Eyes To Burma: Two Years Later
By Justine Chambers
Just as photographer Fred Stockwell, who left Ashland in 2008, encountered Burmese refugees living in a dump on the Thai–Myanmar border, I stumbled upon Fred this past April in Mae Sot, Thailand. The man who has made life better for hundreds of victims of a long-standing war was holding meetings at his makeshift office, a table at his usual breakfast cafe.
I was there as an Australian intern for the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) Resettlement Programme. Fred explained his “one-man peace corps,” where he helps Burmese refugees who have fled the brutalities of a ruthless military regime, and have settled to make their home and work in a garbage dump. With his slim personal resources and donations from the Ashland community and others, he makes their struggle to survive a little easier. Fred asked me something that he never had to do in his previous life as a businessman and photographer: He asked me to work for free. I quickly agreed and joined him for three months to assist in the daily operations of his Eyes to Burma organization.
Now Fred’s unplanned mission has evolved into a steady, serious but still short-handed and low-funded program in which children periodically attend classes instead of picking recyclable plastic from the garbage, those ill and injured receive medical care, and everyone finally has clean water. All of these projects have improved conditions for 350 stranded immigrants. But what about Fred’s life?
Fred Stockwell, as readers of this magazine may remember from a Jefferson Monthly story in September 2010, was an aerial photographer. He traveled to Thailand with the expectation that he could stretch his very modest retirement funds much further than in the United States. Fred stumbled upon this neglected community in the dump after taking the wrong bus. He soon realized that being a photographer was not enough, and that “there comes a time in your life when you realize you have to start giving back.”
Janet Eastman’s article in the Jefferson Monthly created a chain of events, from community presentations about Eyes to Burma to generous donations, and then to the creation of a nonprofit organization approved by the IRS and granted status as a 501(c)(3) public charity. This month, Fred will return briefly to Ashland to thank his many supporters and tell of his ongoing struggles and accomplishments. (See a complete calendar of events at http://eyestoburma.org).
Fred is willing to speak to any group, large or small, and explain that many of the refugees have fled their homes and escaped to Thailand because of indiscriminate arrests, detention, torture, and religious repression. They have also been the victims of forced labor and conscription. Others are casualties of the long conflict, which has seen Burmese troops attack and burn villages without warning, injure and kill civilians, and rape girls and women.
Although there has been recent news of political reforms within Burma (also known as Myanmar) and the release of democracy proponent Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest, the people Fred helps have no support. These refugees face a host of economic, social and security problems while struggling to find shelter, work and medical attention. They are forced to run to places where no one else would want to live.
Some Burmese refugees are better off than the ones Fred helps. About 140,000 Burmese live in official camps in Thailand. Detained behind electrified fences, they too face an uncertain future since the Thai government is reluctant to consider local integration, their preference being resettlement. Yet these victims are better off than the 200,000 unregistered refugees living outside the camps. They are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and are not entitled to protection from international human rights and entitlements laws. They take jobs no one else will accept, and work 12-hour days, six days a week for a pittance. Although Mae Sot is quickly becoming a major trading post between the two countries, the dump, as we call it, is the no man’s land where Eyes to Burma operates.
Life in a garbage dump
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” When driving to Mae Sot’s garbage dump, the smell is the first evidence of decay, disease and danger. A fetid mixture of pollution and waste, it is hard to imagine that hundreds of people live here. But they do.
Soon after volunteering, Fred and I arrived at the dump and instead of the cheerfulness that these Buddhists refugees muster from nothing, there was an air of despondency. No one stood up to greet us, and the young children who usually ran up to give me high-fives sat listlessly. We soon learned that 30 families were told they had to move their homes, which are the most modest of structures, cobbled together from discarded sticks and fabric.
Fred had tried to warn me that every day brings a new crisis. For this one, we were able to temporarily house and help some of them. They were exceedingly grateful.
It is amazing to see how these refugees smile, laugh, share, give and love. The sense of community here is extraordinary; in spite of their unrelenting hardships, everyone is always making sure that no one is left behind. They point us to others in need of help, rather than ask for help for themselves.
In addition to having lost their homes and possessions, many are grieving the loss of family members. Because these refugees are ineligible for aid from Thailand, Eyes to Burma provides the most basic essentials for them, including food, clean water and shelter when their incomes fall short. Fred’s all-volunteer effort also supplies medicine to prevent diseases and the outbreak of infections caused by poor sanitation, and food to families in times of hardship.
In the almost five years that Fred has lived in Mae Sot, a lot has changed for this small community living on top of a dump. What I’ve come to learn is that the only constant is unpredictability.
Recently, there was a significant change in the way the dump residents worked: they no longer scavenged for recyclables in the mountains of waste. The introduction of a recycling factory last year changed this system dramatically, in good and bad ways. While those who could work at the factory now had a stable income of 3,000 baht/month ($100), the value individuals could earn from selling recyclables on their own was decreased.
