She wants to see peace. She wants to see a culture honored and traditions kept. She wants to see hope for a better future. She wants to see these things for a special people she has come to love on the other side of the world.
Amelia Iaderosa, 29, graduated from Richmond Hill High School in 2002 and Auburn University in 2006. After graduating, she worked with the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer In-Service to America) in Montana and Colorado as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service Organization in Thailand.
In January 2013, she moved to Mae Sot, Thailand, where through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, she came to work as a full-time volunteer with women in refugee camps inside Burma, a country located next to Thailand, with a community-based organization called Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).
“Going to work with KWO was a huge step outside of my comfort zone,” Iaderosa said. “I have traveled overseas in the past, leading trips to Poland and Israel, but I had never done something like this — alone and so foreign. I was choosing to leave a life of comfort and stability to move across the world to a place I knew nobody and ultimately knew nothing about.
“I was taking a plunge into the unknown,” she continued. “But one thing I know about taking risks and stepping out of my comfort zone is that only good things can come from it, no matter how difficult and scary it may seem in the beginning.”
For the past 20 years, the military dictatorship of Burma, in their effort to seize the lands and resources throughout the country, has waged war against all of the ethnic nationalities. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country and taking refuge in Thailand.
In Thailand, the refugees have lived in bamboo camps surrounded by barb wire, unable to travel, work or farm. Their food has been provided by contributions from around the world. Schools, health care and other services have been provided by international non-governmental organizations.
Since the Karen people had to flee their homes in Burma, women have played an essential role in keeping the community safe and provided for. When it comes to planning for refugee return and peace talks in Burma, women have for the most part been excluded.
KWO supports the ideas that women must be involved in the process through advocacy and awareness rising to international organizations, governments and the local community.
“KWO is a community-based organization of Karen women working in development and relief in the refugee camps on the Thai border and with IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and women inside Burma,” Iaderosa explained. “KWO aims to empower women through offering various capacity-building trainings to teach skills, build confidence and create new opportunities so that women will be better able to solve problems. We are working hard to educate ourselves and our communities so that we can work more effectively and advocate for our struggle on the international stage.”
According to Iaderosa, English is not the mother tongue of the Karen refugees from Burma. However, their community work requires significant contact with international organizations using the English language.
Iaderosa has been able to contribute to the vital work of the KWO by working with their team based at the small town of Mae Sot. She has worked with initiatives, including donor liaison, research, project development and translation services.
“In a nutshell, I do anything they ask me to do,” Iaderosa said. “A lot of the specific work I do is related to working with donors, INGOs (international non-governmental organizations), UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and other English-speaking institutions. I help the organization communicate with donors to ensure that the projects and programs they run continue to receive funding. The project I focus a lot of my time on is KWO’s safe house project. I am also actively involved in advocacy for refugees regarding refugee return.”
Specifically, Iaderosa works in areas including: creating advocacy campaigns against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the community; researching on access to justice for SGBV victims and how to improve the quality, consistency and equality of the justice system; and meeting with INGOs, UNHCR and other relevant organizations and institutions regarding issues related to refugee return and creating proposals and reports for donor relations and interactions.
“The work that I do with KWO is important because it helps ease stress related to interactions that require English-speaking skills,” Iaderosa said. “This is important because a large part of the work being done around refugee return and communicating with donors is English based.”
Iaderosa explained UNHCR is one of the main decision-makers and stakeholders in refugee return preparation and implementation. Without a native English speaker to help Iaderosa’s co-workers, they may not fully understand what is going on during meetings or within communications about situations that directly affect their lives.
“The work KWO does for the Karen women and the Karen community overall has an importance that goes above and beyond anything that I do volunteering with KWO as they are truly ingrained in the struggle and are directly affected,” Iaderosa said.
During the year Iaderosa worked with the Karen women as a volunteer, she gained even more passion for, not only the work she does, but what KWO does as a whole.
“I have developed relationships with my co-workers and the community that allow me to see into lives that most of us only read about or see on TV,” Iaderosa said. “The connection to my co-workers drives my passion to do my part in creating a more just and equal world. The people I work with everyday are stateless. My co-workers have no place to call home, the homes that they once had in Burma do not exist anymore, and for those that were born in the refugee camps will never know a true home.”
Iaderosa said volunteering with KWO was the most difficult and rewarding experience of her life, but she feels that one year isn’t enough.
“Walking into a community that I knew almost nothing about and developing relationships, learning about the culture, and understanding the context of the situation facing refugees took time and will be a continuous process for me,” she said. “I don’t feel like my work is finished. I just know that I feel a deep commitment to the women and community I have met over the past year and I have more to give.”
Iaderosa has begun a campaign called Impacting Lives to raise money for her continued work volunteering with KWO. Her goal is to raise $10,000, which will allow her to live with basic necessities for one year in Thailand. Currently, she has raised $7,000.
“(Another reason I think the work I am doing is important) is because I am given the opportunity to educate my community at home in the states about the situation facing the Karen people on the border,” Iaderosa said. “Many people I have spoken with about the situation on the border are unfamiliar with the plight of the Karen people.
For those wishing to support Iaderosa financially, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/impacting-lives--2.