Rethinking Numbers

bashar and friends
From left: Snow Oo (Deputy Director), Bashar Haidar, and Ci Sae (CHEPP Assistant Coordinator) at the Backpack Health Worker Team office

Reading about Burma became an integral part of my hopeless attempts to fall asleep on a hot humid night in my hometown in Lebanon. Scrolling down long articles and reports was the only way I could learn about the Burmese conflict. I read about the crimes perpetrated by the military government. I read about the human rights violations that ethnic minority groups endured under a ruthless regime. I read about the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. I read about the challenges of Burmese migrants in Thailand and China along the borders with Burma. Shortly after I could identify some of the acronyms I was coming across.

I thought I understood the politics of several factions of a violent, shameless, and seemingly endless conflict. I even tried to memorize some of the facts and numbers I came across. Maybe, I was just concerned about making a good first impression when meeting with any local constituent when I would arrive in Mae Sot. Maybe, I just wanted to feel better about being so distant from the conflict. Prior to arriving in Mae Sot, I failed to be conscious of the fact that those statistics and numbers I was trying so hard to remember were references to actual people. People with faces, bodies, lives, families, emotions, properties, jobs. 

From the first moment, my internship has been shaping my understanding of the Burmese conflict. The exposure it offers is beyond what an intellectual, academic setting could expose me to. From seeing the soothing and peaceful smiles on the red, sweaty, and shiny faces of street venders, to witnessing the cruelty of a police man unloading Burmese migrants from a bus. They probably were arrested because they didn’t have the necessary documents. These experiences informed my approach to my work during my internship this summer.  They ingrained the passion for learning about the Burmese issue in every aspect of it.

For the past four and a half weeks, I have been working with Backpack Health Worker Team. This community based organization has allowed me to learn about the Burmese conflict, interact with individuals directly affected, and get exposed to the work of extraordinary people tirelessly working to improve the health of Burmese people and in some cases risking their lives to save others.

BPHWT is an organization founded to empower local communities to provide primary healthcare services to underserved populations in conflict affected areas of Burma, particularly in areas that international humanitarian organizations cannot reach. The Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT) provides a range of medical care, community health education and prevention, and maternal and child health care services to vulnerable community members in the conflict and rural zones of Burma, where access to healthcare is otherwise unavailable. 

This summer, I am working on the 20-year report of Back Pack Health Worker Team which will be released in 2018. I am researching political and cultural events as well as changes in the Burmese government’s diplomacy. In addition, I am reading reports from BPHWT on human rights violations committed by the Burmese Military in their target areas to be able to create a timeline for their progress as an organization. This approach is based on the 2006 Chronic Emergency report, one of the very few that quantify the impact of human rights violations on health services in Burma. In other words, I am trying to understand and write the history of the creation and evolution of BPHWT for the past 20 years as a direct response to human rights violations in Burma.

Not only is this internship a unique opportunity to gain research experience in the politics of public health, it is a chance for me to be able to watch the work of self-made professionals closely. Most of the medics and staff of BPHWT are people who devoted their lives to saving others. When interviewed by Globemed volunteers, the medics spoke lightly. You couldn’t see the burdens they carried. Not only physical burdens- days of hiking trying to cross rivers and jungles while carrying heavy packs of supplies and medicines to people who need it- but the burden of responsibility that they are the ONLY ones capable of addressing the medical needs of these vulnerable groups.

As for the staff, they inspire me to value the power of self-teaching and dedication. Despite the very limited access to resources and the substantial challenges, BPHWT’s work has been highlighted by leaders in regional and international public health conferences and numerous scientific publications. The annual reports that I encountered are vibrant with valuable and well represented data. Figures, numbers, statistics, terms, and graphs that would impress even an epidemiologist.

My work with BPHWT introduced me to a complex dimension of politics. In a fast-paced, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news coverage atmosphere with rapidly changing current affairs and news content, we often forget. People living in conflict are not numbers, they are individuals with complex lives and stories. Some are worried about surviving the day, others are endangering their lives to save others. BPHWT’s work is a reminder of the numerous ardent activists working to improve the lives of their people.  BPHWT is an example of how community based organizations can lead the way of change and empowering local communities.

A personal initiative:

I am honored to have been working closely with Dr. Cynthia Maung to nominate her for the Aurora Prize 2018. She is the founder of the famous Mae Tao Clinic as well as one of the founders of BPHWT.  The Aurora Prize is a humanitarian prize launched in 2016 in the honor of the Armenian Genocide survivors. “The Aurora Prize aims to recognize and support those who risk their life, health, freedom, reputation, or livelihood to save and aid individuals that suffer as a result of today’s tragedies, especially man-conceived disasters and crimes against humanity.” This description fits Dr. Maung perfectly. Dr. Cynthia is excited to have the opportunity to advocate for the Burmese issue in an internationally recognized event that attempts to support change makers who risk their lives for the sake of others around the globe.

~ Bashar

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