Hannah is volunteering with Free Burma Rangers.
Web designer by night. Volunteer by day.
At night I work, designing websites remotely for faraway clients.
During the day, I volunteer with the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a Christian organization that assists ethnic people oppressed by conflict in Burma. I help by providing tech support. Computers aren’t glamorous, but good communications are indispensable.
Follow me while I contribute to the Free Burma Rangers mission.
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is Christian humanitarian movement bringing help, hope and love to people in Burma, Iraq, and Syria.
There are over 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Burma. These are ethnic people who have fled their villages to escape conflict but remain inside Burma’s borders. FBR has trained over 70 multi-ethnic relief teams to provide them with assistance. This includes help on medical, material, educational, and spiritual lines.
Western volunteers like me help a core group of staff, led by Dave Eubank, to organize and coordinate FBR’s efforts. There’s a lot to be done, and if you want to make a real, immediate difference, this is the way to do it.
In 2017, FBR’s 70 teams reached over 30,000 IDPs across Burma.
Read more about how FBR started and what it does
As villages burned in the wake of the Burma Army and thousands of ethnic people fled their homes, Dave Eubank jammed as many medical supplies as he could into a pack and plunged into Burma. He went to offer medical assistance, help defend refugees, share the Gospel—anything he could do. Soon after, he turned his vision into a movement: the Free Burma Rangers.
That was in 1997. Today, FBR has grown from a single man to many multi-ethnic relief teams who do what Dave Eubank did and more. They provide medical relief, of course. But they also hold educational classes, provide material support where they can, and do Christian outreach. By some estimates, there are over 500,000 IDPs in Burma. The need for relief is critical, immediate, and ongoing.
The situation in Burma (Myanmar) is ugly and complicated. Dozens of different ethnic groups live on land rich with jade, rubies, rivers, and other high-value resources. And for decades, the Burma Army has fought them for it. In some areas the fighting has come to a stalemate as different ethnic groups maintain their defenses, but true peace is unlikely to be found soon.
In addition to relief teams, FBR runs a permanent Jungle School of Medicine, holds Good Life Club programs for children, and acts as a watchdog for human rights abuses. And Dave Eubank’s vision has drawn him into other countries where relief is also desperately needed: Sudan, Iraq, and Syria. In 2015, Dave and his family traveled to Mosul and Raqqa to defend against the Islamic State.
Outside the conflict zones, dozens of Western volunteers like me help a core group of staff—also volunteers—keep all these efforts running. At the main office, staff write human rights reports, prepare lessons plans, plan shipments of medical supplies, organize fundraising events, and much more.
The name of our supporting foundation [Free the Oppressed] is inspired by the words of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Dave Eubank
what FBR does
where I come in
I graduated from Patrick Henry College in 2017 with an International Politics and Policy degree. The first thing I did was get on the road and travel. Working as a web designer, I roadtripped the US East Coast and took a side trip overseas.
While traveling, I met Jessica, a medical volunteer with Free Burma Rangers. Jessica told me all about FBR. It seemed like exactly the kind of thing I wanted to support and contribute to: a Christian humanitarian organization helping refugees affected by war and conflict. I decided to join them.
I quickly found my niche. Another volunteer and I developed a new Information Technology department and started putting software and systems in place to meet critical communication needs. Information technology needed a lot of development and in six months we only scratched the surface.
Over the holidays I took a break to visit my family, but now I’m heading back to FBR and planning on working with them through the summer. I’m excited and grateful to be a part of their mission. As an IT person, none of my work will directly treat children shot by ISIS, feed internally displaced people in Burma, or appear in reports to the State Department… but my work helps all the other volunteers who make those things happen and I’m glad to help out in whatever way I can.
These are some of the projects I worked on.
Read more about what volunteering at FBR was like
At first, I didn’t know where to start. When it comes to things to do, new volunteers at FBR are expected to step up and tackle things on their own. This quickly reveals which volunteers have grit and imagination, but it also leads to some interesting side results.
As I asked around, I was amazed at how much things seemed to run on sheer guts and vision—and sometimes only that. Volunteers worked using whatever ad-hoc method came to hand. Systems could change from one volunteer and month to the next. People communicated using a dozen different platforms. Things got done, but working with FBR felt a little like getting lost in a corn maze.
Challenging volunteers is one thing, but in the end the laissez-faire attitude toward organization hurt more than it helped. FBR, I thought, needs a centralized place for the team to communicate and store all our documents.
At that point I knew I’d found my challenge. I and another volunteer plunged in, bootstrapping a new Information Technology department.
Over several months, we streamlined communication systems and started centralizing and sharing scattered content. By the end of the year and after much trial and error, the new systems were in place and beginning to make a difference.
acquired Google Suites for team collaboration
one place to work on joint projects
FBR volunteers and staff used personal Google accounts to collaborate on documents and share information. This worked fine, but created problems when volunteers left. They would take their content with them and FBR had no control over where it went or how to recover it. A lot of institutional knowledge left this way.
I applied for Google Suites for Business, which is free for nonprofits, and set up Team Drives for each department. Then I created accounts for everyone in the office and began helping them migrate their content into the Team Drives.
