A refugee’s story and his “guardian angel”

Muriel’s passing has not only shook my core but to those closest to her. This is particularly true for Quesney Buledi, and his family, who considered Muriel as their “guardian angel”. His public story of being an asylum-seeker and refugee in Thailand is well-known – less so is his more personal story of Muriel’s instrumental role in saving his life and the lives of his children. Muriel and I worked in the background to do what we could to help and never wanted to be in the spotlight. So I was very moved to read Quesney’s tribute in the January 2016 newsletter from the White Rose Group who helped him and his family settle in Canada.


This is Quesney’s tribute to Muriel in his own words.

It’s very difficult to believe that someone so special, so kind and almost perfect is no longer here to start that chat on the web or to send that text message.

I came to know Muriel soon after I arrived in Bangkok in February 2008. I arrived with nothing but a few clothes. I was destroyed – I had suffered unspeakable abuses and had no hope I could reconstitute my life. I was in the country illegally, without a passport or a visa. Like other asylum seekers, I had no rights and under the constant threat of arrest. What little money I had was gone in two days. With nowhere to sleep I sought shelter in a mosque.

I found my way from one agency to another until I met Ms Ali Collier at the Bangkok Refugee Centre (BRC). Ali realised I spoke French and introduced me to Muriel. Her smile met mine and we started to talk as if we knew each other for ages. Muriel quickly restored my lost hope. Finally, after more than four years of darkness there was a light! Someone cared and would help me. Through Muriel I met many others at Asylum Access Thailand who have remained good friends. Muriel helped me find a safe place to stay, even paying for my first rent. However, my status made it difficult to find work. Finally Muriel was successful in securing a volunteer teaching position for me and over the course of the next six years I helped many refugee children and adults maintain and improve their educational skills.

Muriel introduced me to her then fiancé Vincent Fung and he and I became very good friends. I had two people that cared for me and I considered them my new family. They introduced me to the modern world, made sure I had a safe place to stay, food to eat and activities to do. This kept my morale high. They took me to cinemas, to evening “get-togethers”, shopping malls and bought me new clothes.

They introduced me to new people who would be friends. I could never have dreamed these people would open the doors to freedom for my children and me. I now had people around me with whom I could share my pains and sorrows, people who vigorously fought for my happiness and my freedom.

When Muriel and Vincent left Thailand they ensured I was living in a secure area and that all my basic needs were met. I cannot forget that night. Vincent handed me an envelope with enough money to cover all my needs for months. I could hardly comprehend their kindness. It was difficult to say good-bye but we kept in touch through e-mail and on-line chats. She always wanted to know that I was well and safe. She sent books for me to read, she suggested movies to watch, music to listen to, she asked her friends in Bangkok to take me out, she sent others from abroad with gifts. Whenever Muriel and Vincent came back to visit Bangkok, I was always first to greet them.

Muriel helped me focus on my future rather than my past and present. It was impossible for me to study in Thailand without my papers and she knew I wanted to go back to school. To my astonishment, she paid my tuition for law school. I completed the 3-year program and became a lawyer all because of Muriel. What an angel she was!

I had been separated from my children for more than six years and could not even expect they were still alive. When they were located in 2010 and we were reunited in Bangkok, Muriel and Vincent came to welcome them. They encouraged the children and helped them to focus on the future by providing them with so many new experiences. Muriel’s confidence that we would all have a bright future never wavered.

In 2012, security became a concern throughout the refugee community in Bangkok and many people were arrested. Once again it was Muriel who took action to ensure we escaped arrest. With the help of her friend we moved to a house in a middle class neighbourhood. She reasoned that the authorities would overlook us if we weren’t living like refugees. Muriel and Vincent paid for the house until we were resettled to Canada.

Muriel and Vincent came to see us again in Bangkok in November 2013. We had wonderful time together and when it came time to say goodbye Didier, Lauraine and I could not stop the tears from flowing. Muriel hugged us and cried. We could not know it would be our very last time together.

Muriel always wanted us to be free. Today, through the efforts of Muriel, Vincent and other friends I came to know through them, we are free. When I look back over the past eight years, I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t met Muriel. Thanks to her, I am a resident of Canada, I am working, and furthering my studies. My children are free and happy; they are going to school and see a bright future. I feel so blessed.

In our last video call, Muriel and I went through the events of past and present. She said: “I am so happy you have your life back. I am so proud of you my brother.”

