Friday, January 19, 2007

Bringing some hope to a land of oppression

Into a land of abuse and repression, a Memphis woman goes with God
By David Waters
Contact
January 16, 2007

After spending a quiet holiday with her parents in East Memphis, Meredith Walsh went back to her work last week at a remote clinic three miles from one of the world's grimmest police states.

It took her 69 hours -- including 50 in the air and nine on a bus -- to get there. Along the way, she found time to read "Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop," a journalist's account of the brutal oppression in Burma's past and present.

Meredith lives and works in Thailand near its border with Burma, whose military regime has been condemned by the

United States and the United Nations. When Meredith left Wednesday, she knew that as she moved farther from Memphis, her fellow travelers would smile less and interest her more.

"It's much harder now to come back home to Memphis than to go," said Meredith, 28, who spent the first 18 years of her life in the relative comfort and safety of East Memphis, where her parents told her to think about using her life to serve God and others, not herself.

"Now that feels more like home than Memphis. It just feels like where I need to be."

Meredith has been working along the Thai-Burma border since the summer of 2005. These are dark times in Burma, a nation the size of Texas with more than twice the population. Civil war has raged for years. The army overthrew the government in 1989, changed the country's name to Myanmar, and refused to recognize a national election won by the opposition. Opposition leader -- and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner -- Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest since 1989.

Rebel groups continue to battle the military regime, which has recruited more child soldiers than any other country. Hundreds of dissidents have been jailed, thousands of villages destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Several million Burmese have fled the country. Tens of thousands of them live in refugee camps in Thailand. Land mines are planted everywhere.

Thailand isn't much safer than Burma. In September, the military overthrew the government. On Dec. 31, bombs exploded at six places in Bangkok. Two more exploded the next day. Three people were killed and dozens injured. The U.S. state department is warning travelers to Bangkok to avoid large gatherings.

"The whole thing amazes us," said Meredith's father, Tom Walsh, an attorney.

"In some ways, Meredith is very different from her parents... It never crossed our minds to be so adventurous and self-sacrificing as to go to remote places in the world, to live without modern conveniences, and to serve others in extreme and sometimes dangerous situations."

Soldiers and rebels aren't the only threats along the Burma-Thai border. Burma's military junta spends 40 times more on weapons than on health care and education. The World Health Organization says Burma is one of the least effective countries in the world in delivering health care to its citizens.

Much of the population lives without basic sanitation or running water. Burmese have some of the highest infant mortality rates and shortest life expectancies in the world. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria are growing problems.

Meredith, who has a master's degree in public health from Tulane University, is a technical adviser in the reproductive health program at the Mao Tao Clinic. She helps pregnant refugees in Thailand and inside Burma. The clinic has five physicians and 200 other staff members who see 100,000 patients a year.

"There is a world waiting for acts of compassion, healing and reconciliation, qualities by which I characterize Meredith," said Dr. Paul Dekar, a family friend and a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary.

"Meredith is no mere dreamer. She has acquired experience, knowledge and skills that shape her work with the Burma Medical Association, work that ultimately contributes to bringing the beloved community into being, a world free of war and the things that make for war."

Meredith grew up at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church, where she learned to look for God's hope and love in the most unexpected places. She helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity and deliver MIFA's Meals on Wheels. She provided child care at women's shelters.

In the summer of 1996, her youth group went to the Heifer Project's Global Village in Arkansas to experience for a day what it would be like to live in a Third World village.

She wanted to stay longer.

"The community of faith at Prescott gave me a lens to look at the world through a giving hand, to always be giving back to the community because that's what Jesus taught us to do," Meredith said.

"My faith is as much a part of me as blues and barbecue and baseball."

To get back to work last week, she flew from Memphis to Detroit to Japan to Taiwan. She spent the first night in the air, the second in Taipei. Friday she flew to Thailand and spent the third night in Bangkok. Saturday, she rode a bus nine hours to Mae Sot, a town near the Burma border.

When she got off the bus, she walked about three miles to her small house, dropped her bags and rode her bike to her office. Then she went to a friend's house to retrieve her cat, Frankie, rescued from a nearby refugee camp.

When she got back to her house, stretched out on the hammock on her porch, popped the top on a Leo beer, and celebrated her return by watching the sun set on Burma.

Meredith rides her bike to work. She has a desk and a shelf in a small room with windows on three sides. She greets co-workers by saying "Mingalaba" in Burmese or "Wallagay" in Karen -- the language of the largest and most oppressed ethnic minority in Burma.

About once a week, so goes to a migrant community along the border, or she crosses the border and goes into Burma. She visits traditional birth attendants to talk about safe delivery practices and delivers family planning supplies. She also visits makeshift clinics and talks to health workers there about recent deliveries and complications. She drinks a lot of Burmese tea and sees a lot of suffering.

This isn't Meredith's first journey into a humanitarian crisis on the other side of the world. After college she joined the Peace Corps and spent three years living in a bamboo hut in the jungles of the Philippines, teaching children to read. When she left in 2003, she came back to America and went to graduate school. She knew she wouldn't stay long.

"I got frustrated and eager to get back out there and get my hands dirty again. It's not an easy life but people there rely on each other more for the basic necessities of life -- food, transportation, security. The community is much more important than the individual.

"It's not an easy life. It just seems a richer, more meaningful existence."

Faith Matters explores the spiritual side of people, events and topics in the news. If you have a story idea, contact David Waters by e-mail or at 529-2399.

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