In the past, children helped their parents pick through the garbage and were able to at least earn an income. But at the factory, in order to earn enough money to help their families, they had to be over 16 to work. While it is preferable to have these children taking classes taught by Burmese migrants, families with four or five children find themselves even more financially strapped. This is devastating for mothers whose husbands have left or found work in Bangkok, elderly couples and those who are sick or injured.
However, since my return to Australia, the recycling plant has closed, and the dump community is back to scavenging. Fred is once again providing headlamps, sickle knives and boots. Medical problems have increased now that they are back on the garbage itself. But as Fred says, given a little time the recycling center will reopen and he will have another set of problems.
One of the biggest improvements Eyes to Burma made since Fred visited Ashland last year is the installation of five permanent, clean water tanks, one for each residential area. Although it is the most costly part of his work, it is also the most important.
In the past, community members suffered with ongoing bouts of diarrhea and fevers due to the lack of clean drinking water. Fred says that the positive effects of bringing in the tanks could almost be seen overnight, and that the rate of disease and infection has decreased dramatically. The cost to keep the tanks filled is about $250 a month.
Infant mortality rates have decreased, too, as has the number of maternal deaths. Fred’s “Number One Daughter” Song, the frail girl with undiagnosed TB whom he rescued three years ago, is now a strong, spirited 16 year old. Like others in the dump community, she worked in the recycling factory and now is back to toiling on the garbage piles.
Over time, Fred saw the need for a safe place for the residents to gather. Generous donations enabled him to set up a combination shop, clinic and women’s community center this past May. A safe, dry place can make all the difference to these families. It is the first step to preventing disease and offers comfort in their otherwise terribly difficult lives. When not working, mothers sit and chat over Burmese chai and can watch their children play together. Thanks to newly installed electricity, they can sing along to music and watch a TV. Even though most members of this community don’t speak English, they all know Fred’s name and can use the cell phone at the center to call him in emergencies.
Since setting up the center, Fred has coordinated his efforts much more effectively. When families must relocate and have no income, they come to the center for free meals. In contrast, the distribution of food, blankets and other essentials from the back of Fred’s old truck was less reliable for this spread-out community.
Other Eyes to Burma projects include the Reproductive Health and Family Planning Project and a Vitamin Program aimed at fighting anemia, particularly among young children, pregnant women and the elderly. A weekly supply of seasonal fruit is part of the nutritional program; this seeming luxury Fred has deemed important and made a priority.
Most recently, Ploy (our interpreter) and I managed to raise enough money to give every family a mosquito net (about $10 per net). Small things like this make all the difference.
Other improvements are still to come. Living conditions are incredibly bleak, and money is hard to come by. Almost everyone in the dump fears the monsoon season (May to October) since it becomes more difficult to get food and clean water, and to stay dry. Malaria and dengue fever are still a constant worry and Fred continues to make almost daily trips to the nearest clinic.
As he gets older, Fred is increasingly worried that something will happen to him and his organization will simply be lost and his community forgotten among all the world’s problems.
Why Fred stays
For me, it’s funny hearing about Fred’s past life when all I have known of him is that he lives in a sparse room and spends his days in a garbage dump. He rarely notices the flies that hover incessantly around him or the awful smell. He tells me that he doesn’t miss his former comfortable life in Ashland. He says that although it was good, “something was always missing.”
Here in Mae Sot, circumstances can change the best-laid plans in a second, so Fred has learned to ask for help at crucial moments. From his perspective, you can send emails and call every connection you know, but the only way to get things done is to just go there. “I just turn up, sniff the air, find people, and get to work,” he says.
Fred describes himself now as a minimalist, barely taking time off and often neglecting his own health to ensure that of the community. Since my arrival, I have seen Fred take just two trips away from Mae Sot. He always hurries back after a couple of days, fearing the surprises he might return to. In my limited experience of the world, I have to say that I don’t know a more hard-working person committed to shining a light where it’s needed.
One of the elements of Eyes to Burma that makes it so successful is Fred’s perseverance. He firmly believes that “if you aren’t here, nothing gets done.” Unlike the “voluntourists,” Fred has been in Mae Sot for almost five years and has no plans of leaving. Says Fred, “You look back to who you were, to who you are, and you realize you’ve changed, and only in a better way.”
Fred believes that change comes from individuals getting out there and acting on their beliefs. According to Fred, “The real trick is when you stop thinking about yourself. As soon as it’s not about you, what you’re doing and what you’re going to achieve, that becomes the life-changing factor.” He welcomes others to join him in Mae Sot for any length of time and in any capacity.
