A recent Ashland resident, a well-known aerial photographer, native of London, Fred Stockwell has chosen this distant border town not because he is an expatriate interested in the exotic, but because he has found a mission.

Mae Sot. Population 120,000. Wedged against the Thailand-Myanmar border. It is as far from Ashland as anyone can imagine. A place where, as the tropical sun breaks above the horizon each morning, monks in saffron robes appear holding their bowls for alms, and the streets quickly fill with a stunning quilt of people — Thai, Burmese, Bangladeshi and Karen. In the distance, mixed with the sounds of traffic, rhythmic chanting can be heard from the temples as older monks go through their rituals.

Mae Sot is now home to Fred Stockwell. A recent Ashland resident, well-known aerial photographer and native of London, Stockwell has chosen this distant border town not because he is an expatriate interested in the exotic, but because he has found a mission.

He spends his days at the Mae Sot dumpsite, where more than 400 people have taken refuge from the ongoing conflict in Myanmar and the state of Karen. Daily, they sift through the rubbish with their bare hands, filling bags, salvaging what they can. It's a place they call home. Their precarious shacks, made of plastic and paper and canvas and tin, dot the site and small children run and play, barefooted, smiling, ever resilient, as their parents pick through rotting piles of garbage.

It was in 2007 that Stockwell sold everything, left Ashland, and returned to Mae Sot, a city he had discovered by chance while on a photographic assignment for a non-governmental organization years earlier. And it was on that initial trip that he discovered the people of the Mae Sot dump. He vowed to return and do what he could.

But where and how to begin? He knew he was a stranger in a strange land, could not speak Thai or Burmese, and had only limited resources. It was an impulse of generosity, tempered by years of world travel.

"My first trips there (to the dump) were physically and emotionally overwhelming," Stockwell wrote in an e-mail. "The stench, poverty, and general living conditions had more impact on me than anything I had previously experienced.

"I wanted to do something, but didn't know what to do. I was faced with the common dilemma: Do I give a fish so they can eat for a day? Or do I teach them to fish, so they can live forever?"

Stockwell soon noticed that the children were walking barefooted among rats and snakes and shards of glass and metal, their feet cut, the wounds infected, open sores weeping.

"They know how to fish," he realized. "They just don't have the right equipment."

And so he decided that what the children needed were shoes, more specifically rubber boots which he found at a local store. He began making frequent trips to the dump with as many boots as he could carry. He realized he needed help and found people willing to assist, some from as far away as Ashland.

Rubber boots evolved into health care. Not only was the dump hazardous — a petri dish of hepatitis, cholera, typhoid fever, skin diseases and asthma — but the people there also suffered from malaria and dengue fever and intestinal parasites, all causing chronic illnesses and death. Malaria can be prevented by something as simple and effective as mosquito netting. Stockwell found the nets and as the weather turned cool, he located blankets as well.

Whenever Fred Stockwell arrives at the Mae Sot dump site, the children run toward his truck yelling, "The Englishman! The Englishman!" They are everywhere, playing among the orange bulldozers and garbage trucks that come and go.

Stockwell encountered one child at the site during a photographic assignment for a non-government agency.

"As I peered into one of the huts, I saw a woman holding a tiny young girl who appeared to be about 8 years old," he said. "She brought her over to me and I saw how painfully thin she was. I knew instantly she was close to death."

Stockwell touched her forehead and realized she was burning up and weighed almost nothing. He located an Australian doctor who spoke Burmese. Together they took the girl, called Song, to a local hospital where it was determined that she suffered from intestinal parasites, gave her medicine and sent her home. It was later discovered that she had tuberculosis.

Scavenging to survive

The sun is barely above the horizon at the Mae Sot dump, and already hundreds of people are combing the city's detritus, or waiting for another garbage truck to back up and drop its load of refuse. They search for anything edible, salable, reusable or recyclable. Anything that will help them survive another day.

According to the World Bank, some 2 percent of the population of the developing world survives by scavenging; many live at massive dumps bordering major cities. The phenomenon stretches from Nicaragua, to Cambodia, to Guatemala to Yemen to the Philippines and beyond. These colonies of people are evidence of a stark, grinding poverty that for most people in the first world is unimaginable.

And yet, something can be done, insists Stockwell.

"The truth is that small individuals can make a difference in a big way," he said. "All of these experiences have helped me realize that medical aid and education are the most valuable things that can be provided to people. The situations, countries and needs may differ from place to place, but one thing for sure is that individuals who are prepared to get 'their hands dirty' and provide direct assistance can and will make a difference."

Fred Stockwell can be reached directly at fred@stockwellphotos.com.