When I arrived in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 2017, I was very conscious that I was following in the footsteps of the early Columban missionaries who ministered here from 1936 to 1979. I was 56 when I arrived here so I was never going to really master the language. However I was inspired by the words of Fr. Usher the leader of that first Columban group. At the end of their first retreat together, he said: “We are a small rather helpless bunch of inexperienced missionaries. We know little of the language and less of the customs of our people. In a human way we have nothing to recommend us or guarantee any measure of success. But we do, or at least we ought to possess a mighty weapon of the spirit – Charity. Love. If we have that God’s work here will prosper. If we haven’t that, let’s pack up our bags and go home.”
I decided that perhaps I could help in the area of addiction. If I approached it with charity and love, then God would do the rest. I asked the Bishop if I could work at the Rebirth Rehabilitation Center (RRC). The center was set up by the Myitkyina Diocese as a response to the drug epidemic. It is no exaggeration to say that every family here has one or two people struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction. It is the biggest threat facing the Kachin people and is destroying families and the culture.
I knew this would be a difficult ministry made all the more so by the precarious political and economic situation of the country. However I had faith that if I did my part and trusted in God that God would show me the way. This has proved to be the case. Even on the most difficult days when we couldn’t leave the compound and could hear shooting and explosions nearby I felt God’s presence. Whatever difficulties we faced God provided a solution. Despite all the political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic, we did not have to close the center or stop our work of offering recovery to desperate people suffering from addiction. Because of the generosity of the Columban donors we were able to complete and open the first residential center in the country for women suffering from addiction. Our first group of women clients arrived in January 2022. They were just five, but they spoke of many more women who want recovery but who until now had nowhere to go.
We were also able to install an electricity transformer and will be able to buy a badly needed new generator. Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts for your love and generosity.
My work with recovering addicts here has made me realize that many of these mostly young men and women come from poor backgrounds and have very few skills for getting employment. After they leave the center many are driven back to the jade mines or languish at home where they quickly fall back into addiction.
When they leave the center those from Myitkyina, they need a place where they can go for ongoing support and to attend Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings. Those from further away sometimes need a place to stay before they transition back to their villages.
Our hope is to set up a vocational training space in the RRC where those who have completed the initial program and the aftercare program (30 weeks) can begin to receive some vocational training. We have identified carpentry, traditional Kachin weaving, sowing working with aluminum and making iron grills as possible initial areas of training.
We also want to build a drop-in recovery center in Myitkyina on land that has been given to us for that use. This will be a place where recovering addicts can feel safe and get the support they need to stay sober outside the rehab center.
I have seen the difference vocational training can make in the life of a recovering addict. Because of your generosity I have been able to sponsor a number of young men for training in areas that will offer them a future. Our hope is to expand this program by offering onsite training in the center.
Francis (26) beamed with pride as he showed me his certificate. He had just completed his training in mobile phone repair. He will continue to study electronics. He is hopeful now about his future. This is a far cry from two years ago when he first came to the Rebirth Rehabilitation Center. He was broken by his addiction to heroin, and he felt this was his last chance to get recovery. He really embraced the program, and now he is building a future for himself free from the prison of addiction.
Bosco (30) is over two years sober. He is now an apprentice with an air conditioning maintenance firm. His boss will probably offer him a job when his training is over. His boss describes him as one of his best and most reliable trainees. Bosco describes his journey as moving from the darkness of addiction to the light of sobriety and daily recovery.
Peter (25) is over four years sober and has spent the last two years as an apprentice in a car workshop. He hopes shortly to start fulltime work in this area. He has also become a black belt in karate. He describes it as a journey from hopelessness to hope.
Yawhan (28) came to the center three years ago a broken person. His wife had left him and taken his young daughter. She couldn’t deal with the consequences of his addiction anymore. He admitted his powerlessness and surrendered to the program. Now he is doing barber training. He has discovered that he has a real talent in this area. When he completes his training and if he stays sober, he will be able to start a small barber business in his home village. Not only will he be cutting hair but also spreading the message that recovery is possible.
These young men, because of your generosity, have been able to embrace a program of recovery and get their lives back. With a vocational training space onsite and a recovery drop in center in Myitkyina we hope to expand this program and offer the men and women who come here a path productive employment and ongoing recovery.
Columban Fr. Eamon Sherdian lives and works in Myanmar.