Muriel and I had many dreams and it is sad she won’t be here to see them realized. We dreamed of starting schools that would educate girls in Africa, we had my books to publish, a movie of my life story to be shared with the rest of the world…

She wanted her daughter Thea to be a happy girl and wished that Didier and Lauraine could be Thea’s godparents. Muriel and Vincent had planned to visit us in Canada, introduce Thea to us, and celebrate our freedom. Mother Nature decided otherwise.

I miss Muriel very much. I will do everything I can to ensure Thea understands the great woman her mother was.

The Muriel Lauvige Foundation will be created in her memory. This nonprofit organization will pursue Muriel’s vision of educating vulnerable women and girls. I trust Muriel is happy that we will carry on her dream.

Quesney Buledi


Van Damme the risks.

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The Loy Krathong festival is an amazing sight to see with all the floating ‘krathongs’ or lotus-shaped container on the river and the hovering ‘khom loi’ or sky lanterns. While people were lining the river to release their krathongs, many others moved to higher ground to prepare their khom lois to launch them into the sky. There’s a risk that the khom lois never fly, but people still make the effort to ensure the conditions like timing, wind, stability, etc. are right so it does happen. The couple in this photo taken last week on Bangkok’s Saphan Taksin bridge was eventually successful, but I remember seeing an impatient group of guys who saw their khom loi go up in flames even before it left the ground.

This process of releasing a khom loi, where people make sure all the conditions are right to reduce the risk of the lantern from catching fire, reminds me of a YouTube video in November that went viral. Do you remember Jean-Claude Van Damme, actor and action movie star? His one-minute video doing the “epic spit”withVolvo Trucks nearly broke the internet – it has been viewed more than 54 million times on YouTube, making it the most viral non-super bowl auto campaign ad ever,according to tracking firm Visible Measures. The aim of Volvo’s marketing campaign of “Live Stunts” is to highlight that its trucks have performance advantages and to promote its Volvo trucks to a mainstream audience with a steady stream of viral videos through an obscure YouTube account.

In terms of reducing the risk of disaster, the Van Damme video, along with the others, really hits the spot when it comes to putting plans in place to reduce the risk of a horrible accident. The fact that disaster is adverted isn’t so much the issue as a lot of planning and preparedness went into the stunts so that a disaster doesn’t happen. This underlying way of communicating disaster risk reduction (DRR)may be subtle, yet it’s this lack of “in-your-face” communication that resonates with people especially when Volvo is showing that its innovative dynamic steering can make the most precarious situations safe. Highlighting this message regularly and with some creativity ultimately builds a strong brand for Volvo and also instills confidence in people about the safety of Volvo’s safety measures. This could be the future for making DRR accessible and for communicating science and climate change that makes sense to people – and that means understanding people, their needs, and their interests.

Even with all the calculated risk taking, check out the pre-stunt video where Van Damme looks concerned and a bit shell-shocked over what Volvo is asking him to do!

Perpsectives from August

It’s been a busy August so far. First, there’s getting use to being married, then there’ the traveling, moving around, settling-in, and adjusting to a new culture/country. I’ve been exposed to an overflow of visions, perspectives, colours, cultures, people, and thoughts. One things is for sure, life is a surprise – when you think you know what you’re doing, life throws you a twist to keep you on your feet. There’s still one more week left in August, which should bring some more surprises. In the meantime, here are some “perspectives” from the first three weeks.

Break beats and B-boys

Aduna
(Aduna, Land of Adventure)

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a while in Bangkok, La Fete is the annual French Cultural Festival in the City of Angels. The two performances I’ve seen so far have not been disappointing. Although there are usually hits and misses in any festival, the dance performances have mostly been surprisingly good. Hip Hop is growing in Asia and the focus of Hip Hop at the Patravadi Theatre is a reflection of its increasing popularity. The two shows I saw at the Theatre were slow at times, but the dedication that the dancers showed to the Hip Hop genre definitely made up for the slow bits…

Aduna, Land of Adventure was made up of 7 guys from France who danced to music from France, Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. As the La Fete website explains,

The performance “Aduna, Land of Adventure” is the story of some men engaged in the search for a virgin, sacred and dreamlike piece of land, source of revelations. “Aduna, Land of Adventure” is an affirmation of an aesthetic dance, where the performance and the gestures of the dancers are serving the building of a work of art, in an orginal staging, mingling African dances, Capoeira and Hip-hop.

There was this one white dude, the smallest in the group, who was tearing up the stage with his solos that made him seem to float in the air. The highlight of their 50-minute performance was a friendly “battle” between the performers to show their appreciation to the audience.

