Darkness had already fallen over the remote village in Burma when Frank and Carolyn Anello heard cowbells clanking in the distance. Slowly, the noise drew nearer.
“What’s that?” Frank wondered aloud.
The village did not have any electricity, but the couple from Colorado had brought headlamps with them. Switching them on, the Anellos aimed their beams toward the noise, illuminating the hulking frames of two oxen pulling large wooden carts.
“It’s our equipment!” Frank exclaimed.
He and Carolyn hurried toward the ox-drawn carts and saw that they were being guided by men thrashing the beasts with wooden sticks. Behind the carts, a third man followed to make sure that no dental or medical supplies that were piled on top of the carts fell out as the caravan bumped its way over the uneven dirt roads through the jungle.
That their equipment survived the trip was a sign for the Anellos that they were supposed to be in Burma.
Now, a few weeks after the co-founders of Project Worthmore — a nonprofit based in Aurora that helps refugees — returned from the trip, they are solidifying plans to set up a permanent dental and medical clinic in the Burmese village, called Mong Pa Tru, in the eastern part of the country, near the Thailand border.
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The Anellos started Project Worthmore in 2011 to help refugees from Burma, who number between 12,000 and 15,000 in Colorado and make up the largest percentage of refugees in the Centennial State. Even after Project Worthmore broadened its focus in 2013 to help refugees from all nations, the Anellos have maintained a special affinity for Burma, having visited the country multiple times and helped the local community in Colorado establish the Burmese Leadership Council, a committee of Burmese leaders from different faiths and ethnic groups that’s designed to foster community and combat pervasive problems, like domestic violence and substance abuse, that have followed some refugees to Colorado.
"They come from different struggles, and many from a horrific past that none of us can ever comprehend. Then they're put on East Colfax, and they have limited time before being on their own," Frank explains, referring to federal government assistance for refugees.
That assistance is dwindling, the executive director points out. The federal government used to provide six to eight months of financial aid to refugees admitted to the United States, but now provides just two months' worth.
Project Worthmore is filling in gaps where it can and sending aid directly to the Southeast Asian country.
Many refugees from Burma in Colorado come from a specific area called Karen State. In July, a local faith leader named Ler Mu Martin (better known as “Pastor Rocky”), who heads the Karen Baptist Church of Denver, approached Project Worthmore and asked if the nonprofit would be interested in sending supplies and a delegation to Karen State, and maybe even set up a clinic there.
Carolyn, who oversees Project Worthmore’s clinic in Aurora and is a dental hygienist, says that she had already been thinking about setting up an overseas clinic.
"But we didn't want to just go somewhere without having some sort of connection. And we wanted to be thoughtful about where we were sending people, so this [opportunity in Karen State] was a no-brainer for us," she says.
After learning that there was at least one aspiring medic that requested formal training in Mong Pa Tru, the Anellos packed a bunch of dental and medical supplies and set off for the village during the last week of October with Pastor Rocky, Dr. Manisha Makhija from Project Worthmore’s Aurora clinic, two dental hygienists, and the Anellos' two children, ages twelve and nine.
Even getting to the village proved to be an adventure. First they rode on special trucks across the two-mile no-man's-land between Thailand and Burma, then took different trucks on a dirt road for eight hours through both Burmese and Karen military checkpoints, then went on a two-hour boat ride, followed by a two-hour hike, and finally arrived in the village after a thirty minute scooter ride.
When they arrived in Mong Pa Tru, the village elder — who is 72 and has lived in the village since its founding — told the Anellos that the last time a Westerner had visited was in 1978, when a group had come through while doing education work in Karen State.
“They’re really cut off,” Frank explains.
Karen State is governed by a separatist regime called the Karen National Union that currently has a cease-fire agreement (signed in 2012) with the Burmese military. The armed conflict between the two groups had raged off and on throughout Karen State since 1949, but there hasn't been fighting in the Mong Pa Tru region since 1997. Still, masses of Karen natives have been displaced, similar to what the Rohingya are experiencing in Rakine State, which is on the opposite, western side of Burma (a situation that both the United States and the UN are classifying as ethnic genocide).
Even today, many Karen people live in refugee camps in their home country. “Some have been in the refugee camps for twenty years,” Frank explains. “There's schools and community that's been developed [in the camps]…but in many villages, there are no clinics, no schools that go past fourth grade, or opportunity.”
Mong Pa Tru also has no electricity (save for the power that comes from the village's sole, ancient generator), and the closest clinic that serves the 750 to 1,000 residents of the village and about ten surrounding ones is an eight-hour journey away.
Project Worthmore wants to change that.
When the nonprofit delegation was in Mong Pa Tru a few weeks ago, it provided dental care to 88 patients (giving hygiene services to 36, extracting 98 teeth and completing 35 fillings). The Anellos and crew trained three medics, including the 24-year-old village native who had recently returned to Mong Pa Tru after studying at a university in Mandalay. Once Project Worthmore's clinic is complete, she will staff it full-time.
"We were training them to take care of themselves, not just be a one-time thing, or say we'll be back in a year and do it again," explains Carolyn.
Project Worthmore's clinic in Burma currently has only a foundation and roof. The nonprofit plans to raise $5,000 to complete its outer walls, partitions and guest quarters, and install solar panels for electricity.
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"During our next trip, our hope is to send out a medical team as well,” adds Frank. “The clinic could be completed by October or November 2018.”
That is, unless their plans are derailed by war or the government.
"I know there are risks — that we could set something up and the Burmese government could take it down,” says Carolyn. “But to not do it and have people suffer because that could be risky, I think it's better to go ahead and start to do some development work, which is what the people asked us to do.... It's not like we're coming in and saying, 'You need this.' They asked us to come, so we're just providing what expertise we have that will hopefully be of some help."
"Patients and clients of Project Worthmore [in Colorado] know how far it is to get to this place," Frank adds. "And we're not going to step away and not do it because of what might happen in the future.... This is what we're meant to do."