What You Can Do for Burma

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 9:12 AM PDT

I'm back from a month of reading, presenting, and radio-interviewing about Burma, during which several people asked a question that begs to be more widely answered. So, herewith, a re-creation of how that conversation went down in Portland. In the name of scene-setting: When we get to the Q&A point in the lecture, many people are generally wincing, because the situation seems hopeless, because they can't believe something so horrible is happening outside their awareness, and, well, because by that time I'm standing in front of this picture, which is just one slide in a pretty unsettling show.

Wincing gal: [with hand raised] So what can we do? Are we just supposed to write a strong letter to our congressman?

Me: I know it sounds kind of lame to say "Write a letter to your congressman," but seriously, if you want to get involved you should really write a letter to your congress(wo)man. Many of your representatives are aware, as the Obama administration and the United Nations are aware, that ethnic cleansing abounds in eastern Burma, but it's not likely to make it to the top of anyone's agenda until politicians know it's on their constituents' agendas.

Gal: [not satisfied] Is that it?

Me: [neither this succinctly nor eloquently, but to paraphrase here] If you want to donate money, you can support refugee services in Thailand; check out the organizations providing them under the Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand. Or look at the Global Health Access Program, which funds indigenous medics, or the Free Burma Rangers' bad-ass assistance to internally displaced people in Burma's jungles; ditto the Burma Humanitarian Mission

In Seattle, one of the Free Burma Rangers was present, and he pointed out when this question inevitably came up that it takes many groups in the United States to help the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees that have been moved here. That's true. And though I talked to many an aid and advocacy organization, no one seems to be aware of any complete listing of them, so I'll report here (with links!) that a good shot of finding one is via your local chapter of the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, World Relief, or Catholic Charities. Googling a nearby International Institute or Jewish Family Service or even "Burmese refugees" alongside the name of your city is another way to turn up the people who are assisting these survivors on our soil. (You'll notice, no doubt, that a lot of them have God/church affiliations. That's the way the Burmese aid cookie largely crumbles. Had it not been for religious groups tending to the desperate needs of the Burmese, frankly, a lot more people would have starved or otherwise suffered to death in the last several decades.)

Hopefully, there will someday be a comprehensive list or umbrella organization that can direct people to all these efforts, but for now, there's a head start for those interested in helping. Other brilliant suggestions? Did I miss any groups doing something way different? Let me know, and I'll add them to the list.

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