Representative has hope for refugees from Myanmar

Chinki Sinha

Eh Kalu Shwe Oo gets to see his wife and children only twice a year — if he is lucky.

While his family is in refugee camps in Thailand, Oo works along the border with the internally displaced Karen people in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Trekking through the jungles on foot and dodging junta troops, Oo transports medical supplies to the people in southeast Myanmar. He tries to provide health care and education to more than 200,000 ethnic Karen forced to flee.

After attending a conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Oo on Wednesday visited Utica, where there are more than 2,000 ethnic Karen. Oo hopes local Karens won’t forget those who are languishing in the jungles without access to basic necessities.

Oo’s visit, however, will help highlight the region’s problems to the world and help mobilize support to counter some of the diseases that continue to claim lives, Moe said.

Cyclone Nargis, which reportedly claimed more than 100,000 lives, has brought the region into the world spotlight.

Life’s difficulties

Oo’s work is not easy.

He is secretary of the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, the sole provider of medical aid to thousands of Karen people displaced by war started in 1949.

They don’t have enough doctors and physicians, and funding is an issue in the battle against chronic diseases.

“We have no doctors now,” he said. “I am trying to contact Karen doctors here to go back and work with us. We want to spread awareness.”

Aung Tin Moe, a New Hartford, N.Y., resident and former medic who worked with Oo, can testify to the difficulties and challenges of the job.

He was injured and lost one of his friends after the military seized a village she was working in. This made Moe, who worked as a medic in the jungles for 12 years, angry. He also was concerned about the future of his children, so he left, he said.

“I can’t go now. I have my life and my family,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.”

But he can help in whatever way he can from here, Moe said.

“I know we need volunteers,” he said.

Providing health care while on the run is difficult. Often medics have to carry heavy equipment on their backs for days in the jungle terrain, Oo said.

Many doctors are afraid of working in such dangerous conditions.

With only 36 mobile clinics serving about 40,000 people in the region, a larger number of people still are without any aid, Oo said.

And that’s where the expatriate community, mostly refugees who are in United States, can help, he said.

Peter Vogelaar, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, said the Utica community has a connection with the people in the Karen state.

“We can support the work through doctors or donations,” he said.

Oo said the community can help local Karen people stabilize their lives so they can send support to the Karen state, he said.

For most of his life, Oo has been on the move, a backpack tied on his back, living a nomadic existence. Having been born in Yangon, he moved to the Karen state after he saw the struggles of his community. His people needed him, he said.

It is hope, he said, that keeps him going.

“Don’t forget the chronic emergency situation of the internally displaced people,” Oo said.

Observer-Dispatch