Saturday, October 31, 2009

A photographer returns to help Myanmar refugees

A former resident of Ashland, Oregon spends his days helping the refugees of the Thailand-Myanmar border. Fred Stockwell is a professional photographer and once took photos of the refugee camp for a non-governmental organization. Stockwell was so touched by the people's predicament that he left America to spend time helping them.

From the Ashland Daily Tidings, writer Chris Honoré tells Stockell's story.

It was in 2007 that Stockwell sold everything, left Ashland, and returned to Mae Sot, a city he had discovered by chance while on a photographic assignment for a non-governmental organization years earlier. And it was on that initial trip that he discovered the people of the Mae Sot dump. He vowed to return and do what he could.

But where and how to begin? He knew he was a stranger in a strange land, could not speak Thai or Burmese, and had only limited resources. It was an impulse of generosity, tempered by years of world travel.

"My first trips there (to the dump) were physically and emotionally overwhelming," Stockwell wrote in an e-mail. "The stench, poverty, and general living conditions had more impact on me than anything I had previously experienced.

"I wanted to do something, but didn't know what to do. I was faced with the common dilemma: Do I give a fish so they can eat for a day? Or do I teach them to fish, so they can live forever?"

Stockwell soon noticed that the children were walking barefooted among rats and snakes and shards of glass and metal, their feet cut, the wounds infected, open sores weeping.

"They know how to fish," he realized. "They just don't have the right equipment."

And so he decided that what the children needed were shoes, more specifically rubber boots which he found at a local store. He began making frequent trips to the dump with as many boots as he could carry. He realized he needed help and found people willing to assist, some from as far away as Ashland.

Rubber boots evolved into health care. Not only was the dump hazardous — a petri dish of hepatitis, cholera, typhoid fever, skin diseases and asthma — but the people there also suffered from malaria and dengue fever and intestinal parasites, all causing chronic illnesses and death. Malaria can be prevented by something as simple and effective as mosquito netting. Stockwell found the nets and as the weather turned cool, he located blankets as well.

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