Volunteer in Vientiane: A Double-Edged Sword

The people of Laos have been through horrible times. In recent history, nothing has been much worse than the peripheral war that took place within its borders: a violent, destructive spillover of the Vietnam War which left Lao villages in ruin, lives shattered, and a vast chunk of land littered with undetonated bombs that, to this day, hold the potential to explode at the slightest contact, tearing apart the flesh and bone of anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast radius.

Laos is probably the poorest country that Teresa and I visited, but you wouldn’t know it from the faces aglow with peace, serenity, and cheer. Any opportunity to make a little extra money to feed a family is firmly grasped, despite the potentially fatal dangers that go along with some of the activities involved in doing so. One of these activities is the collection and sale of scrap metal. One of the most abundant source? UXOs, or unexploded ordinance…leftover bombs that the Americans dropped on anything that moved in certain areas of Laos (particularly Central to Southeast), despite the unlikelihood of its military nature. Carpet bombing, they call it; it left countless dead, wounded, or homeless.

Its legacy continues to cause death and destruction as women, men, and even small children unearth and gather these undetonated bombs with the intent of disabling them if they’re still active and selling the parts for as much as they can get. In a land where the majority of faucet water is undrinkable, and food is often scarce, any opportunity to turn a profit is seized with vigilance. Children are raised in this impoverished society and are often compelled to do their part in assisting the family with funds.

Those victimized by the widespread existence of UXOs face a number of struggles in their recovery, assuming they live to face these challenges at all. One of these challenges is finding workable prosthetics that would allow them to continue to live out their lives at a capacity even close to what they were used to before losing an arm, or both legs. One place in Vientiane that provides these kind of hopeful possibilities is called the Cope Centre.

We traveled to the Cope Centre with the intent of offering our time for some volunteer work, but upon our arrival, we soon discovered that volunteer work in Laos had become severely restricted in recent years. In order to combat the threat of child predators, work visas and criminal background checks from the volunteers’ respective country have become a prerequisite for official volunteer work. Also, very few agencies allow travelers to just waltz in and offer a day or two of service; they’re looking for a more long term commitment (hence the newly required work visas). This vastly limited our options in terms of providing any kind of services we may have been capable of, and I completely understand the reasoning behind these requirements (although I believe that there are some financial/monetary reasons as to the government-imposed restrictions, as well).

We were really disappointed at our inability to volunteer here, but it wouldn’t be our last opportunity to give back in some way on our travels. In the meantime, we were able to spend a good amount of time at the Cope Centre, educating ourselves on the scars left behind from years of war and how persistent poverty has exacerbated these scars, making them that much more difficult to heal. Access to prosthetics is a real problem, and many who have lost limbs are forced to create makeshift stumps out of whatever solid material they are able to gather. In a society where a great deal of income derives from agriculture, it feeds into a shitty cycle where victims are unable to work to make the money they need for a better implant because they have no choice but to use a subpar one, which in turn makes it difficult or impossible to work. The Cope Centre has helped to drastically reduce the cost for many individuals when it comes to the need for prostheses that have been designed and manufactured with a far greater level of quality.

The stories that were told to us are, I think, what made Teresa feel like Laos had become closer to her heart than anywhere else we traveled. It really stuck with her and she still talks about going back for an extended period of time, to get that work visa, and to volunteer as much time as she can. I’d go back with her any day; Laos is not a difficult place to fall in love with, and we were in the core of it. What we experienced was truly inspirational.

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