It is clear that Fred has found a family within this small community of Burmese villagers. He often said to me as we drove back home from the dump that he could never imagine having children. Now he is considered a grandfather to 70 families. Fred is extremely humble and hates praise; thanks come in the way of smiles and hugs from his adopted grandchildren.
Coming to Mae Sot and working with Fred has altered me in many ways. If you are not profoundly conflicted by what you see here, you just don’t have your eyes open. However, if you dwell in the house of indignation all the time, nothing will ever be achieved. Fred makes a difference by going out every day to do what he can to make the lives of these people a little easier and safer. It is hard not to become discouraged, but you can’t just sit back and do nothing.
As I sit in the comfort of my home in Australia, I’m reminded of the importance of Fred’s words: “There comes a time in your life when you realize you have to start giving back.”
Justine Chambers has a strong passion for and dedication to community and international humanitarian affairs, with a particular interest in ethnic minorities and refugees in Southeast Asia. A 24-year-old Australian, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International and Global Studies in Anthropology from the University of Sydney, Australia. After spending three months in Mae Sot, she is in Sydney pursuing a Master’s Degree in Social Development, specializing in Refugees and Forced Migration at the University of New South Wales. She is also a research assistant at the University of Newcastle and interning as a Refugee Caseworker with Australia’s Amnesty International.
Wednesday, October 17th, 7:30 PM, SOU Campus - Stevenson Building, Rogue River Room: Co-sponsored by SOU-UN Club, Southern OR Amnesty International and Eyes to Burma. This event features a film, panel and discussion on the plight of the Burmese people. Myra Dahgaypaw, Coordinator for the US Campaign for Burma, Washington DC and Fred Stockwell will share their personal stories and knowledge about the current situation in Burma.
Thursday, October 18th, 7 PM, Ashland UCC - 717 Siskiyou Blvd.: The Hearth - A Community Storytelling Event to benefit Eyes to Burma. The theme of the stories told by community members will be “Living Life on the Margins.”
Saturday, October 20th, 5 - 7 PM, Ashland Art Center - 357 E. Main St: Photography exhibit and reception for Fred Stockwell and Eyes to Burma.
Monday, October 22nd, 6 - 7:30 PM, Medford UCC - 1801 E. Jackson St: Fred will meet with children and families at a pot luck gathering to offer a child-friendly presentation about the lives of the Burmese refugees.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 7AM - Fred joins the Lithia Springs Rotary Club for their morning meeting to speak about his accomplishments over the past year. Located at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 7AM, Ashland Community Center - on Winburn Way - Fred joins the Ashland Lithia Springs Rotary Club for their morning meeting to speak about his accomplishments over the past year.
Wednesday, October 24th, 1 -2:30 PM, SOU Campus - Stevenson Building, Rogue River Room: International Student Pot Luck (at noon) followed by an Eyes to Burma PowerPoint presentation co-sponsored by SOU-UN Club, Southern OR Amnesty International and Eyes to Burma.
Wednesday, October 24th, 7PM, Medford UCC - 1801 E. Jackson St - Fred Stockwell brings a PowerPoint presentation on the work of Eyes to Burma. A film on Burma will be screened with audience Q & A.
Friday, October 26th, Temple Emek Shalom - 1800 East Main Street, Ashland. As a part of the 7PM Shabbat service Fred will be speaking about his work with Eyes to Burma at 8PM.
Sunday, October 28th, 7 PM, the Havurah - 185 N. Mountain Ave, Ashland - An evening of stories about the people of the dump captured in a photo PowerPoint. A film on Burma will be screened with audience Q & A.
Tuesday, October 30th, 5 - 7 PM, Rogue Gallery and Art Center - 40 South Bartlett Street, Medford, Fred will share a photography presentation about Eyes to Burma.
How Can You Help?
We call them “illegal immigrants,” but what is illegal about seeking protection from persecution? Rarely do we stop to reflect on their journey or what it means to be systematically drummed out of your country. Imagine having your village and crops burned, your husbands and sons imprisoned, your culture, religion, language and beliefs demonized, and your sisters, wives and daughters raped.
Fred Stockwell is trying to unpack the lives of a small community from tattered plastic bags into a footprint of dignity. Does it always work? No. Does it ever run smoothly? Rarely. Every day is different and brings new challenges. Fred brings the dump community to the center of the conversation about the assistance they need, enabling the residents to take charge, as much as possible, of their situation. This empowerment leads to increased self-esteem and a stronger community.
David and Christopher Mikkelsen of Refugees United Australia write: “Dignity is the true shelter of any man, woman or child. Without it, you may build a world around any body, but the soul will not call it home. It takes the building blocks of self to create a structure that will support a life worth living.”
Every dollar given to Eyes to Burma goes a long way. Eyes to Burma is a 501(c)(3)
non profit and all contributions are fully tax deductible. For details about how to make a difference, click here.