May 1st, 2019
Dr Sasa and Baroness Cox – A Story of Health and Hope
As a child, Dr Sasa lost many friends to a real and hidden crisis in Chin State, Western Burma. With a severe lack of access to healthcare and education in his community, he witnessed his parents taken for forced labour, women and their babies dying in childbirth, and the people around him suffering from sickness and disease.
Sasa aspired to become Chin State’s first doctor. At the age of fourteen and, only speaking his native Chin language, he travelled to Yangon where he learned Burmese and completed his secondary education. Then, support from villagers in Leilenpi and money raised from the sale of cows and chickens sent him to India for pre-clinical studies. Finally, in 2008, Dr Sasa completed his medical degree in Armenia, qualifying as Chin State’s first and only doctor.
During Dr Sasa’s final year in Armenia, a phenomenon known as ‘Mautam’ left a trail of devastation across Chin State. A species of bamboo, blossoming once every fifty years, had attracted large populations of rats which destroyed crops and created a famine that would last for five years. In response, Dr Sasa set up a makeshift clinic on the India-Burma border, where he treated 3500 patients for malnutrition and disease. He also reached a further 120,000 people with £1.5 million in food aid that he had secured from the UK Government.
Since then, Dr Sasa has transformed healthcare in ethnic states across Burma; his dedicated team continue to increase humanitarian access to areas where there was no medical help for people and their communities. Health and Hope has now trained over 1000 community health workers from 500 villages across Burma, saving the lives of eight out of ten people who would have previously died.
Read the remarkable story of Dr Sasa’s friendship with ‘Mama Caroline’ Baroness Cox below, as told in his own words:
When Baroness Cox heard about me, she was told I was someone she should meet – a very confused boy living in Armenia, who was hoping to train as a doctor to bring help to his people.
She wrote a letter asking to meet me and, on the day she arrived in Yerevan, I was terrified. The thought almost made me run away – but when I saw a woman wearing short sleeves and a backpack, I thought, this must be her secretary. This cannot be Baroness Cox.
From that moment, I have called her Mama Caroline. She flew me by helicopter to Karabakh. I thought it was a dream or something from my imagination, but it was real. We spent two weeks together, and I was invited to London at Christmas.
When I arrived in London, the police at Heathrow airport arrested me. I showed them my letter of invitation and they asked me how I knew Baroness Cox. I was detained at the airport prison.
Baroness Cox came to immigration and rescued me. She gave me a small flower; I had never been given a flower before. In my village we just let them bloom on the trees. I did not know how to hold it, so I held it as I would carry a chicken – by its feet, upside down.
I remember my first experience of the London underground. I felt very lost, it was like a jungle. I was so scared that I did not follow Mama Caroline onto the tube. Then, the doors closed, and she left without me.
I was lost in London. All those years ago, I could not speak English well. I did not know what to do. She asked the police: “Please, find my boy”.
When the police came, I did not want to talk to them because they had just arrested me at Heathrow airport. I was hiding from them.
“Are you Sasa?” they asked.
I thought all of the police force had been informed about me, and I did not trust them, but I eventually let them take me to her.
I have been to London many times since then. I have had chocolate and very good tea in Prince Charles’ house. When my chance came, I told Prince Charles about the bamboo famine, a once in a lifetime event. Rats are attracted to the bamboo flower, multiply, and end up eating all the crops. The farmers had no food left.
Prince Charles told me he must supply medicine. I was surrounded by his doctors who gave me lots of medicine and multivitamins. I turned up at Heathrow with 300kg of multivitamins. The police at the airport came to me again.
They asked “What is this, Sir?”
I said that I had just met Prince Charles yesterday, and they asked me if I was feeling okay.
I had to show them a picture for them to believe me, and when I did, they let me go. In Delhi, the police were waiting for me. But I managed to get through with the medicine.
At the Burma – India border, a lot of Chin State people came to me. I checked them and treated those who were suffering from the famine. Baroness Cox also came to that border. I was not allowed to cross into Burma because I could have been arrested.
I was based in a small village in India called Chapi. It is a very small village about a mile away from Chin State. I thought to myself, there are so many people to treat and there is no other doctor. I am the only one. I must train Community Health Workers.
I asked Mama Caroline to open a training centre and I started training 400 people. The training was successful, with people from over 300 villages across Burma walking through the jungle to learn. It was tough, because I was watched every day by the Indian and Burmese armies.
Some years later, when Mama Caroline told me she was coming to visit Leilenpi, I did not know how to get her there. I learned to drive only three days before she arrived.
The journey was so tough. I think she thought I would drive off the edge of the road, so I stayed in second gear the whole time. 20 hours later, we arrived at my village. We were so dusty from the road that all the people in the village could not tell which one of us was Mama Caroline.
I told her that I had faith that Leilenpi would one day get an airport; six days travelling from Yangon takes too long.
So, we found a place to cut trees and to make way for an air strip. On a rock, I wrote ‘Leilenpi Airport: Constructed by the people of Leilenpi, inaugurated by Baroness Cox of the UK.” She even cut a ribbon.
When my villagers saw her, and that she had come to hear our stories, they cried. She brought hope where there was no hope. She was doing something where there was nothing, and when she speaks for us, people listen.
Baroness Cox’s comment on Dr Sasa and his lifelong mission:
The community was desperate for healthcare in those remote villages in Chin State. Desperate as they were for a doctor to be trained, Sasa was sent to Rangoon for education, where he lived in abject poverty.
He was then sent to India, living again in abject poverty, working on construction sites to survive while learning Hindi and English. He then studied medicine in Armenia, learning his sixth language and script. That’s where I had the privilege of meeting Sasa.
He qualified in June ten years ago, and by November he had gone back to his people. Thick jungle was cleared, and the Health and Hope centre was built.
He had textbooks sent up from Rangoon. For five to seven days, people walked through the jungle to neighbouring villages as messengers, and from 373 villages, hundreds of students came to train as community health workers. A year later they qualified and were able to treat and prevent diseases. They now reach a quarter of a million people. Dr Sasa is a true hero of the peace.
Support Dr Sasa’s mission to save lives in Burma:
In April the HART team visited Shan State in Burma and met some of the Community Health Workers that we have been supporting through our partner SWAN. As we talked with the health workers, a critical need emerged.
These dedicated, self-sacrificing volunteers act as midwives in remote areas, but have no idea of how to deal with breach births. As a result, many babies – and sometimes even mothers – die in a forlorn attempt to reach a hospital many hours away.
And yet the answer is close at hand. Dr Sasa spent five years working with a British doctor to create a handbook for Burmese midwives which is more than 95% pictures. It can be used by health workers from any language group, and even by those who are illiterate.
As an immediate, life-saving response, HART aims to buy 1000 copies of this handbook and to transport them to Shan State for use by the Community Health Workers. Each handbook costs $10 or £7.50.
If you feel drawn to support our work financially, this would be one great way to do it. https://www.hart-uk.org/donate
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