Living on little in Mae La

By Karen McGrath
Media and Communications Coordinator, Act for Peace

Posted in Culture

In December 2013 and March 2015 I travelled to Mae La refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand as part of my work for Act for Peace, the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia. The people of Burma have lived through the longest running conflict in the world. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes for neighbouring Thailand and now live in refugee camps, like the one I travelled to.

Whilst I was in Mae La I met Than.

Than was just a boy when he saw his village being burnt to the ground by the Burmese army. He walked day and night with his family, with no food or water, finally finding safety in Mae La refugee camp.

I clearly remember Than talking about his desire to go back home, despite the safety he had thankfully found in Thailand: “Life in Mae La camp is better than in Burma. Because I grow vegetables I can support my family.” Like many refugees, Than has been living in Mae La refugee camp for more than 21 years. He desperately hopes that one day it will be safe enough to return to Burma.

Life for Than and the many others like him is tough. Confined to the camps and without an official way to earn a living, he relies on food rations to survive.

When I first saw the rations Than and his family had to live on I was in shock. He and his family have to survive on just a small amount of rice, flour, salt, fish paste, split peas and oil. Their rations for an entire month fit in one small corner of the kitchen. But the thing that really made me emotional is that funding for even this small amount of rations is running low, meaning the rations may have to be cut yet again.

This situation made me realise that Australia really is one of the richest countries in the world – yet many Australians just don’t seem to care about the refugees in places like Mae La, people who have nothing.

How can it be right to turn our backs on people in their time of need?

I believe that we can inspire people in Australia to be more compassionate, and make a real difference to the lives of refugees, like Than, living in Mae La camp.

On returning to Australia my colleagues and I developed the Act for Peace Ration Challenge. During Refugee Week from Sunday 14 to Saturday 20 June this year, I will be participating in the second ever Act for Peace Ration Challenge – and we need as many people as possible to join us. I will be eating the same rations as Than for one week, sharing my experience with my friends and family, and asking them to sponsor me.

Together I believe we will change attitudes in Australia towards refugees – starting with our own. The money we raise will provide rations, seeds, tools and training to help ensure people like Than have enough to eat – now and in the future.


More about the Ration Challenge

The Act for Peace Ration Challenge is about standing up for refugees.

By taking the challenge, you will be surviving on the same rations as a Burmese refugee during Refugee Week and will be sponsored to do so. The money you raise will help make sure refugees have enough to eat. By sharing this powerful experience with those around you, you can also bring the refugee struggle closer to home in a way that is impossible to ignore.

Together we can make a difference for refugees and create a more compassionate society.

When does it take place?
During Refugee Week, from Sunday 14 to Saturday 20 June, 2015

How do I register?
Register online here. By registering you will be immediately linked to your online fundraising page, which you can personalise, and share with your family and friends to start getting sponsored.

To find out more about the Ration Challenge, please visit or free call 1800 025 101.

This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of New Times. Read the rest of the edition here.

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