International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Good medicine

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies has just returned from visiting Thai camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese refugees who have fled conflict and economic hardship at home. 

When I say I will leave a part of myself in Thailand I am not being poetic.  
 
There is a curfew at sunset in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp; it’s also the time the visitors are required to leave.  So after my first day with the refugees I was walking to the temple in Mae Hong Son at twilight and I sliced off a chunk of my big toe on a grate.  Bled everywhere.  It was nothing serious, but it was important to clean and bandage my bleeding toe to keep the cut from getting infected walking around camp. 
 
A survey of my ditty bag revealed a total of two Star Wars band-aids which I bled through quickly, so the next morning I was in the awkward position of asking the camp medical clinic for a bandage.  The IRC-trained refugee staff was kind enough not to make fun of me and returned a few moments later with an embarrassment of supplies.  A clean white cloth was bound neatly and securely around a sterile metal bowl containing gauze, medical tape, a scalpel, surgical scissors, and cotton balls.  A bottle of rubbing alcohol was pressed into my hand.  The staff offered to triage the wound for me, which I declined – they had patients to attend to.  They shook their heads, and as I looked carefully around, the outpatient ward was wrapping up for the day.  All but two of the clinic’s beds were empty and there was no one else awaiting treatment.  Tomorrow morning more patients will arrive, but for today I wondered where everyone was.  
 
Forgetting about my stupid toe I started asking questions of the staff.  
 
Turns out the reason no one was there is that people are pretty healthy in Ban Mai Nai Soi, precisely because of the quality of medical care the IRC clinic has been providing for nearly twenty years.  In addition to regular clinic hours, a psychosocial program, prenatal and infant care, and a physical therapy facility, health workers conduct home visits once a month to everyone in the camp to ensure they are in good health.  Anyone who is sick or injured is taken to the clinic for treatment and if necessary transferred to the hospital in town.  Medications are prescribed along with physical therapy when required, and access to each is free, unfettered, and straightforward.
 
The result is a camp of over 14,000 people living in very close quarters who share food and water sources and bathe communally – and yet the rate of infectious disease is stunningly low. Malaria, typhus, dengue fever, or giardia could easily decimate this population, but sanitation quality is so high and medical care so thorough that individual outbreaks don’t bloom into epidemics.  Moreover, perinatal infant and maternal mortality last year was lower than most developed nations. 
 
So forget everything you think you know about refugee camps: the swarming flies, the open sewers, the children with distended bellies blinking helplessly at the camera.  Filthy, chaotic slums teeming with disease and starvation do exist in the world, but not here.  I have been wonderstruck by what I have seen at Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp, tucked into the Thai mountains just west of Myanmar/Burma.  Thanks to nearly two decades of enormously hard work by the IRC and its partners (and the refugee staff themselves) these camps are run with a dignity, precision, and thoroughness that would be the envy of any small town.  
 
Here’s the takeaway: for those of us who are donors to the IRC, we can rest assured that every penny we’ve given is being put to good use, and it is working.  The efforts of the international community here have resulted in a standard of living that is so elusive to many less fortunate refugees; a humane one.
 
Of course, it would be wrong to come to the conclusion that the need is over and we can move on from Site One.  If the work here stopped, if the IRC and other international partners turned their backs, this refugee camp could become precisely the chaotic, filthy, disease-ridden horror story we have seen in heart-stopping images from around the world.  The residents of the camp have no means of providing their own medical supplies, food rations, clean water, or building materials.  My point is that there is hope -- and beyond hope, real and significant good being done.  The hard work and heartbreak and sweat equity and giving is all culminating here in a camp that stands, in my opinion, as a magnificent testament to the ways in which people can tangibly and significantly improve one another’s lives.  
 
Desmond Tutu said that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.  If this is true, then Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp is making us all more powerfully human.
 

You can read all of Sarah Wayne Callies's blog posts here.
 

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2 comments

Comments

Sarah, I must say it's

Sarah, I must say it's comforting to know that the IRC is a serious organization and makes this wonderful work around the world - offering a better quality of life and, above all, giving HOPE to those who believed that it never existed. And you can be sure that to accompany your trip to the refugee camps in Thailand, through this blog, was very motivating to me. I'm sure this must have been a great experience to you and thanks for sharing it with us. So, I wish you all the best, may God bless you and your family ... And I know that is not the proper place, but I have to say that you're rockin’ in TWD. P.S. Sorry about your little accident.

You are a very gifted writer,

You are a very gifted writer, Sarah. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and your compassion, with us!

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