September 2010 issue of JPR magazine (http://www.ijpr.org/Feature.asp?FeatureID=1612)
One Man’s Peace Corps
By Janet Eastman
Photographer Fred Stockwell was not equipped to save the life of a little girl. Or care for hundreds of other refugees barely existing in a Thai garbage dump. He left a relaxed life in Ashland to retire to a place where his nest egg would last longer. How could he know that his plans to take pretty pictures and drink tea with expats would be interrupted by endless tragedy and one tiny girl named Song?
It has been a strange route from Stockwell’s hometown of London to his adopted city of Ashland to, as of January 2008, the mucky dumps outside of Mae Sot, on the western Thai/Myanmar border. The restless man who started the journey has changed along the way. Little in his life now happens for pleasure.
He once treasured imported cars and summers on Florida beaches. Now he uses his limited resources to give away boots and bandages. He was credited with building the sport of paragliding in the U.S. Now, he uses his ingenuity to maximize the efforts of well-intended volunteer groups to meet the needs of children running from a malicious Burmese military. And that glamorous Ashland career of his, taking photographs to promote cities to tourists, has found a new subject to focus on: babies living in garbage.
But Stockwell is no hero. He’s been married more times than he’d like to admit. He loses his temper if he sees waste. And when he’s completely spent by the huge amount of work he’s taken on, he retreats to a beach resort in Southeast Asia. One, preferably, with more reliable Internet service than in Mae Sot so he can send emails, contact his American friends using Skype and hear what he’s missing.
In response, he’ll tell them about the remarkable medical recovery of Song, whom he calls his “Number One Daughter.” Or about new purple blankets he gave to people in rags. Or about the progress he’s making herding kids into makeshift classrooms to learn to read, write and keep themselves clean. This man, who dropped out of school at 13 and never had children of his own, sees education as the way out for some of these barefoot innocents born and raised in the stuff we throw away.
Knowing Fred Stockwell as many did in Ashland, it seems odd to hear him say: “You can make a difference. You have control of how much you can contribute. Look around and see where you can help.”
Because if he can say that and mean it, then we all could.
Who is Fred Stockwell?
Stockwell, 65, never intended to start his own private Peace Corps. He had a nice life as an aerial photographer in the Rogue Valley. City hall and chambers of commerce staffs loved the way he could capture a downtown street, a colorful fair, a boat race, and make that scene look so inviting.
“Fred’s images convey a feeling of Ashland … a sense of the typography of the land and how connected we are to the mountain ranges surrounding our valley,” says Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. “They are the kind of images that make you want to find your place in them.”
When Stockwell walked the Ashland Plaza, everyone seemed to know him. He has respect. And complete control over his life.
Then in 2007, he and his wife divorced, divided their assets and went their separate ways. She stayed in the old farmhouse she worked so hard to remodel and landscape. Stockwell moved into a rental closer to town. He had time to think of his next plan.
Stockwell always had a plan of action. That’s what kept the boy with undiagnosed attention deficient disorder and dyslexia from finishing junior high. “I have no formal education, but I’m a quick study,” he says. “I couldn’t read and write, but I ran businesses.”
He was resourceful, all right, but too much of a vagabond to hold a job. He tried, though, working as a chimney sweep, in a butcher shop, in construction. He had a stint at a London electronics manufacturing company. One day, when the man in charge of a complicated machine didn’t show up for work, Stockwell demonstrated how to operate it to the owner and visiting VIPs. He was instantly promoted.
But that didn’t last. “One day I was working on a lathe, looking through a glass window at the owners and I realized I was on the wrong side of the glass,” Stockwell recalls. “That was it. I was out of there.” Since then, he says, he always tries to figure out which side of the glass he’s on: Is he making the orders or taking them?
After a lot of quits and starts, his mother told him that the best education he was ever going to get was if he traveled. So, in the hazy days of 1960s, when freedom and journeys to faraway lands were the top prize, the teenage Stockwell set off. He explored Australia in an old station wagon. “When you’re young and don’t have particular skills, you learn how to survive,” he says.
In Tasmania, he fixed steel riggers and then worked the docks of New Zealand, loading and unloading ships. He drove a bus from Istanbul to Afghanistan, catering to “the odd lot that traveled that way: hippies, freaks and tourists.” He sold luxury cars in Iran.“I saw the poverty, suffering, injustice, corruption and everything that goes with the life,” he says. “Nothing much has changed there.”
Decades rolled away and he found himself in Africa, making money as a paragliding pioneer. He performed tandem flights behind jeeps, launched off beaches and showed that the new sport delivered thrills. In 1988, he met a paragliding manufacturer who sold him the right to sell equipment in the U.S. and the 43-year-old set off to conquer a new continent.
He steered his VW van to every hang-gliding launch site on the West Coast, finally settling at Point of the Mountain outside of Salt Lake City. There, he started a successful school, sold equipment, licensed trainers, helped established FAA-accepted safety rules and founded the photo-driven magazine International Para Glider.
