The small village is like many others in the area. It’s isolated, poor and primitively constructed. It’s also got a serious problem: residents here have been uprooted and relocated, and now they have no source of fresh drinking water.
At another village, thousands of homeless have taken up residence at the local garbage dump, where they forage for whatever food they can find.
Meanwhile, a nearby orphanage struggles to find a way to support the children who live within its walls.
Though these children are without many of the basic comforts, they still count themselves among the fortunate. The girls could just as easily be forced to work in brothels, and the boys are often pressed into military service.
These are just a few of the reasons why Ralph Newton-White keeps returning to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), a southeast Asian country with a population of more than 55 million people.
The 86-year-old Victoria resident has been making regular trips there since the late 1990s, doing what he can to offer help and hope to those who need it most.
“They are among the poorest people in the world, and also receive the least amount of charity than anywhere else because of sanctions and that sort of thing,” Newton-White explains.
Over the years, Newton-White’s mission has taken on a variety of forms. He’s given roosters and hens to orphanages so they can produce a sustainable food supply, provided walking sticks to children at a school for the blind, and in the case of the village without drinking water, helped acquire pipes and the equipment to connect them to a nearby spring.
Of particular concern to Newton-White is Myanmar’s large population of orphans and abandoned children. His aid philosophy is simple.
“The best thing I found was to try to empower the people who looked after the orphanages so that they would be as economically independent as possible,” he says, “because if they depended entirely on charity and the charity dried up, they would be out of luck totally.”
Newton-White travels on a tourist visa, which allows him to remain in the country for up to 28 days at a time. His work is largely self-financed, though he has had a few donors pitch in along the way.
Being unaffiliated with large charities has its benefits. Myanmar is ruled by an oppressive military regime which has imposed numerous restrictions to ward off foreign influence.
Newton-White chooses not to involve himself in the political side of things, instead simply doing what he can to improve the lives of as many people as possible.
It’s given him a new perspective on the concept of happiness.
“The people seem to be happy, and they have absolutely nothing to be happy about,” he says. “They’ve learned to live in the moment, right now, because the past was horrible … and they’re a lot happier than people here.”
Newton-White, who had open heart surgery in 2004 and is legally blind, scoffs at the notion that someone his age should be spending their golden years taking it easy.
“That’s what’s keeping me alive. It gives my life meaning. What I would not like is to be in a nursing home,” he says.
“I find it very gratifying to be able to be there with them. It’s a life-changing experience.”
How you can help
Ralph Newton-White is planning to make his next trip to Myanmar in January, and he recently founded a charity that he hopes will help him expand his efforts.
With that in mind, the Orphan Asia Society is holding a fundraiser Saturday (Nov. 19) at St. John’s Hall, 925 Balmoral Rd. The event runs from 4 to 9 p.m., and features an Asian dinner (served at 6 p.m.), silent auction and live music. Newton-White will also speak at the benefit, along with other guest speakers.
Tickets cost $25, and can be purchased by calling Peggy at 250-595-2335,
Stephanie at 250-380-0321, or Eileen at 778-433-7313.