International Volunteer at Thabarwa Centre, Myanmar

It was my last volunteering project in SEA and though I was quite prepared and excited before starting my previous projects, I was definitely not prepared for Thabarwa. The environment took me completely by surprise and I need it some time to adjust to it. Thabarwa is a non-profit humanitarian organization established in 2008 by Sayadaw Ottamasara, a monk, who envisioned a safe haven for all the people who needed help. The centre in Thanlyin, Myanmar is home to more than 3000 people, including the sick, old, blind, deaf, disabled, homeless, people who don’t fit in – everyone is accepted and offered food, accommodation and meditation teachings – free of charge, without restrictions. It’s the perfect place for doing “good deeds” people will tell you. And it is, but it’s not easy – unless your detachment ability is really high up.

“Pagoda Party” activity

I entered through the gates on that hot afternoon expecting to find a monastery. There was a line of outdoor chairs lined up the hill with countless people resting on them. A man approached me and asked where i’m going. “Thabarwa?” i asked quite unsure as the mental image i had in my mind was of a monastery and somehow i couldn’t see any in my immediate surroundings. “This is Thabarwa” he said waving his hands all around us. “All of it?” i asked surprised. “Yes!” And then i realized that what i was looking for wasn’t just a building on a small piece of land – it was an entire community, a small village really, that started slow and steady and grew to be considered home by more than 3000 people in dire need of help.

Community Living

After stopping at the registration office, i found the dorm, dropped my backpack and walked on the balcony to look at the world below me. This was something different. It felt like i landed in a complete foreign place that was so disconnected from the outside world. It was time to yet again, become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

There are countless ways volunteers can help at the centre. First of all – all the people who wish to volunteer can just show up and stay for as long or as little as they want. Accommodation, food, meditation, retreats and occasional lessons are also included free of charge. We could use our time to do anything we wanted but for a more structured approach there is a system put in place where we could choose what activities we wanted to join for the day.

Alms, Patient Care, Patient washing, Dancing, Daily walks, English lessons, Physiotherapy, Cooking – are just a few of the activities meant to bring some light into the residents lives. Without doubt my favourite activity was Alms where we got the chance to join the monks in the morning to collect food & money from near-by villages.

Ready for Alms

We would start early in the morning and arrive in one of the villages or districts close to Yangon, leave our shoes in the truck and start walking in a line next to the monks. In front of us dozens of people will be waiting in front of their houses with food or money to give to the monks. The giving and receiving is being done barefoot and it’s such a humbling experience to see how people give and teach their children to do so too selflessly. The food is then used to feed all the people in the centre and the majority of the money is used for the centre’s development. And there was A Lot of food. Trucks full of food will be returning back to the centre by 11am. It was a beautiful way to experience the Buddhism culture and be a part of their traditions that are carried on throughout generations.

Morning rice washing

People smile. People enjoy life. People make the best of the situation. And i’m saying this because i entered in a state of shock when i realized how people at Thabarwa live. There is the Rainbow Hospital that is home to some hundreds of men, there is the Josephine Hall that is home to dozens of women, there is the White Hospital, the Intensive Care house, the HIV house and the Tuberculosis house, there is…there is…there is… As i mentioned before everyone is accepted and everyone receives help. A lot of people will spend the rest of their lives in this community.

Josephine Hall- home for dozens of women

In these buildings maybe about 50-100 people will share the same hall, with beds lined up next to each-other and a lot of the times people sleep without any mattresses- just on hard wooden or metal boards.

Just a tiny piece of the Rainbow Hospital

Don’t make it about yourself” my friend who volunteered there previously told me when I reached out to ask for help on how to accept the reality that was hitting me right in the face. Truth is, everything I was seeing was tearing my soul apart and my mind was trying to deny the whole environment – however all I needed to do is to see and understand how strong, funny, courageous and great all the people living there are.

Neighbourhood House

It was time to accept that Thabarwa is a safe haven. No matter how harsh the surroundings might seem, all the people there are well taken care off, they have a roof over their heads, food, medication and help whenever they need. It was also time to accept that Myanmar is not a first world country and the living conditions won’t be the same as with what i am used to.

A good night sleep

The residents “normal” is way different than what we consider “normal” and it’s quite fascinating to stay on the sidelines and witness the way of life of a complete different culture.

Entrance to the “bachelor pad”, home to about 5 teenage boys

It’s almost magical to see life thrive in this community. There is a convenience store, traditional pharmacy, library, a couple of restaurants with big TV’s, fruit shake stands, children playing and goofing around, plenty of dogs, kitties and cows, people smiling while smoking a cigarette or chewing on betel. There is something happening every day, be it good or bad- we’ve seen both.

Mischievous childhood.

There are a lot of things to improve and even more projects to develop. Luckily, a great team of people and long-term volunteers are working relentlessly to bring a positive change in the community. The smiles you get from all the people you get to help break any language barrier and at the same time it’s inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded volunteers who are there to make a change and leave their own mark in the world.

Ready to Roll

Volunteering at Thabarwa gave me the opportunity to see what is the outcome when you take all the people who need help and put them in one place. It’s humbling and inspiring. It’s also Possible. Myanmar set an example that other countries don’t follow yet. Instead of letting people live on the streets, why not build a safe haven and treat everyone as human beings and not as someone who in the eyes of society is “less than”? Again, It’s already a proven fact that – It’s possible. Luckily, the project is expanding and Thabarwa centres are being opened around the world following the same principle and mission. One thing I’ve learned is that ignorance will take us only that far. People need help and we have the ability to help. So why don’t we? Even a simple word or a smile can make all the difference in the world.

May all living beings be full of love and kindness; May all living beings be healthy and free of physical pain; May all living being be happy, content and free!

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