He received awards from the National Aeronautic Association and the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association for his contributions to un-powered flight. In England, Prince Philip, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson presented him with theTiger Club medallion for enterprising aviation at the Royal Aero Club. He was flying high.
During a winter break in Florida, nursing knees that took a pounding with each landing, he noticed that wealthy homeowners were paying a lot to buy English antiques. He’d grown up with what he called “old brown furniture” and knew he could buy crates of it in the U.K. for next to nothing. He flew across the Atlantic, filled a container and resettled in Rogue River in 1994 near his new wife’s family. An antiques company was born.
In 2001, when everyone interested in antiques had them, Stockwell stopped his thrice-yearly buying trips to England, rented out the antique store, sold the magazine and moved to Ashland. “I was starting all over again,” he says.
He’d been experimenting with aerial photography while paragliding. His next idea was to make a living with it. He hired a pilot, hung out of open airplane doors, surveyed the land and took his best shot. Turns out, he’s good with a camera.
Not so with Cessna engines. In January 2007, pilot Donald Karpen crashed landed his plane in a snowy field south of Chemult with Stockwell onboard. Neither was hurt, but Stockwell’s reputation soared when a front-page story in the Ashland Daily Tidings reported that he took photos as the plane was falling to the earth.
“I’ve been very lucky in life,” Stockwell says, years later. This statement doesn’t refer to surviving the crash, but much more. “My life has been about bouncing from one place to another and meeting people. Without them, I would have amounted to nothing.”
Through a shared interest in vintage motorbikes, Stockwell met Ashland resident Ron Rezek, an industrial designer and the only friend who has visited Stockwell in Thailand.
“Fred has always been gregarious and looking for a project,” says Rezek. “When I first met him in 1995, he was restoring a Vincent motorcycle and an Austin Healey car. Now, his projects involve bringing immediate help to impoverished people, arranging visits to clinics, finding food and improving the lives of people who have no one advocating for them.”
If Stockwell had a slogan to sum up his work, it might sound like what he always says, “A small amount of help at the right time can go a long way.”
Fred Saves Song
It was August 2008 and Stockwell had been living full time in Thailand for only eight months. But he become well known early on as the Englishman with a stubby Suzuki Samurai truck who stumbled upon a trash dump a few miles outside of Mae Sot. There, he discovered almost 400 Burmese refugees picking through the garbage for food scraps to eat and plastic bottles and other recyclables they could turn in for money.
These refugees fled the drugs, land mines, slave camps, genocide and civil war of Burma, most recently known as Myanmar. They arrived through the jungle, on bridges or boats, with no money or food, carrying their sick. They are mostly from the Burmese Karen State, a hill tribe that has been targeted by the military government ever since the Karen aided the British in WWII.
“The refugees are Buddhist, gentle and caring with high moral values and extremely strong family bonds,”says Stockwell. “They are generous to a fault. No matter how little they have, they will always offer to share it with someone.”
The Thai government makes allowances for refugee camps. Some Thai camps hold thousands of people and have existed for decades. But the illegal dump dwellers are an embarrassment and occasionally Thai police warn that there will be a raid. Days later, the skeletal shacks are razed and the children and adults are transported back to Burma. Those who escape into the jungle wait to return to a foul-smelling place they call home.
Stockwell had no experience in social work. But he could see that if he turned up with rice, soap and de-worming medicine, the refugees were instantly better off. When he saw naked children walking barefoot over glass, worms and rats, he bought them $1 rubber boots.
Ashland friends deposited about $1,000 in Stockwell’s Wells Fargo account to buy more boots and other supplies, and Stockwell pecked a few words of thanks on his laptop keyboard and emailed them off along with news of the latest crisis: “50 kids just got out of Burma after a month trek through the jungle. Have nothing, no food, just the clothes they stand in. We took in rice and fish paste. Fish paste is like corn flakes or bread and butter here. Working on more help.”
Mostly, he communicated through photographs taken with a Cannon 5D and his “best friend,” a waterproof, shockproof, easy-to-carry Olympus 1030, and posted them on his website www.eyestoburma.org.
One rainy season, Stockwell partnered with an English-speaking Burmese monk to improve a well in the middle of a swamp and build raised walkways. In the hot season, Stockwell distributed mosquito nets to prevent dengue fever and malaria. He held women’s hands while they were giving birth, learned how to stitch them up and drove the dying to the Mae Tao Clinic, which Laura Bush visited in August 2008.
The First Lady told a crowd that gathered there that day: “I want the people of Burma to know that the people of the United States want to help in whatever way they can; that the people of the United States are aware of the situation, the very repressive government in Burma and the human rights violations in Burma. And we want to do what we can to help.”
Most of the refugees still don’t know Stockwell’s name or any English words, but they trust him. “The people think I am a doctor and they take me to their sick,” says Stockwell, who has wisps of gray hair, round glasses that dip on his nose and now deep worry lines on his forehead, something Ashland friends wouldn’t recognize.
On this day in August 2008, the children in the dump spotted his truck and announced his arrival with a singsong “Engla la la.” He checked in on a toddler with a constant nosebleed, a young woman with a tumor that disfigured her face and a father who wanted him to repair the stable-like structure being used as a school.
