Suz and Geoff of Aussie Friends of Eyes to Burma share their experiences volunteering for ETB. They stepped in and managed projects in Mae Sot with the community and ETB staff while Fred was in the United States for two weeks. Needless to say, they learned an incredible amount about themselves, the community, and the challenges and rewards of working with this vibrant community. The issues are complex and difficult to describe, but as Suz and Geoff’s story shows, it’s like life anywhere. There is happiness and progress as well as ‘reality checks’ and extreme problems that need time, patience, and commitment to help the community overcome them. Thank you, Suz, Geoff, Joe, Nawe Win, our students, and community helpers.
Where to begin.
It’s difficult if we were being honest. We want to share our experience, but these are human lives were talking about, people like you and us. We all feel the same things, have the same issues, share the same experiences; just in a different part of the world and on a different scale.
Let’s go back to the beginning some four years ago when we first came across Fred and Eyes to Burma (ETB). Our friend Megan was looking to undertake some volunteer work in Asia so we set about looking for places where she could do this. Do you realise that you can do this quite easily, however, in many cases you have to pay for the privilege of working with orphaned children or refugees? Seriously. To this day, we’re still not sure how much of the ‘payment’ to volunteer actually makes it to those that need it most.
Many people have good intentions when coming over to countries such as Thailand and Vietnam to volunteer, however, just swanning in, throwing a few dollars around, building a few houses, promoting a religion or teaching a few classes, isn’t going to cut it in the long term. Don’t get us wrong, the intentions are good, but the reality of life in these communities is far different and a few weeks isn’t going to change their world. Once you leave, life reverts. You have to be in it for the long haul if you have any chance of making a difference.
We found a small organisation in Mae Sot, Thailand looking for people to assist with teaching, caring and assisting with the wellbeing of around 35 orphaned Burmese children. A local couple had taken on this massive responsibility and needed some support. This organisation was completely volunteer based and just required a commitment of a minimum of 30 days; longer if possible. Megan contacted the organisation and they were happy to have her come on board.
Whilst she was living in a guest house in Mae Sot, Megan met Fred, an English/American gentleman who had himself some four years earlier stumbled across a Burmese community living on the rubbish dump in Mae Sot, and decided to stay on and see if he could be of assistance. So, when Megan wasn’t required at the orphanage, she spend her time with Fred getting to know more about him and what ETB did in Mae Sot.
That was four years ago.
Four years on, Geoff and I (and Megan) have travelled back to Mae Sot at least once a year to see for ourselves how things are going and, this year, Fred has allowed us the honour of keeping his work going whilst he travels back to the USA for a couple of weeks to raise more funds. It is an honour and it takes a lot to be accepted into this community. You have to be prepared to commit, be prepared to learn and be prepared that your way of doing things may not be how it’s done in this community. That being said, no two days are the same, and that’s why we love spending time here. We’re gaining a wonderful insight into a different culture, different personalities, a different life.
Eyes to Burma is a totally voluntary, non denominational, humanitarian organisation that is here purely to help this community be what it wants to be. It does not put caveats on the provision of support, it does not hardline the community, and it certainly does not push any form of religion onto these families. No-one has the right to push their agenda on to someone else, and it’s because of ETB’s stance on this that it has been so successful in building a solid relationship with the families that live on the dump. This organisation, and Fred in particular, is well respected and loved. He is a part of their family.
So, back to our experience.
You might think that living in small timber huts on or around a garbage dump, surrounded by flies, dogs, pigs, geese, chickens, dirt and dust; picking through rubbish for recyclables to earn about $1 a day is a pretty miserable way to live. For many people it would be, but for the families living here, this life is better than where they came from. It’s safe.
Once you get past the fact that they live on a rubbish dump, you really start to see that life here is no different to life anywhere else. We have responsibilities and so do they. There are social issues; the haves and have nots, the neighbourhood disputes. There is the good and the bad – it really is like any other community around the world.
We were lucky enough to have 2 full days with Fred before he headed off. As we have been to Mae Sot a number of times before, we just armed ourselves with a notebook and set about making sure we knew where to go, what to do and how to do it.
At the end of the day, most things just come down to common sense. It’s not rocket science, but you do have to be mindful of the cultural differences – both Thai and Burmese. The population here is a mix of both cultures, so you have to check yourself before you speak. If they’re Thai, they like to be spoken to in Thai, if they’re Burmese, they like to be spoken to in Burmese. Can be a little tricky on occasions, but we’ve managed pretty well so far.
There have been so many ‘farang’ through Mae Sot all claiming to be here to ‘save the world’, so it’s easy to see why ‘white’ people are treated with caution. The Thais and the Burmese are friendly and will welcome you, but you have to earn their respect. This is their home. Don’t come here telling them how to live or who to pray to – you won’t get very far – and quite rightly so. Again, agendas. If you come here for the right reasons and are prepared to work with them on what they want, then you will fit in. Don’t get us wrong, the community will look at new ways of doing things, but you cannot force it upon them, you can only suggest and let them decide. It all takes time.
