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A House In a Refugee Camp Is Not a Home

With little more than bamboo, wood, and dead leaves at his disposal, Samy just set about building his house in the refugee camp. His friends pitched in, and before long there was a wooden floor, bamboo walls, and a roof stitched together from the leaves. This is a common practice in refugee camps; new arrivals often have to build their makeshift homes from the ground up.

But Samy is hardly a new arrival. He has been living as a refugee for three years, opting to bend the rules and spend part of his time in a nearby town to work and make money. He was young and optimistic about leaving Thailand, and probably never thought he’d need a permanent home in the camp—so he crashed indefinitely with friends instead.

You can't blame him for not building the home sooner. Imagine being 20 years old and being told that, according to the rules, you now have to spend all your time in a hut. That you first have to build yourself. Out of wood and leaves. I’d get the hell out of there, too.

That's why Samy's decision to build a house in the camp is so loaded—as though he's accepting that he may be here for a long haul. This is devastating to contemplate, but it also means he’s starting to savvy up to the complicated and political resettlement process: Those who are a known presence in the camps, who share homes and serve as active members of the community, are more likely to be observed by the Thai authorities, which means they're also more likely to be recognized officially as refugees.

That process of how a refugee goes from the camps to finding a new home country is complex and intensely bureaucratic (which is why it took me two installments to explain how it works ). For Samy, the barrier remains the Thai government and its mysterious, seemingly arbitrary system for dealing with refugees.

Samy understands that, and he exhibits increasing shrewdness in playing the game. Building a house, appealing to the Thai authorities, meeting with the camp leader, and making lengthy stays in Mae La are all signs of a smarter approach. He’s working within the system.

Still, I was pretty stunned when he told me about the house. He’d never mentioned the prospect of making a home before, and now, after just a couple of weeks of building, it was nearly finished.

“It is like the one you and Tim stayed in when you come to the camp, with my friends, remember?” Samy said, referring to the time he’d snuck me and my friend into the camp last summer, and given us a tour of his temporary home. Exhausted, we had all crashed for a midday nap in Samy’s friend’s house. Those houses pretty much exactly match the image that comes to mind when you think of a hut. Thousands of such homes line the muddy walkways of Mae La.

A couple of days later, Samy emails me pictures of his new house in various stages of construction (one of which is at the end of this post). Sure enough, there’s the wood and bamboo contraption, first as a skeleton, then with a floor, and then with a roof. In the final picture of the series, he’s standing outside his new, mostly finished house, smiling. But it’s a forced sort of smile, the kind flashed around the world after friends and family decide some just-completed task must be documented with a photo.

He still won’t be spending all of his time there, but his ambivalence is justified. It may look like a house, but it probably feels more like a prison.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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