Kham

The second show I saw was one that combined Southeast Asian flavors with Hip Hop dancing. Personally, I think Hip Hop in Asia, especially the dancing, needs a long way to go before it can compare with dance from Europe and North America. But there were some amazing performances… the one I liked the most was Kham…

“Kham” is the climax of researches influenced by tradional Thai and Laotian dances. A solo imagined by a return to his country of origin and by the encounter of great masters. “Kham” reflects the identity search of a man who left his country during his childhood, came back as adult and who is confronted to a culture, both his culture and a new one.

It is performed by a Laotian guy who’s lived in France most of his life. From doing fast-paced leg-spinning aerial moves, to slow-motion robot-like movements, the way this guy could control his body was amazing. With more dances like Olé Khamchanla, I think Asian Hip Hop might have a future.

Time to move on…


(My office is sparse but functional… this is life working at an NGO… limited funds and equipment, but lots of passionate people and chances to try new things)

Monday was my last day working at the newspaper. 2 years goes by quickly… the experience was great… challenging at times, but rewarding nonetheless.

Although this is my second time around in Thailand, I still had the chance to see new things, pick up the language, travel, and try to get use to the spicy food! I’m not sure what is in-store for me, but I’ll be heading back to Canada in July and see where that leads.

It’s a shame that even after 2 years lots could be done to help out this organization. One of the main things that was accomplished was putting together a website that could be updated anywhere, anytime, and by almost anyone… Since the news that this organization covers is politically sensitive, security is an issue and so a solution needed to be found. I’m glad to have been a part of the solution… but the launch of the website is still on hold until the administrative department gets things organized.

Happiness isn't a figment of someone's imagination


(Catching some rail at an indoor skate park in Esplanade Mall)

Songkran, the annual water festival and new year’s celebration in Thailand, was a little low key for me this year. I think most people who’ve spent enough time in Thailand understand that you can either join the festivities or run away… there’s no in between. This year was a run-away year for me. No water splashing, no crowded locations… just a bit of time to relax. Most of the people I know stayed in-doors and tried to not get involved in the festivities. Most of the Thai people I heard from said that the festival is increasingly becoming catered to the younger Thais and, more worrying, becoming more aggressive. But, all-in-all, it’s also a great time to be in Thailand, to feel the positive energy coming from everyone… the water festival could even be more popular with the Burmese, Lao, and Chinese, who also celebrate. Its a time to let go of your worries, take a break, and try to enjoy something special in country known for its smile.


(You should see the queue to buy Takoyaki on the ground floor of Esplanade Mall… every time I’ve been pass there, there’s about 15-20 people waiting… for those of you who don’t know, Takoyaki is a Japanese snack that consists of pancake-type mix, some veggies, and octopus, all rolled together and then grilled in these circular-shaped trays)


(Took the Thai new year’s holiday and went to Baan Amphawa, a traditional Thai housing complex turned into a resort… nice place, but a little out of the way and difficult to get to… would recommend to have a car if you want to go)


(A closeup shot taken while relaxing at the pool at Baan Amphawa using a Sigma macro lens… colorful isn’t it?)


(One of the tours included in our stay at Baan Amphawa was a trip on the many rivers around Amphawa to see fireflies at night. Before we headed out on our trip, we stopped by the famous yet relatively unknown (by foreigners) floating market. Most tourists go to the Damnoen Saduak floating market. While all markets in and around the Bangkok area have their charms, this one seems to be quite popular with the locals.)

Death unexpected

Death unexpected

Who knew that death would have such an effect. I’ve only Nic in passing, via emails and by name. Yet, his recent death took me totally by surprise and had a definite effect on my being. It makes me realize how short life is and how unexpected everything can be. I can’t guess how his parents and family must be be feeling right now, but I certainly am in a state of shock, sadness, confusion, and anger. I can only assume that his friends and family who knew him the best are at varying levels of the same emotions.

Maybe the reason I, and possibly others, feel this way is because Nic and I, like many other people, come to Thailand to help in some way to improve the lives of impoverish, vulnerability and marginalized people in any way that we can. Even though there are risks and dangers, for the most part the benefits definitely outweigh these other factors. And we all know going into it that being in a country and culture that is unfamiliar, new or exciting is all part of the experience. This shouldn’t deter others from doing the same, but it is a bit disheartening to hear that someone coming to help lost their life in the process. My deepest condolences goes out to Ned’s family and friends both here in Thailand and back in Canada .

Police: Protect us(?)

Hua Hin Driver
(Spent the weekend in Hua Hin, about a 3-hour drive south of Bangkok… since there was six of us, we rented a taxi-van to take us there. Our driver took a short break to get some coffee and, oh, does he look happy!)

