Shaun Davison, a recent visitor to MMR, interviewed two current MMR volunteers – Natalie and Maurice Atkinson.
A married couple from New Zealand, Natalie and Maurice have been living and working in Ranong for the past 7 months. They are both trained teachers, and have been tutoring the online course as well as working with students and staff from MTP ( Marist training programme).
Why did you come to the Marist Mission in Ranong?
Natalie: I suppose it was a change of scene for a start. It was a challenge and Maurice and I felt that we wanted to challenge ourselves. It was also important to be part of a faith community that was about empowering others. And I guess we wanted to have an adventure before we settle down to have a family. .
Maurice: We wanted to live more in contact with reality. I often think that we are very lucky in New Zealand and this leads to an unrealistic view of life. I spent 80% of my work time filling out pieces of paper. Paper that wasn’t very important. Certainly on my death bed I don’t envisage thinking that they were important. So I wanted to work in a way that was less about paper work but offered more time to think and reflect. More time to just be – to live in the present. I found that hard to do in New Zealand.
What has it been like, working as part of the Mission?
Maurice: Living here there is a positive energy. Despite the desperate situation that many of the students and some of the staff find themselves in, there is a positivity and a vibrancy that has rubbed off on me. These things nourish me.
We are a part of a community and that happens every day that I leave my apartment to come to work. As I close my door I will often see (the New Zealand volunteers) Andrew and Nuala outside with their daughter Felicity. There will be cries of ‘Buongiorno’ and ‘Mingalaba’ from the Italian and Burmese volunteers. I will chat with Ronald and Thata (Phillipino volunteers) while their son J.P. runs and smiles. Finally Nancy will ask if there is anything that we need. We begin the day nourished by community and that is the best possible start.
Natalie: Not long after I arrived I contracted Dengue Fever. I ended up being hospitalized in Phuket some 300kms away. Yet so many of the community went out of their way to visit me and spend time with me. Back home our friends might have been too busy to spend much time with me – but here we have that time. Everything is at a much slower pace.
That experience opened my eyes to what is really happening here. Although we came to help the Burmese people it was really the Burmese who were helping us. At one stage the fever got serious and we needed an ambulance to take me from Ranong to Phuket. So it was Kimberley (one of our Burmese staff members who came to the hospital late at night and arranged the ambulance for me. Although we came here to do something meaningful – we are the ones who benefit the most.
Maurice: Another important thing is that there’s time to reflect on my faith and spirituality. In New Zealand I’d been very involved with Church activities and I had lived in community with the Marist Brothers. But I got to the point where I became very disillusioned with the Church. I found that I had little in common with the issues that concerned other Catholics. I wondered whether it was time to move on to find a new faith community. But coming here I have found a community of Catholics who are dealing with the questions that are important. They are a good role model for me. The people here are good – I think people of any faith would agree – so that rubs off on us and nourishes us. It’s good to be with them.
The community Mass on Wednesday nourishes us too. It’s an expression of Church that works for me. We all contribute; all share our skills and abilities. After Mass we share food together – the Mass supports our community and vice versa.
And what has been the worst part of living here in Ranong ?
Maurice : For me its an equal first – missing my friends and family is one. My friends who are having children and my parents who aren’t getting any younger. Being treated as an outsider by the local community is the other.
Natalie : Yes the biggest challenge is being different. There aren’t many foriengers here so wherever we go we stand out like sore thumbs. I think it’s an experience that everyone should have at some time – that of being different, being the outsider. That’s how it is for many people who come to our country as refugees. We have money and a supportive community but how is it for refugees who have little money and little support? It’s a humbling experience and a character building one.
Oh and not being able to speak the language that’s hard – that too is a part of the refugee experience.
And what has been the best part?
Natalie : Mostly it’s been the people that we have met – we cherish those friendships. The people that we are working alongside have become our friends and those relationships are very important to us.
Maurice : For me I would have to say that I’m happy. I am the sort of person who thinks about that. If someone asked me in New Zealand I would fudge the answer by saying ‘well it depends what you mean by happy – I have a good job, I’m well paid but happy?’
Here I just say yes, I’m happy – I can honestly say that.