Using Team Drives to store work projects caught on slowly, but I successfully migrated the Finance and Patient Care departments. With more persistence and patience, I’ll be able to help other departments transition too.
centralized team communication on Slack
finally able to reach the whole team
One of the most difficult things as a new volunteer was just trying to contact people. One person you might reach on Facebook, another on WhatsApp. The Thais preferred using LINE. Some people were only reachable by email. You could only get their contact info by getting it from someone else. My inbox pinged dozens of times a day as volunteers hit “Reply All” to chain emails.
At my regular job I used Slack, a communication software designed specifically for business teams and workgroups. I set up Slack for FBR and persuaded other volunteers to join. It was slow going and I met with some initial resistance—”Not another messaging app!”—but after a few months the whole office ended up using it. While Slack hasn’t replaced all other apps, it is used frequently, has reduced chain email traffic, and provides a guaranteed way to reach someone.
set up professional email addresses
write everyone @freeburmarangers.org
I coordinated with FBR’s webmaster to set up email accounts hosted on Google. All long-term staff received a professional email address: their name @ freeburmarangers.org.
cleaned and fixed computers
cleaning up frustrations
provided on-call tech help
troubleshooting is my favorite
My favorite part of this was just being on-call. I love being able to fix things for people. It always made my day when someone would walk up with a device and say, “Hey, I’ve got a problem,” and I could respond, “Yes, I can help with that!”
planned projects for 2019
These are some of the things I can see need to be done and would love to do.
set up inventory software for medical supply
Bimonthly medical shipments to JSMK can be a struggle. No digitized inventory exists. Purchasing supplies, storing them, sorting them for shipment, and then shipping them is a baffling process without written guidelines. Predicting upcoming needs is difficult without inventory records, and crucial items are often understocked.
I plan on acquiring and setting up inventory software to track stock and shipments. This is a much-needed project to streamline medical supply and reduce expenses.
configure field computers to save on satellite bills
While on mission, FBR teams carry around a terminal that allows them to access the internet via satellite. Each megabyte of data costs a whopping $6! Monthly bills can run hundreds of dollars, if not thousands.
I’ve been asked to optimize field computers to reduce data usage as much as possible to keep satellite internet bills low.
write down standard operating procedures for new volunteers
FBR doesn’t have training documentation. Instructions for tasks are passed on verbally. When volunteers who know how to do something leave, their knowledge leaves with them.
This presents a big learning curve to new volunteers, adding hours of work to tasks. Volunteer work is prone to being duplicated, lost, or left undone. A lot of time is wasted on training new people.
I plan on going to each department in FBR and writing down how-to guides and training manuals detailing their workflows, and then saving them online.
integrate technology into standard operating procedures
Many departments rely on paper records or clunky spreadsheets to manage tasks. Some departments use software to help manage information, but these systems can be made more efficient.
I plan on working with different departments to find the best ways to integrate appropriate technology with their work. My goal is to make shared information and tasks archivable, searchable, and easier to complete. It’s also very important that these systems can be sustained when they pass from volunteer to volunteer.
protect video and photo archives by storing them in the cloud
Decades of photo and video footage collected by ethnic teams are stored on an old server in the office. The server is low on space. The archives also haven’t been backed up to cloud storage, making them vulnerable to loss.
I plan to archive all data on Google cloud servers, which we have through Google Suites.
organize video and photo archives
FBR’s archived photos and videos aren’t organized. It’s difficult to locate media from a certain date or event since the only option is to open each folder to see what’s inside.
Sorting and labeling years of media is a huge task, but it has to start sometime. Even spending a few hours a week on it will help chip away at this important task.
train team volunteers to use comms systems
Everyone has accounts on Google and Slack, but not everyone knows how to use them. Without continued training, the system will stop being used. I’ll host mini training sessions to teach anyone interested how to use the software.
Free Burma Rangers is a fascinating place to be and I’m always running into something new and interesting.
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On June 11, The Irrawaddy, an independent media outlet in Myanmar, ran a story about the Free Burma Rangers being banned from Myanmar by the Tatmadaw (Burma Army). It included several quotes from military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun. The article immediately circulated around the FBR office, with reactions ranging from surprise to outright laughter.
A few weeks ago I got some new assignments in reporting and publications! I’ve wanted to get into the information department for a while, but it was pretty full last year and didn’t have any extra work. Now a few volunteers have left and there’s also more to do. Late March, another volunteer handed off KIA incident reporting to me, and another asked me to help redesign an old website.
“For a million villagers in Burma, running is not a choice.” That’s the tagline on the posters for Run for Relief, FBR’s annual fundraising 5k. Every March, runners participate in a 5k to raise money and awareness for Burmese refugees. You can run with sneakers or, as suggested, with flipflops – to remember refugees who have to flee from their villagers every year with flipflops or even no shoes at all. For the ethnics, of course, running is not a choice.
“Half an hour before sunset, the burning starts.” This is a short story I wrote last year when burning season started in Chiang Mai, and I regret to say that the smoke is just as bad as ever. Last year I was housesitting someone else’s place on the outskirts of the city, and from where I stood, I couldn’t see Doi Suthep mountain – 5498 feet tall – from 6 miles away.
Today we remember all the men and women who have stood for what is right, helping bring freedom to people around the world. We're especially grateful for those who have given their lives to bring help, hope, and love to those under oppression. https://t.co/XvETwpaN1w