According to a news story, police in Thailand can receive over 35% of the value of drugs in cash rewards if they make a successful drug arrest. Am I crazy, or does providing a commission system for police arrests a bit strange and inappropriate? Doesn’t this kind of activity just breed more corruption? I guess it’s a strange fact of life, otherwise would the police be doing their job?

While the police are here to protect and serve, who actually protects us from police? We all take it for granted that they are here to maintain law and order, but this doesn’t seem to be always the case. I’ve heard about police (in Thailand) demanding bribes for doing their jobs. If you don’t want to be arrested, be given a ticket, or just have the freedom to live your life, it seems giving bribes is the norm in Thailand…. this is especially the case for people who usually don’t have the money or have most to loose. This could be foreigners (who are seen as sources of income), but more often than not, its the poor, the marginalized, and those at risk (i.e. refugees).

Corruption takes many forms and is called many things, but in Thailand, where people smile for all sorts of occasions, sad or happy, angry or relaxed, smiles also hide the fact that corruption is very much a part of life. Corruption isn’t just localized to my experience in Thailand… it’s very much a part of all societies. If you were in a position of power, influence or opportunity, and someone you knew (i.e. family or friend) came to you for help (i.e. with a job, to get a discount, etc.), would you help them or tell them to get lost?

So how do you define “corruption” –  where do you draw the line when helping someone you know?

Chai Chai… Kopi… Chai

I haven’t had a chance to sit down in front of a computer to write down all the adventures I’ve been having recently.

Here’s a run-down:

  • New Year’s celebration: quiet and relaxed
  • Brief trip to visit my cousins in who were chilling out in Thailand for a few days
  • Muriel’s family popped by for a week-long visit (lots of hand-gestures and poor French for communication)
  • A week-long adventured-filled trip to India, Kolkata more specifically, for a friends wedding… which included a crazy side trip to Bodhgaya where Buddha reached enlightenment (i.e. the origins of Buddhism)
  • Currently entertaining Muriel’s friends from the Netherlands
  • Next week, my mom arrives in town…

And that’s all in January… I think my schedule is booked up till early March. Anyway, I’ll try to put some pictures up soon, especially of the trip to India, cuz it definitely was an eye-opener… STAY TUNED!   UPDATE: Check out photos from my trip to India here

My blood is sweet-as

Nok Air
(Craziest looking plane I’ve seen… but it was cheap and got us from point A to point B!)

With a combination of Thai national holidays, we decided to head down south to a beach. Just to sum up, it was a nice change to get away from Bangkok… I think it’s the first time I had left Bangkok and traveled somewhere relatively far-ish in Thailand. The country surprises me everytime I get a chance to get out of the big city. And, did I need it! After too much time in Bangkok, or any big city for that matter, I get a little stir-crazy and need to get away to some place that is “not a city”. So after a quick look in our travel guides, Muriel and I decided to go down south for a few days to Trang, a province often by-passed by tourists who flock to Krabi or Satun (i.e. Tarutao island). And for something slightly different, we went on this package camping tour (which I usually would have skipped) to a secluded island off the coast of the province…

Sunset on Pak Meng
(Sunset on Pak Meng beach – the main beach along the coast of Trang where it is the jumping off point to many of Trang’s islands)

We signed up for the rock climbing package (maybe this http://www.laoliangresort.com/home.html) on Koh Laoliang island… I think I’m still sore from climbing all day. Ok, we might have only did 5 climbs, but we’re beginners and that was a lot! I realized that I’d rather go up in rock climbing than come down… which made it a little difficult when it was time to be lowered down. I don’t know how some people can just let go and grab on to a thin rope holding them up from letting gravity do its work.

Chilling on Pak Meng Beach
(beach chairs, seafood, sunset, surf… life is good)

There were two highlights to the trip… one was on the first day when we visited Tham Le cave and rented a dingy that took us into a cavern of caves. The craziest thing we did was let the guides take us “under” the cave… this literally meant lying back in our boat as we navigated under the cave with stalactites inches, even centimeters from our face. There must have been less than one meter of clearance! The other highlight was taking a kayak and paddling 20 minutes in the Andaman Sea from Laoliang island to a secluded and deserted beach near where we were camping. The trip back to our island was a bit scary since the waves started to pick up and we were trying to paddle through 1 meter swells… probably not too scary for some, but we were in the open water alone with no one else crazy enough to try the trip. For more photos of this trip, check out my Facebook PhotoGallery

near the Emerald Pool
(The last day of our trip we visited Sa Morakot aka the Emerald Pool… we were pretty tired by then and were looking forward to getting home)