Thailand: Refugee children reinvent playtime


The narrow streets of the commercial section of Mae La Refugee Camp are filled with children. Today, there is no school–for those who go to school, as an education is far from guaranteed in the camps–so the kids are trying to decide how they'll spend their day. Full of expectation, they look to So Eike, 10, who’s clearly the leader of the group. They hope he will come up with a brilliant idea.

The children in Mae La Refugee Camp don’t have any toys, but So Eike encourages them to go find empty plastic bottles. With the results of their scavenger hunt through the refuse dump, So Eike creates a game of improvisational bowling. Since the children have no ball to throw at the bottles, they use their shoes. It’s good for half an hour of laughter and fun.

The parents pop their heads out of the bamboo shelter houses to check on the kids. Some of them have small shops, but most of the adults are unemployed and listless, as Karen refugees from Myanmar don’t have the right to work. Many parents suffer from depression and don’t have the energy to spend time with their children.

Meanwhile, the game of skittles has made room for a wild game of football (with a broken ball), but the parents don’t approve. The little street is too narrow to play football, so they tell the children to move to the football field.

So Eike seems disappointed. There’s no shade on the football field, which means they have to wait until the heat becomes bearable. And by then the field will have already been taken over by hundreds of children, since there’s only one football field for 40,000 refugees.

“We have no place to play,” So Eike exclaims. “We play around the house or around the nearby temple, but that’s far from ideal. And we have no toys.”

Rehabilitate and play

Most of the children in the refugee camp don’t even know what toys look like, but So Eike does. He gets the chance to play with balls, puzzles, and clay or to try out the little trampoline when he goes to the Handicap International rehabilitation center.Three years ago, So Eike contracted a disease that made his muscles weak and stiff. “It became almost impossible for me to walk, I was in pain all the time and I couldn’t play with my friends anymore… I couldn’t keep up with them.”

Twice a week, So Eike and his father visit the rehabilitation center. A serious effort, but one that definitely pays off. Step-by-step, the boy learned how to walk again. The mornings at the center are So Eike’s favorite moments of the week. He has gotten to know many children in the center and is always happy to see them and enjoys playing together.

Fleeing the war

His father, Ah Li, is his biggest supporter, although spending so much time in the center doesn’t come without consequences. “I should be at work now,” Ah Li explains. The family relies on food aid, but tries to earn some extra money. “My wife makes sticky rice based snacks, and I try to sell them. The little extras are most welcome.”

The family fled the war in Myanmar 10 years ago, when So Eike was only a baby. His brother and sisters were born in the camp. Although some refugees are considering going back home, Ah Li wants to stay in the camp. Although he still dreams of performing at his old job again, fishing, he feels the time is not yet right to return. “Here we are safe and we have a home. It’s not safe in Myanmar yet, I don’t want to put my family in danger,” he says firmly. 

But thanks to Handicap International's new partnership with the IKEA Foundation, So Eike and his friends will soon have a new playground at their camp, where they can play and meet other children.


Life as a refugee child

Today, children with disabilities in the refugee camps can visit Handicap International’s center for rehabilitation services. Parents, family, and friends of each child are trained in rehabilitation exercises and care to ensure that progress isn't lost between sessions. Much of their exercise is done through play.

Other children in the camp are extremely vulnerable for other reasons. They are malnourished, in poor health, orphaned, or coming from traumatic backgrounds, and sometimes they are kept at home. Growing up in a refugee camp is already incredibly difficult, especially if you’re a child with a disability. That’s why we’ve started a new project–Growing Together–that gives displaced children the right to be a child.

Growing Together project

Growing Together is a four-year project in Thailand, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and is funded by the IKEA Foundation. Handicap International is creating inclusive spaces where children can come together–through play–to work through some of the challenges they face, especially children with disabilities. In addition to inclusive playgrounds, Growing Together will  target the youngest children who are at risk of developmental problems. Simultaneously, the program will engage local child development service providers and help them become more responsive to the needs of boys and girls with disabilities and other vulnerable children. Learn more about the partnership.

Handicap International in Thailand

Since 1984, Handicap International has worked along the border with Myanmar. The main activities are fitting refugees with locally-produced prostheses, rehabilitation services, empowering people with disabilities and social inclusion in local communities, and the prevention of mine accidents through risk education. Learn more about our work in Thailand.