Grassroots organisation supports dump residents in Thailand
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was in the passenger seat of Fred Stockwell’s weathered pick-up truck, negotiating the narrow streets of Mae Sot, Thailand.
Inside the truck was possibly dirtier than the outside and it was difficult to determine the original colour of the upholstery. Everything from the clutch to the rear view mirror was coated in a layer of dust. Tins of sardines, a thermometer, packets of Vitamin C supplements and bars of soap were strewn about the floor and the dashboard.
While navigating Mae Sot’s side streets, Mr Stockwell, 70, explained how he started his organisation, Eyes to Burma.
Mr Stockwell first visited Mae Sot in 2008 as a photographer. Like many foreign journalists and photographers he was also curious about the hundreds of Myanmar migrants living and working at the rubbish dump a 20-minute drive from Mae Sot.
A dirt road circling the dump separates the migrant families’ homes from mountains of garbage.
Many of those living near the dump sought refuge and economic opportunity in Thailand after conflict erupted between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups in Mon and Kayin states in the 1980s.
Every day they rummage through the rubbish in search of plastic bags, black garbage bags, beer cans and bottles and other materials which can be sold to recycling companies. A woman at the dump said she can earn about 600 baht (about K19,000 or US$19) a week, twice what she could earn in her home village in Mon State.
Mr Stockwell had travelled to the dump for a story but his priority quickly became the residents and their need for more support. He began providing clean water, food, medicine and tools to the villagers. He also founded Eyes to Burma, a non profit community-based organization that supports about 400 people who rely on the dump to make a living.
As Eyes to Burma explains on its website, it responds to basic needs by distributing food and drinking water and providing clothing and shelter “when the incomes of the dump’s residents fall short”.
The organisation has also established a simple clinic where residents receive free treatment for basic ailments. Every day, sometimes in the middle of the night, Mr Stockwell takes residents to medical facilities, including the Mae Tao Clinic founded by the renowned Dr Cynthia Maung, which cares for Myanmar migrants and refugees.
It has taken nearly eight years but Mr Stockwell said he has developed a “system’” to care for the community’s residents. He drives through their village daily, delivering batteries, headlamps, tools – or special orders such as baby formula – from the back of his pick-up. The tools of their trade, such as batteries needed for headlamps that allow the residents to forage at night, are sold are subsidised prices or provided free to those who cannot afford them.
For residents who can afford it, paying for certain items they need gives them a sense of dignity, said Mr Stockwell.
“Those who can afford it, can buy what they need, but no one goes without or gets left out, and they don’t get dependent on free stuff,” he said. “Imagine all your life, all you got was donations – and then you had the chance to choose for yourself what you wanted.”
It’s a long way from Mae Sot to Ashland in the northwestern American state of Oregon but the board of Eyes to Burma is based there because of a trip Mr Stockwell made to the United States in 2010 to raise funds for his cause.
Dr Eileen Chieco had read about Mr Stockwell’s work in an Oregon newspaper in 2010 and went to hear him speak at a fund-raising event in Ashland later that year.
Inspired by what they had heard, Dr Chieco was among a group who took a lead in doing what they could to help and submitted the paperwork needed for Eyes to Burma to qualify for non-profit status.
Dr Chieco, a retired psychologist, is the president of the board and Mr Stockwell, a Briton who has lived abroad most of his life, is its only member in Thailand.
“Eyes to Burma does not have fancy offices, salaries and the other expenses that many NGOs spend money on, so every donation is used for what is needed by those living and working at the dump,” Dr Chieco said in an email to Mizzima Business Weekly.
Mr Stockwell lives “frugally” and funds his own expenses, while the board members and volunteers in Ashland “absorb the various expenses that come up,” she added.
“You can see from what has been accomplished in six years – clean water, assistance with food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and most recently education – that Fred’s work through Eyes to Burma is very effective.”
Mr Stockwell said he is regarded as something of an outsider in Mae Sot, which is about 3.7 miles (six kilometres) from the border with Myanmar and is a hub for NGOs that support refugees and migrants from Myanmar.
“The community [at the dump] is viewed as a problem,” said Mr Stockwell. “There are a lot of groups that want to help but instead I have seen a lot of harm, divisions, exploitations and charity instead of support.”
With a modest, annual donor-funded budget that once reached $50,000 but tends to be about $12,000 and minimal bureaucracy to manage, Mr Stockwell is able to jump in his truck at a moment’s notice and “get things done”.
There are more than 100 families in the village, he said. “Some poor, hard-working, intelligent – that’s what you get in a village. Blanket solutions don’t work.”
We stopped at a rice shop, where the staff prepared Mr Stockwell’s order immediately and heaved two big sacks of the cereal into the back of the pick-up.