Probably the best start to our day is taking the kids to school. There are currently 20 kids of all ages making the 10 minute trek (via Fred’s truck) to school every day. You might ask yourself – are they clean when they go to school? Of course they are! This community takes great pride in their appearance, so they always try to look their best, the kids especially, when they’ve finished working. Swear they outshine us most days! We were sweaty dustbowls by late afternoon (the heat here is not conducive to good hair!). To put it into perspective, think of how you look when you’re working in the garden, digging around, planting, sweating. Well this is how the community looks when they’re working, but when the day is done, they clean up, just like we do. Sure, they live around dirt, dust and rubbish, but that doesn’t mean they’re filthy.
The kids usually sing Burmese songs on the way (which we just loved) and, once they are at school, we generally head back to the dump as there is usually a clinic and/or a market run that we need to do. A few times a week, some of the women head into the market to stock up. This is something that wouldn’t have occurred a couple of years ago, however slowly but surely employment opportunities are improving and the community are now able to buy many of the items that were once supplied.
The markets are the place to do serious shopping. Everything is so fresh. You can pretty much buy anything within a few streets – and the pricing, well it’s best to take a local as ‘farang’ prices are usually dearer! We’ve seen ute after ute loaded up well beyond capacity with produce and goods heading for Burma where it’s sold the next day – beats us how the ute actually copes with the weight.
That being said though, Fred has negotiated with many of his suppliers so regardless that he was away, we still received the benefit of his pricing. To give you an example, a 40 kilo bag of rice costs 520 baht. In Australian dollars, you’re looking at around $20. This rice will feed a family for quite some time, but remember, pretty much every meal revolves around rice, so it’s a staple that is in constant demand. We’re always at the rice wholesaler!
There are quite a number of small shops on the site now, so you can imagine how much grocery shopping is done to stock these shops up each week. The truck is fully loaded a couple of times a week transporting all manner of food items back to the dump where it will either be used by the family who purchased it, or sold through one of the shops. Way back in the beginning, this really didn’t happen. The community here were reliant on the goodwill of others to survive. With time, support and encouragement, there have been mini businesses popping up all over the place, and there is definitely room for more entrepreneurs – maybe bicycle repairs, clothing repairs, vegetable and fruit growing, water sales, a small takeaway, recycled materials design and sales – the list goes on. Many of the kids are developing new skills, so we have no doubt that there will be other businesses coming to the forefront over the next few years.
Our day continues with whatever else is needed. There could be people looking for assistance with minor injuries or illnesses, water deliveries, purchasing of goods that are subsidised by ETB, clinic returns and dealing with issues that arise – which are different every day. We are lucky to have the assistance of Joe, ETB’s translator/teacher, as he has a great understanding of who’s who in the community. As with any community, you have those that will try and see how far they can push the envelope. Over time, Fred and Joe have worked out who those people are, so it’s much easier to keep on top of.
We’ll try and find some time for a break either mid morning or early afternoon (doesn’t always happen!), before heading back to pick up the kids from school and then making sure that everything is ok before we head home for the night. We usually start around 7am and, if we’re lucky, we’re home between around 5.30pm, but it’s usually between 6-7pm. The latest was around 8pm, but that was the night of the Burmese markets and we had a few ‘trips’ to make. The Burmese markets are the ‘go to’ markets for the community each Friday or Saturday. The place is packed with locals meandering around, meeting up, listening to the music pumping whilst buying produce, clothing, manchester items and so much more! It’s cheap and a great place to pick up many of the items that the community use every day. It was just as much fun for us as it was for those that wanted to go in.
The days are long, but time just flies as you’re always busy. You’re on call 24/7 but, honestly, you just don’t mind as it’s the welcome of the community, the chatter and laughter of the kids and the genuine warmth you feel when you spend time at the dump that makes it all worthwhile.
From four years ago until now, we can definitely see the changes. The support of ETB has ensured that this community is probably only a short time away from becoming fully self sustainable – the ultimate goal. Sure, there will always be those that need additional support – single mothers, the elderly, the disabled; but there is employment here, and the ability to earn an income has lifted this community to the point whereby it’s now capable of moving forward with less financial support; ETB are now able to provide more subsidised items rather than having to pay in full for everything.
That being said, the income stream here for many people here is still probably not enough to include sending their children to school. This is where we believe the future lies for ETB – the financial support of children wanting to obtain an education. Unfortunately, not all children (even if they wanted to) will be able to attend school. It all depends on the parents. Many are keen to expose their children to the ‘outside’ world with the knowledge that an education will bring more income into the family. However, some parents can’t quite fathom that this would be a benefit to them, preferring instead to have their children pick on the dump with them to earn additional income to support the family.
It’s a long road and, as mentioned above, it takes time and patience. Eyes to Burma will get there and this fabulous entity has achieved so much in a relatively short space of time – all due to the dedication, persistence and patience of Fred. Not too many people we know could do what he does all day, every day, 365 days of the year, but it is because of his commitment there are so many families looking forward to a brighter future for themselves and their children. It really is a pleasure to be involved.
