IRC offers new hope for disabled refugees
Rehabilitation for disabled refugees
In a sprawling refugee camp in Thailand, an IRC rehabilitation center and prosthetics workshop serves disabled refugees from Myanmar. It is equipped with weights, exercise bikes and other rehabilitation equipment, and artificial limbs are constructed in an adjacent workshop.
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Maung Maung helps as Hae Pweh Mu, 18, is fitted for a prosthetic arm.
Text and Photos by Peter Biro
On a rainy morning in November 2005, Suh Reh’s life changed forever. Deep in the jungles of eastern Mynamar, Reh stepped on a landmine hidden deep in the undergrowth. The blast blew off his left leg just below the knee.
“I was conscious the whole time,” Su Reh says. “It was a nightmare. My comrades managed to take me to a field hospital where I was treated.”
Today, with a group of fellow amputees, Reh runs a center for disabled Burmese refugees. The center is housed at the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border and is one of a number of programs in the camp supported by the International Rescue Committee.
Ban Mai Nai Soi is one of nine such camps that house an estimated 140,000 refugees. Most are members of ethnic minority groups who have fled ongoing conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Over 15,000 members of the Karenni ethnic group live in Ban Mai Nai Soi.
After Suh Reh’s leg was amputated, he received no further treatment or help adjusting to life as an amputee.
“When I came to Thailand as a refugee, I decided that I wanted to help others who had similar injuries,” Su Reh says. “I know how hard it is to overcome an injury like this.”
The center, a small thatched house, is situated in the middle of the sprawling camp. It is equipped with weights, exercise bikes and other rehabilitation equipment, all built by Suh Reh and three colleagues. They construct artificial limbs in an adjacent workshop. Hae Pweh Mu, 18, has come to the center to be fitted for a prosthetic arm. He lost his left arm in 2008 after he was shot by a Burmese soldier.
Maung Maung, another amputee staff at the center, wraps plaster around Mu’s arm to make a cast.
The cast is later pulled off and a thermoplastic sheet is rolled around the cast, converting it to a prosthetic arm. A metal hook is then attached to the prosthesis as a gripping mechanism.
For those who cannot make it to the center on their own, Suh Reh and his colleagues make home visits. One of their patients is Taw Reh, 56, who was left partly paralyzed after a stroke. Every other day the IRC’s Su Reh (no relation) or another IRC colleague visit Taw Reh to help him with exercises designed to flex his muscles and strengthen his body. They‘ve also installed an exercise beam and a handicap-friendly shower and toilet area in Taw Reh’s home.
“Three months ago he couldn’t move,” Suh Reh says. “With some help, he can now stand up.”
Suh Reh says that after his landmine injury he taught himself to exercise by reading a book on physiotherapy.
“At first, I could only walk on my artificial leg for 10 minutes before I became exhausted,” he says. “I couldn’t keep my balance and fell all the time.”
It was after Suh Reh underwent the arduous process of learning to walk again that he decided to help other disabled people. With more and more refugees venturing across the porous Myanmar-Thailand border, he also vowed to educate people about the hazards of landmines. In 2005 he launched a landmine awareness campaign in the camp with the help of Handicap International, an aid group.
“If people in the camp have to cross the border to hunt or cut bamboo, we tell them to avoid certain areas like old military installations and never to walk on paths that are overgrown or not in use. It might cost them a leg or worse. It is something I hope will never happen to anyone.”