The little shop of friendship
THE Friendship Bridge spanning the Moei River between Burma and the northern Thai town of Mae Sot is a symbol of hope for the future. While reform now is slowly gaining traction in Burma, for decades nationals have fled oppression and sought safety in refugee camps and migrant settlements in this lush border region.
Friendship also has been a constant theme at Borderline, a women’s collective, gallery, shop and tea house that sits on Mae Sot’s main thoroughfare. Since 2004, it has sold handicrafts produced by refugee and migrant women, helping to supplement their income and allow them to adequately care for their children. As a secondary accomplishment, it has educated customers about Burmese history, politics, culture and food.
Borderline was co-founded by Taiwanese national Sylvia Lin, who moved to Mae Sot in 1997 to work with Burmese refugees in the fields of education and social service. As part of her job Lin collaborated with the Karen Women’s Organisation, which represents women from the Karen ethnic minority group.
‘‘We had these income-generation projects with the KWO, so I would purchase their products and then sell them to visitors or friends from other NGOs,’’ Lin explains. ‘‘Other women’s organisations in Mae Sot also had income-generation projects, but they didn’t have a marketing place to sell their products officially. So we came up with this idea to have a collective.’’
At the outset, Borderline represented just three associations, but it has quickly grown to include 16 groups that cater to the needs of women, children and youth, as well as about 24 community-based organisations that foster growth in the spheres of healthcare, social welfare and conservation.
‘‘They try to use traditional fabric and then make the products that outside or modern communities would use, like clothes, bags or accessories,’’ Lin says.
And so Borderline is filled with beautiful textiles — mostly organic cotton coloured with natural dyes — fashioned into handbags, clothing, shoes, jewellery and even laptop bags. The shop hosts regular art exhibitions, runs cookery, weaving and art classes, and trains Burmese interns in retail management.
Apart from selling to overseas buyers the cooperative caters mainly to ‘‘humanitarian or responsible tourists’’.
Says Lin, ‘‘When they come to the border, people like to buy souvenirs or clothes, and so the selling has become bigger and more people know this place.’’
Sylvia Lin, left, with store manager Mayee