Friday, 18 October 2013

A Problem, A Solution, A Step in the Right Direction

The Mae Sot dump, home of some 110 migrant families, provides much material for articles to be written and much conversation material. What isn't obvious is what ought to be done. I first visited the dump about a year ago.  You are more than welcome to go back and re-read my articles from that period.  Before you go, please know this:  since that time I have learned much and would now write very different material.  Call it knowledge, growth or just aging.

Various organizations go to the dump.  Some actually do some good, others go, take photos and use them to raise money which never reaches the people of the dump community. At least one very small organization has been there a long time but has no plan for sustainability, no financial transparency and often seems more interested in personal power than anything else.  One small “Christian” organization has actually taken children and forced them to participate in Christian prayers and rituals. Let’s take a hard look at the situation and how certain organizations and people seem to fit in.
Trash Pile

The likelihood that I will offend some folks with this is extremely high.  I do not care!  What goes on at the Mas Sot Dump is a damn shame and people should be made aware. Below I will start naming names.  If I DO NOT mention an organization by name that means one of two things:

  • They are not involved in a significant way, or
  • They are not recommended as potential donation recipients.
The people who reside and work at the dump are migrants from Burma.  Most are either ethnic Burmese of Karen.  Like most first time visitors I was horrified by the conditions and quickly reached in my wallet to fix the problem, at least one small part.  No wonder scum bags go to the dump take photos and go home to raise money.  It’s a perfect scheme.  Far away, full of tear jerk stories and damn near impossible to monitor.   If you want to help, there are a couple of suggestions at the end of this article.  However, before you try to help, perhaps you might want to try to understand a couple of basic facts.

First, the people who live on the Mas Sot dump made a conscience decision to go there (of course the children didn't have a voice; I’m talking about the adults).  Many of the families have had children while living there.  Second, these people tell me that the reason they made the choice to live on a garbage dump is because it’s the best alternative they have at the moment. Burma is too dangerous and income opportunities are more scarce than here.  Refugee status isn't always possible and often not desirable.  These people take pride in working for their living, an opportunity they would not have in a refugee camp.  I’m reminded of a great quote by Edgar Papke "The most powerful thing we have in our lives is choice."
Home without the terror caused by the Burmese Army

Choice is a tricky, sneaky concept when applied to the dis-enfranchised. These souls have made a choice to live in conditions that you, gentle reader, would likely brand as unbearable.  Once there they seem to believe that choices are no longer possible.  They tend to become servile, contrary to their very nature.  What can a foreign visitor do that might actually have a positive impact on their sense of dignity and self-worth?  All too often foreigners come to the dump, look around, take a few pictures and leave. Others come with donations, which is fine and indicates compassion but does little or nothing to help the long term situation.

Now I start naming names! 

Recently I have been involved with one project which is certainly on a creative and positive path.  I had the excellent fortune to be introduced to one Christina Jordan, one of the founders of an organization called Co-creative Impact and Innovation Institute. See:  Her approach is to suggest self-empowerment. This is very challenging when working with people who have been "kicked to curb" as it were.  She knew of my several trips to Mae Sot and had seen some of my photographs.  We talked and she ended up inviting me to accompany her to a meeting with the village headmen at the dump.  Her idea is to have a conversation with the headmen and encourage them talk to the community.  Since photographs have been an issue she asked me to talk to them as a photographer.  I was more than happy to do so. Perhaps the very best thing that can be said about this is that Christina Jordan has only one agenda: find out what the residents of the dump want and to try to find ways to help them accomplish those goals.

Christina Jordan, King Zero, Saw Phaung Awar and village leaders
What do I mean when I say they have no sense of empowerment. My best explanation is to share a couple of examples:

  • I was at the dump this past weekend and asked one of the headmen if they decided to use the "No Photo" signs Christina had made for them.  No. They were afraid someone in power would ask them where they got the signs from.
  • One large group of tourists recently came through the dump community.  The headmen said nothing because they were with someone they recognized as being in some position of authority although they could not identify him.
One of the ideas that was born from the meetings with the headmen was “Piglets for Progress”  The idea is to raise enough money so every family can have at least one pig, two being ideal.  The idea is brilliant on several levels:

  1. The community has existing knowledge and proof of concept. Some families already have pigs and they are quite successful.  
  2. Pigs are right at home in the dump.
  3. People can raise them, sell them at a profit and buy more piglets (To a large degree, the pig idea is self-sustaining).

The pig idea will meet resistance mostly from people who take the attitude that they know what’s best without having done their homework. To those people I say that this is an idea that comes from the people who live in the dump, it’s not something being forced on them by someone with good intentions and no idea about their reality. The Piglets for Progress project helps with self-empowerment and that is most badly needed. "Piglets for Progress" IS NOT an ego born disease!

You can help by contributing at Piglets for Progress 

You can also help by sharing this article with your friends and associates.

People wanting to contribute rice and other commodities to the dump are encouraged to go through the Best Friend Library in Mae Sot. If you can't contact them, please let me know and I will assist.
Ashin Sapoka, Best Friend Library, distributes rice to families at the dump

Medical treatment for the people residing on the dump, as well as many displaced persons on both sides of the Burmese border is provided by Mae Tao Clinic.  They do a marvelous job and truly deserve all the support they can get!  This organization has a most excellent reputation.  They are financially transparent, fiscally responsibility and save lives every day! Visit their website, download and read their annual report.

Abundant Blessings,


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