Eric Curtis crop jpgAmericans offering humanitarian aid to needy Third World refugees can learn a surprising lesson: Their work is not always appreciated.

Eric Curtis, a dentist practicing in Safford, Ariz., will attest to that in a talk at the Arizona Senior Academy on Friday, July 12. His lecture and photo presentation, set to begin at 3:30 p.m., will describe the pro bono dental work he did in Mainpat, a cluster of Tibetan refugee camps in central India.

“The thing that surprised me most,” he said, “is that even as far off the grid as we were, when all treatment was free, when I was the only health provider some of the population had ever seen, when I had to pack in every single instrument I used, where there were not even any stores, for crying out loud, people still behaved like consumers. They wanted to negotiate treatment and argue about the level and quality of care they were receiving.”

Today, roughly 30 million people worldwide are uprooted from their homes. Of that number, over 10 million have crossed international boundaries seeking safe haven.  These are, by definition, “refugees.”

Tibetans constitute a persistent refugee population triggered by Chinese occupation of their country in the 1950s.  When the People’s Liberation Army actually invaded in 1959, India offered the Dalai Lama political asylum.  More than 120,000 Tibetans now live in India.

Known as “Mini Tibet,” Manipat was established in 1962 to handle a few thousand refugees.  When Tibetans first arrived, the place was a heavily forested wilderness.  With minimal assistance, they built huts that have gradually developed into traditional housing.  In 1965 a settlement school was started and later several monasteries. As elsewhere in India, Tibetan spiritual and cultural life at Manipat is flourishing, but living conditions remain primitive by Western standards.

In 2011, a Tibetan monk, Tulku Tsori Rinpoche, made contact with a group at Northern Arizona University in his ongoing efforts to find assistance for Tibetan refugees.  NAU formed a team of teachers and students to provide medical and dental services and expertise in farming and hygiene. The team included Dr. Curtis’ daughter, then a senior at NAU. She told her father about the trip, and he decided to pitch in.  While working in India, he created an impressive photographic record and learned a great deal about Tibet, Tibetan Culture and life in the camps.

He also learned a lesson for aid workers: “Volunteers shouldn’t rely on the gratitude of their target population as a measure of success or for their own sense of meaning.”

Submitted by Stan Davis, Academy Village Volunteer

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Third World Refugees Still Act ‘Like Consumers’: July 2013
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