Pioneering addiction program changing Burmese refugees’ lives

Pam Rogers visiting the PWRDF office in Toronto.

Mae La Refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma Border is the last place you might expect to see a game of Ultimate Frisbee, but the sport has been a mainstay for years. The Bangkok Soi Dawz Ultimate Frisbee team has adopted the camp as their official charity and they regularly donate shirts, shoes and other equipment, as well as training.

“If you’re angry, you throw a ball. It gets it out of you,” says Pam Rogers, an addiction counsellor who moved to Thailand from Toronto in 2000 to establish an addiction recovery program in the refugee camps for displaced Ethnic People from Burma, located along the Thai border. By 2005, the group was renamed DARE (Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education Network). It remains the only substance abuse centre within the refugee and migrant population along the Thai-Burmese border. DARE currently operates in five camps as well as in the migrant community. In 2015, DARE expanded to villages across the border in Karen State, Burma.

The Frisbee program is just one of the many wellness initiatives in the camp that nurtures teens, in order to prevent the addictions that plague so many of the people living there. The most common substances abused are alcohol, methamphetamine, marijuana, opium, tobacco, glue and heroin.

Rogers has been an addiction counsellor for decades. In the ‘90s she was working at the Donwood Institute in Toronto which incorporated a wellness approach in its recovery programs. Located on the Don Valley it had access to nature and treated the whole person with lots of one-on-one contact, she says. “Then in the mid- to late-‘90s all of the mental health centre and psychiatric hospitals in Toronto amalgamated and the treatment approaches changed.” And as the treatment changed, so too did the culture, Rogers adds. “It wasn’t helpful to the client. I didn’t want to transfer that approach.”

Rogers knew a fellow activist working for the Burma Relief Centre along the Thai-Burmese border. The Burmese Refugees had been there for years. When she arrived there were about 150,000, but now it’s roughly 100,000. Rogers knew there were a lot of addiction issues in First Nations communities where people had been displaced and isolated from their culture, and she had a hunch the problem may exist there, too. Her friend wrote back quickly: “Please come.”

By 2000, after six months of assessing and learning and listening, Rogers together with the local leaders founded a recovery program, with support from the Canadian NGO Committee (including The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Burma Relief Centre and Norwegian Church Aid). Since then the work and the budget have grown and so has the support from other donors. PWRDF has continued to see the benefit of getting behind the DARE Programs.

But the real change is in the people who recover from their addiction. “The people are so happy when they recover, they didn’t know they could,” says Rogers. According to DARE statistics, the program (which is now published in a manual in Karen and Burmese languages), has a 61% non-relapse rate. Most Western addiction recovery programs average 25%. The success of the program is that it is based in the communities and run by the people of the communities.

Other numbers are also impressive: last year DARE treated 300 people in the residential and non-residential addiction recovery programs. Its education sessions on prevention have reached more than 18,000 people, and 1,700 people have participated in the community programs. Staff and volunteers also visited homes, giving support to 24,000 people.

Typical treatment in the region involves programs that “beat the addiction out of them.” Rogers wanted to combine the best of Western knowledge with other therapies known to the people such as acupuncture, traditional herbal medicine,  herbal saunas, yoga,  physical activity and nutrition, Distinct from the Western approach to addiction recovery however is the absence of medication. There is no methadone for example. People who are addicted use one thing to help everything, explains Rogers. “So we look for healthy replacements, other ways to help them. We don’t use drugs for drugs. People can actually recover.”

Besides physical activity such as tossing a Frisbee, clients work in the gardens as way to feel grounded. The treatment is also culturally appropriate, and sometimes culturally based. A woman in her 60s who arrived for treatment found great comfort in teaching the young people at the camp about Karen traditions; the young people found comfort in learning them. The generational link had been broken by war and displacement.

After nine years, Rogers realized she was able to pull away and return to Canada for six months of the year. Aside from Rogers, the centre is entirely staffed by local Karen and other ethnic people from Burma. That was always the goal, she says, for the program to be able to run without her. But she remains ever committed. “Seeing people recover is the best motivation. They worked so hard.”

For more information about DARE visit its website at darenetwork.com

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