The world inhabited by 150 villagers of a remote hill tribe settlement in Thailand is a universe away from Los Angeles. They live in one-room huts, share one public phone, have one pickup truck and a few TVs. Not even the mail is delivered to their outpost, surrounded by mountainous jungle.
There is one thing, however, that the inhabitants of Samli now have after a visit last summer by six UCLA undergraduate and graduate engineering students. Last August, the villagers officially opened a new 10-room health clinic, complete with a lab, pharmacy, examination rooms, an overnight room and living quarters for a doctor.
They no longer have to travel for up to a week to the nearest treatment center to get medical care for a life-threatening illness.
The gift of a clinic to these members of the Lisu tribe came from members of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB), among them, six students from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. The nonprofit organization works on environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects in developing countries. This year, 1,100 volunteers, most of them students or professional engineers, worked on 50 projects in 22 countries as diverse as Mali, Haiti, Afghanistan and Thailand.
“As an engineering student, I felt I needed something more than just classroom work,” said Philip Wegge, an environmental engineering graduate student who is president of the UCLA chapter of EWB. “I wanted the hands-on experience, and more importantly, I wanted to help communities that are less fortunate than ours.”
So late last June after months of planning, Wegge and five other UCLA students — Jonathan Hogstad, Lisa Jambusaria, Ismael Nawfal, Regina Quan and Diego Rosso — traveled 24 hours to reach Samli to take over the project from Columbia University students, who had built the frame and roof of the clinic.
Working nine- and 10-hour days under two professional engineers, the UCLA students set up the clinic's electrical plant, plumbing and water lines, installed sinks, insulation and ventilation, and put up the siding and interior walls. While some already had carpentry and plumbing skills, others had never touched tools before.
From the beginning, however, it was clear this was no ordinary construction job. Engineering solutions had to be sensitive to local customs, the students found.
“We had to understand what these people needed,” said Rosso. “We couldn't just go in and say, ‘You have a problem, and we know how to fix it because we are engineers.' That's not the way it works.”
For their part, the villagers warmly welcomed the students. After work, the students spent evenings learning what they could of the Lisu language while the villagers picked up some English. “They did not treat us like foreigners,” Rosso said. “They welcomed us as if we were part of the village. It was wonderful.”
On the students' last day in Samli, the villagers re-created their annual New Year's celebration and invited the students, some wearing Lisu traditional dress, to link hands and dance, led by a village elder playing a traditional flute-like instrument.
“The most important thing that I learned in Thailand was the dignity of these people,” said Rosso. “They work for $6 a day, and everywhere I went in Thailand, I didn't see anyone begging for money. Everyone had a job, worked hard. There is a strong pride and dignity in the conduct of their lives.”
Next year, students will travel to Tibet to work on another project. For more information on the student group, see www.seas.ucla.edu/ewb.
Reprinted from UCLA Today, Vol. 25. No. 3, October 12, 2004, page 4.