The community are, in the main, really happy. The smiles, laughter, welcomes and singing confirm that. It’s infectious. You just have to smile and wave and you’ll get it back ten fold. It’s one of the reasons why we love coming here. They know they don’t have much, but they are living their lives to the best of their current situation – they don’t need the latest technology or the latest clothing to enjoy life, it’s all about spending time together as a family, perhaps a party or two with the local community when the occasion arises, and just knowing that you’re safe. Watching the kids laughing whilst kicking a soccer ball around the dirt field dodging the large craters that have formed over time brings a reality check. You don’t need much to get the most out of life. It’s the simple things that bring happiness.
It’s interesting to note that the kids are only just becoming exposed to the internet. It’s a big world out there and by opening their eyes to what they can achieve we’re finding more and more that they want to learn and embrace new experiences.
The kids here enjoy playing games too – football is probably the game of choice for most of them, however most of the kids do not have phones, computers, the latest gadgets or toys – and they’re quite content (for the moment) without these materialistic items. That could possibly change as they become more exposed to the world, but these are things they will have to fund for themselves, it’s not the role of ETB to pay for these items.
Back to the reality check, there is no electricity to their homes (with the exception of a couple of homes and the community centre – which houses a television operational only by generator power), so when it’s dark, they rely on solar or LED light. Their homes are constructed of whatever can be found – timber, bamboo, signage that has been dumped, thatch, tyres – anything suitable to keep out the elements. For the most part, the homes are no longer located on top of the garbage, but they are basic (around 3m x 3m) and can house quite a number of people. The weather is usually warm so there’s not much required in terms of blankets, but you can imagine in the rainy season how difficult it is to negotiate the path to school, the shop, the dump site itself. Waterproof boots are a necessity as are head lights and picking knives. These are the types of things that ETB make sure is provided but, again, they are now subsidised freeing up more funding to build on the new programs that ETB have brought in.
Walking is the main form of transport, that and bicycles (oh, and Fred’s truck). The roads here are getting better, but still have a way to go, so bicycles still bear the scars of being used every day on some difficult terrain. Still, it’s transport and it works. There are motorcycle taxis that will drop people off, but the dump is about 15 minutes out of town at the end of a long road, so there is no actual passing traffic as such. Taxis or songthaews need to be called – they can’t just be waved down. This is why most people take advantage of Fred’s truck into town. Quite often though they will make their own way home (something that would never have happened a few years ago), so sometimes it’s a challenge to track down who has come back under their own steam – would hate to leave someone at the clinic!
On Buddha land, the land that has been leased by ETB, some of the people who live here are establishing vegetable gardens. This is being actively encouraged by ETB as a way of developing skills, providing food for the community and food that is able to be sold to gain an income. The rainy season has made the gardens a little soggy, but they’ve started to be cleaned up and readied for planting again. This initiative is one that can be easily transplanted (excuse the pun) to another area should the lease on the land expire. It’s one of the enterprises though that is bringing more income into the area.
From our perspective, it’s the education of the kids that will be the catalyst for breaking the cycle for these families. If the kids are able to secure employment in a role which pays at least the minimum wage (but potentially higher), they will be in a position to support their families into the future and not rely on picking rubbish to earn an income. This is something that has always happened in our world; you obtain an education, you get a job, you look after yourself. In the cases of poverty all over the world, but especially in countries with a lower socio economic population, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, families tend to stick together but they also have a tendency to follow in the parents footsteps. In this case, if the parents pick rubbish, the kids pick rubbish. ETB can see the potential in these kids and are providing opportunities to learn new skills.
We’ve seen first hand the improvement in the ability and knowledge of the kids. It truly made us smile as we held conversations with kids who only a few months ago couldn’t speak much of the English language. They love going to school and a poll of the kids saw many of them citing English as their favourite subject. These kids are like sponges – always asking about new words, new things they’ve seen or heard about and about how we live. They don’t forget either! It’s because of this we know that the work that is being done by Fred and ETB is having a massive impact on the lives of these families. From the living situation they’ve come from, here is safe and here provides opportunities that they would not have received if they had stayed where they were.
There are and will always still be issues arise; the politics of who they are, their religion and living where they live creates challenges for Fred every day. It’s taken years to gain the trust and respect of this and the broader Mae Sot community, but Fred has achieved that and moving forward we can only see more positive outcomes.
That being said, funding is still a challenge. We know there is so much poverty in the world, so many people displaced by war, so many people battling crippling illnesses and so many trying to escape violence. We know you can’t help everyone and there are only so many charitable dollars that can be given. However if you were looking for a charity where every dollar that is provided goes directly to helping the people it supports, then ETB is it. All of ETB’s supporters, including Fred, are volunteers and self funded.
Our time in Mae Sot was fantastic, and to see for ourselves how far this community has come has solidified why we are involved with ETB. It truly was a worthwhile experience and gave us a reality check. You don’t need much to be happy, but it helps if you have an education, and it’s the simple things in life that can make you smile. We’re looking forward to returning.