Hours into his stay, a frightened woman waved Stockwell inside her hut and signaled for him to touch her daughter’s head. The little girl, who looked about eight years old, had a fever that burned his hand. She was actually 13 and close to death. He picked her up – her thin arms and legs limp – and gestured for the mother to come with him to the nearby clinic. Holding her, her fever made his whole body sweat.
He spent weeks taking her to see doctors, then returned her to the dump where she lived with her mother and five sickly brothers and sisters. One medication helped her to throw up three-inch-long worms.
Stockwell visited as often as he could without irritating the Thai government. Officials don’t want foreign attention on the dump and if a stranger visits, they could order another raid. He’d arrive quietly in the morning, bringing her fresh water and chicken. He called her Song.
Despite the medical attention and his care, Song didn’t improve much. He took her to the Mae Tao Clinic, where she was diagnosed with abdominal TB. She stayed for weeks and was given six months of medicine. The pills made her bloat up, but she was good about taking them.
After one checkup, he drove her back to the camp, but she wouldn’t get out of the car. She kept saying,“home, home.” Then Song’s family surrounded his truck and waved him away. A translator told Stockwell that they wanted him to keep her so she could have a better life.
Stockwell cried. Not in front of them, but later at his rented house. He couldn’t take her in. He couldn’t really make any of their lives good, just a little bit better. He left Song behind.
“The drive home is only a few kilometres, but it is still one of the longest drives in my life,” he says. “I felt so powerless. I had created a dream for Song and her family and then shattered it. I felt guilty for causing more emotional pain to the people I was trying to help.”
The authorities made another raid on the dump in January 2009. They used an excavator to plow down shaky shelters. They took the pigs and beloved purple blankets, and forced 116 people – from breastfeeding babies separated from their mothers to the elderly – into caged trucks. By the next day, Song and a handful of others who escaped returned to their home and only source of livelihood.
When Stockwell felt it was safe to see Song, he surveyed the site and said, “It looks like a war zone.”
Today, Stockwell spends as much time with Song as he can. He’s teaching her how to use his camera. She’s teaching him her Karen language. And she’s learning English because she wants to talk to him.
“These are not throwaway people. They smile, they work and they can survive,” says Stockwell. “We should be saying to ourselves as a human race that we don’t want people anywhere living in a garbage dump.”
He says that education is best way to help the refugees. His latest project is repairing an old school near the dump. The school, actually a roof with no walls, does more than teach 250 children. It’s the focal point of the community. It’s where he set up a makeshift clinic and had medical students weigh and evaluate each of the children. It’s where he organizes his food and supply distribution.
When he rolls up with his truck bed full of essentials, the “headman” steps forth and calls out each family’s name. The adults and children, who have nothing they can count on from day to day, patiently wait for their share. From Stockwell’s photos, you can see them, standing on compressed trash and smiling.
“You can’t solve the big problems,” Stockwell says, “but with a bit of humanity, you can find help for the small and immediate issues.”
Stockwell is drawing plans to remodel the weathered school. He’s scouting around town and “pulling on people”for donations. Then he’ll get busy with a hammer and a trowel. He wants to install toilets, showers and a washing area. “Every one of the children stinks because they’re so dirty,” he says. “They are the worse I’ve seen them in two years.”
Hygiene lessons are as important as ABCs. “If we can teach them how to keep clean, it prevents other problems,”he says, adding that showers also make them feel hopeful. “They want to look better.”
Stockwell plans to visit Ashland this October. To see old friends. Show some of his photographs. Explain where he’s been. Ask for help. And share what he’s learned:
“One of the uncanny things that happens here is whatever is needed seems to come our way,”he says. “I used to worry about finding supplies or medicine, but I don’t anymore. I tell people, ‘It will happen.’ I wish I had this feeling of trust when I was living most of my life.”
Before the sketchy Skype connection fails him, he sighs and says:
“I don’t know where all this is taking me, but I do know that every day brings something new.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Refugees International estimates that 150,000 Burma refugees of various ethnic groups now live in displaced persons camps in Thailand near the Myanmar border. Over the years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has helped more than 50,000 people registered at the camps to resettle, mainly to the U.S. There are, however, hundreds of thousands of refugees hiding elsewhere throughout Thailand, without any rights or protection, like the people living in the garbage dump.
If you want to help Fred Stockwell’s efforts, you can visit his website at www.eyestoburma.org or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re ever in Mae Sot, Thailand, he asks that you let him know in advance and he’ll show you around nearby villages.
The free Mae Tao Clinic run by Dr. Cynthia Maung tremendously aids the Burmese refugees and migrant workers. The website www.maetaoclinic.org posts needs for medicine, money and volunteers.
Janet Eastman is an Ashland writer who met Fred Stockwell in 2004 and, seemingly unrelated to him at the time, she visited Myanmar/Burma in 2005. Now the two experiences are intertwined. You can read about her travels at www.janeteastman.com
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