Kim Amihan, a Filipina special education teacher who lives in Thailand, said witnessing the faith of Pakistani Christian refugees as they endure difficulty has taught her unexpected lessons about the Christian life.
Kim Amihan, special education teacher and refugee ministry volunteer, works with James, a 12-year-old Pakistani Christian refugee with cerebral palsy.
Amihan moved to Bangkok in 2011, shortly before Calvary Baptist Church, an international congregation led by Southern Baptist missionaries, launched a refugee ministry. Their outreach is designed to help migrants with critical needs as they navigate the United Nations’ refugee resettlement program.
Reports estimate more than 11,000 Pakistani asylum seekers currently reside in Thailand. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, a minority sect of Islam not recognized by other Muslims, make up the vast majority of the migrant population exiting Pakistan. Both minority groups live in fear of the Islamic republic’s blasphemy laws, which are often used to justify violence against non-Muslims.
Afraid for their lives, many book flights to Thailand on 30-day tourist visas and apply for resettlement on arrival through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The relocation process should take months to complete, several Pakistani Christians told the Biblical Recorder, but wait times are commonly counted in years.
Thailand is not a party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and does not recognize UNHCR refugee status. When tourist visas expire, migrants live in fear of imprisonment or deportation.
Amihan began volunteering with Calvary’s refugee ministry from its inception six years ago. Aid workers such as Amihan help prepare and distribute food bags to imprisoned migrants during weekly visits to Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and monthly visits to asylum seekers scattered across the city who live in hiding.
Asked about migrants that have uniquely impacted her life, Amihan told the Recorder about a Pakistani Christian family with special needs. A warm smile spread across Amihan’s face when she mentioned James*, a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy.
“He stole my heart the moment I saw him,” she said.
Amihan felt a special bond with the family due to her university training and professional experience working with children that have special educational needs.
She and others in the refugee ministry developed a friendship with Simeon* and Rachel*, James’s parents, along with his older brother, Aaron*. In addition to food distribution, volunteers aided the family in other ways, such as making arrangements for a Calvary church member to donate a wheelchair to James.
The refugee family found it difficult to stay in one apartment for an extended period, Amihan said.
Neighbors in the housing complex complained about excessive noise to the property manager and police.
James was nonverbal, meaning he often made loud noises in order to communicate. “When he cried,” Amihan said, “he made this big yawn that got them in trouble many times.”
The family relocated on several occasions when James began to draw the attention of nearby residents.
They took care to avoid encounters with law enforcement, which could mean imprisonment or deportation because they lacked valid visas.
BR photo by Seth Brown
Kim Amihan, right, a member of Calvary Baptist Church’s refugee ministry, walks beside volunteers from North Carolina, Jared Johnson, center, and Lauren Brown, left, as they discuss the visitation process for Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre.
Amihan continued to visit the family often. She asked co-workers with expertise in occupational therapy to accompany her on days off. At no charge, they created a home-based occupational therapy intervention program to help James develop gross and fine motor skills and learn an alternative communication system.
They also provided lifting and movement training for his parents.
“His father had probably developed scoliosis,” Amihan said, “because they didn’t have proper equipment for him to take a bath or clean up, so he lifted James every time to take him to the bathroom or feed him.”
Another Calvary member donated a bath seat to further ease the family’s burden.
Amihan began to worry, though, after James received medical treatment for an illness. Health care professionals prescribed sedatives that rendered him nearly immobile. His motor skills regressed and communication halted, Amihan said.
Around that time, Simeon found work as a restaurant dishwasher to help support the family.
It was an off-the-books job that required long hours, but it provided vital income and there were few other feasible options.
Undocumented immigrants cannot legally work in Thailand.
Asylum seekers are sometimes underpaid, unpaid or otherwise exploited by employers, since they will not risk reporting injustices to police for fear of self-incrimination.
Meanwhile, James spent most days in a stationary position, since the palsied adolescent was too heavy for Rachel to carry. Bedsores developed within weeks.
“It was very hard for him to heal,” Amihan said, given his condition and the severity of his open wounds.
Doctors prescribed more medication as the bedsores worsened.
A few days later, James slipped out of consciousness. By the time the family transported James to the hospital, his breathing had ceased. Medics pronounced him dead on arrival.
They were all devastated, Amihan said.
She believes James was overmedicated, but due to the family’s undocumented status, they have no legal recourse.
Difficulties mounted as the family proceeded to purchase a coffin and organize the funeral. A Chinese Christian group donated a burial plot.
“It wasn’t easy for them, but it was all by God’s provision,” said Amihan. “I saw how a mother grieved over the loss of her son,” she added. “For the past 12 years she had taken care of her boy, and that’s all the life she knew.”
Months later, Amihan said, she watched the mother’s “pain turn to hope,” as Rachel began educating more than 20 preschool-age refugee children in her home.
“She enjoyed it,” Amihan said. “She had that smile again.”
The family was healing emotionally, given the circumstances, until immigration enforcement officials raided their apartment building.
Rachel and Aaron, 17, were taken into custody. Simeon was at work that day, so he was not apprehended.
In July 2017, Recorder staff visited Rachel and Aaron in Bangkok’s detention center, where they had been jailed for eight months. Though sorrowful, the mother was thankful that her oldest son is nearby, even if behind bars.
Simeon arranges to have food delivered to his family each day via IDC visitors before he travels to work.
Since everyone entering the facility for visitation must show proper documentation, Simeon is unable to see his wife and son.
The Calvary refugee ministry team continues to visit Rachel and Aaron monthly in the IDC.
Aid workers often serve as vital channels of communication between relatives unable to contact one another. Simeon relies on their reports of his family’s well-being.
Amihan said God has taught her many things through relationships with suffering families.
“I’m blessed to be God’s hands and feet,” she said through tears. “People might say, ‘You’re good because you’re involved in the refugee ministry.’
“‘No,’ I say, ‘I’m involved because God is good.’”
The ministry’s bulk food supply sometimes runs low, Amihan said, and there is constant need for more volunteers.
“But our God is a great provider,” she continued, “I’m blessed to witness God’s faithfulness. His timing is always perfect.
“Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him,” said Amihan, referencing Psalm 34.
An asylum seeker recently released from detention helped Amihan gain a different perspective on ministry when he quoted to her Jesus’ words from Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me … I was in prison and you came to me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Amihan understands in a new way that ministry to suffering refugees is also a form of service to God.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article is the second in a three-part series covering the plight of Pakistani refugees in Thailand and the Baptists ministering to them.)
Other articles in the series: