Board Member Describes Visit to Refugee Camp

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Milbrandt says “It is a joy to find Arrive Ministries welcoming people from around the world.”
Jay Milbrandt, Arrive Ministries board member
Jay Milbrandt, Arrive Ministries board member

I still remember the visit—the sights, the sounds. We pulled over on the edge of a remote road, quickly jumped out of the van, and ducked under a small gate between barbwire fences. We were told to look confident and “just keep walking.” The mist was just beginning to clear over the looming limestone cliffs. I could smell the charcoal fires cooking rice and hear the bustling of a small city. We marched quickly through the narrow streets and hiked up several terraced hills between bamboo homes. If the guards caught us, we would be turned back.

This was Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma Border. And, it was my first of what would be many trips here. I had a group of graduate students with me and we were going to visit a group of Karen refugees in their early twenties.

Coincidentally, my hometown of Worthington, Minnesota, had just welcomed 50 Karen refugee families, many of which started attending my home church. Before the trip, I went to the Karen worship service, introduced myself, and took photos with the congregation.

Mae La Refugee Camp on Thai-Burma border.
Mae La Refugee Camp on Thai-Burma border.

The young Karen men and women in the camp were delighted to have us. Most had spent their lives in this camp—a “temporary” village now well into its third decade. Every day, they remain isolated to just a few square miles of jungle two hours drive from the nearest town. To leave the camp is to risk deportation. The Karen welcome visitors, much to the chagrin of camp authorities. The kids were glad to tell us stories—stories of their homeland, stories of watching their villages burn, of losing family, and their hopes for the future. They sang to us, they cooked for us.

I pulled out the photo I took with the Karen congregation in Minnesota—I came with 50 copies. The photos were quickly passed around to great interest—and questions for me. People identified uncles, aunts, neighbors. Did I know what happened to their brother? Could I take a letter back for them? Could I give them a Karen Bible?

On the plane home, two dozen Karen refugees joined the flight, making their way from Thailand through Japan to the US. I marveled at what a change that must be: from a tiny patch of sweltering jungle to a first plane flight to the cold plains of southwest Minnesota. Yet, handing out those photos at Mae La refugee camp, in a small way I felt like a bridge in growing gap between these two parts of their life.

Before my wife and I moved back to Minnesota, we spent a couple months volunteering on the Thai-Burma border. We decided that we wanted to find a way to continue to serve Minnesota’s refugee community, particularly our Karen friends. It was a joy to find Arrive Ministries welcoming people from around the world and “standing in the gap” of this growing divide.

Jay Milbrandt

Jay serves on the board of directors of Arrive Ministries and is a professor of business and economics at Bethel University. He previously served as Director of the Global Justice Program and Associate Director of the Nootbaar Institute for Law, Religion, and Ethics at Pepperdine University School of Law.

You can read more at Jay’s website,