little things" that will make "a noticeable difference to people's lives"?

    1. wmyeoh

      It's probably a gross oversimplification on my behalf to think that we can't make "big changes". The point, I think, is that it depends on what the underlying causes of the problems are. If we look at the refugee situation, for the Somalians, Afghanis and Burmese, they have become refugees because of war and persecution (push factors), and my point was that these are things that are out of my control. At first this might seem overly depressing, and in way it is. But coming to this conclusion really puts things into perspective – it means that you don't constantly bang your head up against the wall trying to change things that you can't. The situation is hopeless, in the sense that as long as you and I live, there will always be a greedy and powerful few making life worse for many others.

      But even "little things" (ie those things that require very little effort on our behalf) can make huge wholesale changes to people's quality of life. So in summary, can aid work change the underlying causes of most of these problems? No. But can it make big changes to people's lives? Yes. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Amy

    Thank you Weh,

    I experienced similar emotions after leaving India and those refugees behind. I think your analysis of the root causes of their mistreatment is correct. Essentially they struggle to hang onto the lowest rudder on the hierarchy of Indian society, and their protectors are overworked and underfunded in a country, which simply doesn’t care (or have the energy to care). While the conditions in which our friends live are unlikely to change within their lifetime, and this fact alone bears considerable weight on my conscience, I do see change on the horizon.

    As Laura highlights, change in India is painstakingly slow, but it is possible. As India becomes a heavy weight in the global economic, its political status in the global arena will rise and its leaders will be become increasingly compelled to comply with human rights standards and international law, to some extent. The fact that the Indian government showed interest in the refugee community in December highlights this point. The government is fully aware that they cannot go on relying on UNHCR to deal with this problem forever, but they will need to be proactive in the future and bare some of the load. I think we will see a shift in their approach.

    For those of us who are planning to go on and continue with this type of work in the future, I think it very important to participate in this type of reflection as Weh as done, and to try to take the positive. While it feels like we achieved so little, it was still something, more than they have ever received before, and that in itself is positive. If we become too overwhelmed by the big picture and the huge mess that we cannot change, it is easy to become disillusioned and throw our hands up. This is something I have given a lot of thought to and would be interested to hear from you all.

  6. Laura

    Weh this is an important piece that presents many of the main protection risks and issues faced by some of the urban refugees in New Delhi. It is important for their stories and life conditions to be acknowledged, surfaced and shared so that their lives are not lived in a solitary tunnel of hopelessness. This is obviously the first step and after this, there must be change to improve the conditions and quality of their lives. Immediately after the internship I felt quite negative and despondent about the entire situation of the refugees and I thought the work we did was not enough, I felt very sad about the extent of issues and overwhelmed by how big the problems are. Everything you said in the article is true and there are many many problems the different refugee groups face in New Delhi.
    After getting to know Indian society and culture on a deeper level I have to say that the country is inherently bureaucratic, anyone that has been to India can see this. The thing is at first it is very frustrating and slow and you think that nothing ever gets done and it frustrates you to the core; but actually after sometime things do move along and change and the systems work, it's just not as fast as we are used to in a place like Australia or Europe. Therefore I think that in our internship, notifying the Indian government and the New Delhi UNHCR of the many protection risks and refugee initiated solutions was a really momentous action, within the framework of how change can occur locally from an Indian perspective. Yes, as Weh said in the article it is frustrating and devastating and incredibly sad and overwhelming, these feelings are something that can not be ignored, but in order to stay useful in this field we must must focus on the positives and the light at the end of the tunnel and just keep trying our best. By listening to the refugees this gives them some clarification of their context, some respect and some inspiration to for them to empower their own lives in whatever capacity is available to them. Thanks for sharing this reflection piece.

  7. Kerry

    Weh, I was very touched by this post, having just been in India myself. As distressing as it is to see how those far less fortunate than we are here in Australia are forced to live, without dignity and freedom in many situations, I am impressed that you can see beyond epic tragedy towards what positive action can be taken. I'm proud to know you! xK

  8. Tom

    Great post Weh. Have it set to tweet for tomorrow. I am a big fan of honest reflections like this piece as it allows us to better understand the feelings we encounter when confronted with such striking situations.

  9. Pearl

    Continued …
    It is because of what you are doing with your life now, I so wish you would receive Light and have your own personal awakenings. Yes, I never miss an opportunity to say this and I will never give up. It is not for everyone, only because we all have different levels of awakenings, some is now, some is later, some is never but for whatever or whenever, it is all in God's plan and I have to believe there is a bigger picture I am just a small bit of this overall picture. This is definately not to say don't do what you are doing, the physical and the spiritual needs to go like the two wheels of a cart.
    Anyway enough lecture, I am so proud you are my nephew, you are such a caring young man but be careful not to get too emotionally involved, stand back and look at the bigger picture.
    Lots of Light and Love, Lee Ee

    1. wmyeoh

      In principle, I agree with what you are saying, although I wouldn't necessarily link it with any spiritual beliefs. When we hear about situations like this, it's natural to want to question why and discover the real reason for all these things. It's tempting to try and make sense out of something that just can't be made rationalised. Why are such cruel things happening to perfectly innocent people? As you said, it's not our place to judge or to try and make reason out of the situation, the only thing we can do is to think about how we can best react.

      Trying to think that I could stop wars or genocides or natural disasters would only result in an immense level of frustration, which is what I think you're alluding to when you say it's better not to discuss the why and why nots. Rather, I have to understand that my ability to change the world is limited to making small, incremental changes which hopefully have some impact on people's lives. And it's when I came to this conclusion that I felt more at peace.

      I agree with you in that we lead ourselves down the path of frustration if we do not aim to let go of control. And, for me, I think that that relies on a more pragmatic approach, rather than a spiritual one. I think this lines up a lot more, for me at least, with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness – that essentially says we need to be ever present and ever conscious of our surroundings and situation. I like this idea a lot better because I think it indirectly deals with this issue of control. We often want to control everything that occurs in our lives, in the future, but mindfulness forces us to take a step back from that and realise that we need to be adaptive and flexible, to accommodate whatever happens in our lives.

      I'm also a big believer in not labelling things as either "good" or "bad", and therefore not trying to interpret events, but rather just thinking about how to respond. I read a post on this a while back which I'm sure can explain why better than I can. Check it out here:

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, much appreciated.

  10. Pearl

    Good morning Weh, I have just read the piece you have written. It is very well written and captures the situation you were in whilst in India. I go back to Mahikari yet again each time I hear these sort of things.
    Weh, do you believe in the spiritual world? That there is a God? In Mahikari Teachings, we are asked not to use intellect to debate the whys and why nots but to accept that God knows best. Things happen in our lives for a reason, it may not be evident at the time why we have to go through that particular 'experience' but it is necessary so each and everyone one of us can move on to the next level. Yes, it also has to do with reincarnation, our souls need to be polished each physical life we live so we can become true children of God. God is the only one who can judge, we are not elevated enough to see why and why not each time we encounter such harshness. Everyone we come across in our life is for a 'reason', there are no coincidences.

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