100,000 pairs of glasses
The International Rescue Committee is helping hundreds of thousands of visually impaired refugees and victims of war restore their vision through a unique program that offers free glasses and eye surgery.
Photos and text by the IRC's Peter Biro
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A woman’s eyes are examined by the IRC’s Suphachai Pitanee near Mae Sot near the border with Myanmar.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.
Since 1997, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has helped hundreds of thousands of visually impaired refugees and other victims of war restore their vision through a unique program that offers free glasses and access to eye surgery. The IRC’s Peter Biro reports from northwestern Thailand, where the IRC recently distributed its 100,000th pair of eyeglasses.
For years, Than Tun, a Burmese refugee who lives in the sprawling Tham Hin camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border, viewed the world as if through a dirty window, perceiving light and colors dimly without precise shapes.
“Soon I couldn’t do anything,” the 27-year-old recalls. “Everyday things like reading, washing clothes and even walking around the camp became impossible.”
Then Tun heard about the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) border eye program, a service that performs eye surgery and provides eyeglasses to refugees. The program’s doctors diagnosed cataracts brought on by diabetes and scheduled a time for surgery. The operation, during which the eye’s cloudy lens is removed and replaced with a synthetic lens, immediately restored Than Tun’s sight.
“When the bandages were removed, I could see again!” Tun says, his now clear eyes flashing with excitement. “To see the sky and the people around me was a true miracle.”
Six weeks after the operation, Tun was called in for a check-up at the IRC’s eye clinic in Tham Hin where he was given a free pair of glasses, which improved his vision even more.
“Now I can care for myself,” Tun says. “I read books again and meet more people. Every Sunday I help out in the camp church, cleaning up and tending to the garden.”
Small miracles, like the operation that restored Than Tun’s sight, occur every day in Tham Hin and other refugee camps along the border. Since the program began in 1997, the IRC and its partner organizations have performed over 1,000 cataract operations. And last month the program reached a milestone when it distributed its 100,000th pair of eyeglasses—to a 43- year-old mother of two in the Mae La camp near the northwestern Thai city of Mae Sot.
In the Mae Tao clinic, an IRC-supported health facility in Mae Sot that provides free health care to Burmese refugees and migrants, hundreds of people arrive every month for eye examinations and treatment. Many have made a long and often perilous journey from villages inside Myanmar to visit the clinic.
“In rural Myanmar, people cannot afford to buy glasses or treat eye diseases,” says Tha Mla Wah, who manages the eye clinic at Mae Tao. “People simply have to prioritize food. As a result, many become blind or they spend their lives suffering from poor eyesight.”
Jerry Vincent, an optometrist who runs the IRC’s border eye program, says that 85 percent of all forms of blindness are the result of treatable and preventable conditions like cataracts, trachoma, river blindness and vitamin A deficiency. Moreover, for desperately poor people living in developing countries such as Myanmar, poor vision and blindness make the daily struggle to survive that much harder.
The success of the border eye program has resulted in similar IRC initiatives for refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Chad. And the IRC’s newest such program is slated to start in Southern Sudan, which suffers from some of the world’s highest rates of trachoma—a bacterial eye infection that is the world's leading preventable cause of blindness—and river blindness, a debilitating infection caused by a parasite.
“Our research shows that helping communities obtain clean water and improve their hygiene can drastically reduce trachoma infection in children,” Vincent says. “Through a combination of better health care, clean water, improved hygiene and prevention efforts like our border eye program, we can dramatically reduce the incidence of unnecessary blindness in the developing world.”
The IRC is a member of Vision 2020, a global initiative of the World Health Organization. Vision 2020 includes over 100 international agencies and institutes under the umbrella of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). The IRC is the only Vision 2020 member agency whose mandate is to work with people affected by war and natural disasters.