While many people spent winter break at home, Henry Aruffo, a USF visiting instructor in the Department of Geography, was overseas volunteering to help the Karen people at the Thailand-Myanmar (formerly Burma) border.
With a population of 7 million, Karens (pronounced Ka-rans) are the largest ethnic minority group in Myanmar and the second largest people group after the Burmans. They have the same ancestors as the Mongolians and have lived in Myanmar since 739 B.C. Soon after, they were conquered by the Burmese. For the past 43 years have been ruled by the Burmese dictatorship.
About 300,000 Karens have fled from the military dictatorship of Myanmar into the jungle border area. Under the dictatorship, Karens have been raped, tortured, murdered on a massive scale and robbed of their homes and possessions. It is another example of the disturbing consequences of ethnic cleansing.
The Karen Emergency Relief Fund ,set up clinics in the border area to provide humanitarian assistance including food, shelter, medical and health supplies, all of which they greatly lack. It also provides educational and self-help projects for the Karen people.
Aruffo said he brought with him more than a hundred pounds of medical supplies to contribute to the fund. He also tutored young Karen children in reading and writing English. He traveled to Burma over the summer and decided to go back during the break to let other volunteers go home for Christmas.
“They have a beautiful culture and are a very peaceful people,” Aruffo said. “There are always forgotten people in the world. It’s up to us to help them. “
Aruffo explained that because the Karen people still live in Burma and Thailand, they are not officially considered as refugees. They therefore, do not receive any assistance from the United Nations or the Red Cross. “They must be helped by non-governmental organizations which have so far helped to raise $12,000 to $15,000 worth of supplies.”
Aruffo also gave a lecture at the University of Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand, in which the topic was Socially and Environmentally Responsible Tourism in Developing Nations.
Aruffo said he believes anybody can help those in need, and people can truly make a difference by just changing the style in which they travel.
“Anybody, while visiting another country, can bag an extra pair of clothes or even medical supplies to give to those who need them,” Aruffo said. “Hopefully my style of travel has influenced others to help change theirs.”
Aruffo led many overseas studies including tours in Peru, Tahiti, Tanzania, Ecuador, Moorea, and Iceland. He has toured and inspected living conditions of Internally Displaced Persons in Myanmar, and has had conferences with members of the Karen National Union and former political prisoners/students from the 1988 democracy demonstrations in Myanmar. He has also met with members of the Kayinni National Progressive Party.
“It makes you feel very lucky to live here in America,” said Aruffo.