“I do this every day,” he told me.
He had organised private weekend classes for about 15 young people from the dump. Before I met him that afternoon, Mr Stockwell had already made two return trips to the dump to collect students for the classes.
We parked outside the nondescript building where they were conducted and climbed a few flights of stairs. The class had just ended and the students, colourfully dressed, laughing and chattering, were heading for the door.
To a judgemental eye, they did not look like they lived at a garbage dump.
“What are they supposed to look like?” Mr Stockwell asked me.
Mr Stockwell exchanged quick words with the teacher, handed her a few documents and followed the students outside.
With some in the back of the pick-up, more in the back seat and two in the front we pulled over to buy some water.
When everyone had a bottle of water, Pi Si, 11, who appeared to be the leader of the group, distributed electrolyte drink packages. Within minutes everyone was covered in water and white powder and laughing hysterically.
After a long discussion about where to eat and a few U-turns, we arrived at a roadside restaurant and took over most of its tables. Pi Si ordered lunch for everyone.
“They’re really independent and self-assured in the dump; they work and contribute to their families.” Mr Stockwell said. “But on weekends, they’re able to hang out and become friends.”
Over lunch, Pi Si told me she was learning English at weekend classes – a subject she and the other students had chosen.
“When they learn English, we’ll move on to the next subject they want to learn,” said Mr Stockwell.
When we arrived back at the village, the children poured into a community centre which Eyes to Burma had rebuilt a few months earlier after its roof collapsed. Instant noodles collected from Mr Stockwell’s pickup were distributed to those outside the centre. The cans of sardines, milk, batteries, baby formula, head lamps, ringworm medicine, rice and big knives for foraging in garbage in the back of the pick-up would either be sold or donated to village residents, depending on their circumstances.
Because Hani, 13, goes to school at weekends, Mr Stockwell gave Hani’s mother a pair of rubber boots. Students attending weekend classes often take home to their parents fish or baht provided by Eyes to Burma.
“When they [the youth] are in classes, they are not working, so if they are able to still contribute [to their families], they can go to class,” said Mr Stockwell.
As Mr Stockwell was about to leave for his evening rounds, some children climbed into the back of the pick-up to be dropped at the far end of the dump. We drove slowly, piles of garbage on our right and bamboo homes to our left. Garbage from the dump littered the narrow dirt road, under the homes of residents and fields further away.
Mr Stockwell stopped at one home to deliver a nutrition supplement to an elderly man and offer instructions on dosage. A few children squealed goodbyes and dispersed.
“I didn’t have a formal education” said Mr Stockwell as we drove. “I was trying to make it out and one day I realised they [at the dump] were just like me; they’re independent and they work hard.”
By the time I made my next visit to the dump a few months later, the altruistic supporters of Eyes to Burma had funded another contribution to community development. It had enabled Mr Stockwell to enrol about ten youth at the Children’s Development Centre, a school for Myanmar migrants and refugees run by the Mae Tao Clinic, and had covered their expenses.
“It’s like starting from scratch; we aren’t just taking them [the youth] to school, we’re creating a safe environment for them to be able to learn,” Mr Stockwell said in a recent post on the Eyes to Burma website.
He hoped the students would be able to bicycle to the Children’s Development Centre after monsoon, but in the meantime was picking them up each day at 7:45am.
““I work long hours, but it is very rewarding,” said Mr Stockwell.
“Fred doesn’t go to a lot of meetings or spend a lot of time talking about what he’s doing; he just does it,” Eyes to Burma vice president Kara Lewis, who has been involved with the organisation since 2012, told Mizzima Business Weekly in an email.
“He knows the residents and pieces of their stories; they’ve become his family and he helps them unconditionally,” said Ms Lewis, who visited the dump in late 2012. “Fred has the bigger-picture goal of helping the residents learn to help themselves.”
Eyes to Burma hopes to enrol as many children as possible in the Children’s Development Centre, as well as community classes in English, music and computer skills. The organisation also aims to provide residents with vocational training.
“Our hope for the dump residents is an improved quality of life in general, including sturdier housing, better nutrition and health care and that the current emphasis on education will hopefully allow the children to break the cycle of poverty and ultimately find gainful employment beyond the dump,” said Dr Chieco.
The Eyes to Burma website says it built four houses and repaired six at the dump in June.
The organisation continues to provide clean drinking water to the community, refilling four 2,000 litre tanks each week.
Mr Stockwell and I sat on the steps of the community centre at dusk watching a group of youngsters playing a game with a rope tied to two trees and some sticks.
The community at the Mae Sot dump has come a long way the past eight years, largely due to the constant support of Eyes to Burma, Mr Stockwell said.
“It’s very hard to communicate the whole story; the story is still unravelling,” he said.