The Burma Humanitarian Mission supports community based health-care and education projects that improve lives of the Burmese people. In this article, we hear from a founding member how the Mission began. Read more about the Burma Humanitarian Mission here.
In 1992, a group of friends joined protests seeking to stop Unocal Corporation from building the Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma into Thailand using forced labor. At these protests we met a community of refugees who fled Burma - they had endured the worst human rights violations imaginable but retained a quiet graciousness and
dignity that impressed us.
In 1998, a dear friend and colleague, J.P., visited the Thai-Burma border and saw first hand the suffering endured by the Karen people at the hands of the Burmese army. He was in a camp for Internally Displaced People when it was bombed by mortar fire. Indicative of other risks of the region, he also came home with cerebral malaria. While he was being treated in the hospital, J.P. told me what he saw in Burma and spoke passionately about his desire to help these people. I promised him that if he got better (cerebral malaria being the kind that can kill you) I would ask friends and family to donate money so we could go back to the border to buy medicines and blankets to help.
The idea gained momentum and inspired other friends to become involved. In December of 1999, six friends, including a recovered J.P, visited the Thai-Burma border. We called ourselves The Burma Humanitarian Mission.We paid our own travel expenses so that all of the money we raised was used to buy medicines.We provided a six-month supply of medicine to roughly 8,000 villagers.
It was an amazingly perfect time to be there. At the Mae Tao Clinic, the Backpack Health Worker Teams were just getting started. Dr. Cynthia Maung, after fleeing Burma in 1988, founded the Mae Tao Clinic in Thailand to
provide healthcare to other refugees, but realized that with the military junta actively trying to kill villagers rather than, say, building hospitals, there were zero healthcare options in Burma.The people who needed healthcare the most - the villagers who were too sick or hurt, or at risk of arrest by the Thai authorities for crossing into Thailand without documentation -- needed healthcare brought to them. In these early years, our teams traveled with the backpacking medics and had our hearts broken open by what we witnessed in Burma.
Our team backpacked into villages where we saw everything. One night we hiked long after dark to arrive in a village where a small child had convulsions because of malaria. A medic stayed up to treat her through the night. The next morning she was smiling and laughing because we had the medicine to save her life!
It is impossible to return from such an experience without a profound sense of obligation to continue to help, and a deep sense of the privilege and honor that it is to have the resources and the freedom to do so.
Back in the US, BHM was adopted by Earthways, which functioned as an umbrella for us until 2009 when we became our own 501c3. Until that point, BHM functioned as an all-volunteer organization with several key people providing sporadic involvement to raise funds so we could provide support to the backpacking medics whenever we could, but our efforts were inconsistent because of our obligations to our families and livelihoods.
As we shifted into becoming our own 501c3, we created a part-time position so that I could expand our programs. With my consistent involvement, we have expanded our funding and program bases. We now provide the training resources for 2/3 of all new medics trained each year and provide an annual supply of medicines for over
50,000 people. We have expanded our program to include providing the opportunity for Karen youth to receive an
education – supporting the next generation of pro-democracy activists in Burma. In, addition we are supporting two
other projects – one program for at-risk girls in Burma and another for the creation of a legal-foundation in Thailand to provide education for refugee children.
Here in the US where we are headquartered, we engage in as many public-outreach opportunities to talk about the situation in Burma as we are invited to participate in. We produced a short documentary on the Backpack Health
Worker Teams as well as a power point presentation on our efforts and welcome any opportunity to speak, whether at a church, university, or private home. We have also formed a charity running team where runners rally around the cause to raise awareness and funds for the backpack medics.
As we’ve transitioned into a more professional NGO, I am proud to report that we have maintained a high level of fiscal responsibility.Over 75% of all of our revenues are allocated directly to the programs that we support. Most of our fundraising costs are the donation processing fees charged by online donation platforms. We still function with a large portion of our operating expenses paid for by our board members and we all still pay for our own travel expenses so that your donation provides the people of Burma with the greatest amount of help.
In the information age, we see so many tragedies and disasters from a distance and there is a risk of becoming immune to the emotional impact of what we see. My wish for everyone reading this is that you create a way in your life to be able to directly help others and to feel the sensation of your heart breaking open as you experience that you - just one person - can make a difference.
I thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for your generosity in supporting our work.
Founding member and Executive Director
Burma Humanitarian Mission
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