Gimme Shelter
USD employee delivers the goods after Cyclone Nargis
by Kelly Knufken
photo by Mark Pearson

Leilei Thein was unprepared for her aid mission to Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis. But she turned out to be the one person who could carry it out.

Thein, a native of Myanmar who is now an American citizen, managed to not only get into the country just days after the May 2 cyclone, but to arrange for a DC-10 to deliver international aid, a nearly impossible feat.

“This was a very big test I’d never done before in my life,” Thein says. “I was working nonstop.”

With no training in international relief work and in a country that’s beset by shortages even in good times, Thein maneuvered the bureaucracy and coordinated the delivery of nearly 1,700 “ShelterBoxes,” containers weighing 120 pounds apiece and holding a collective total of $1.5 million in tents, blankets, water filtration equipment and other supplies. Each ShelterBox is designed to sustain a family of 10 for up to a year.

“The media attention was on no aid getting in, but she was able to facilitate us getting aid to about 25,000 people initially,” says David Eby, a ShelterBox Response Team volunteer.

None of it was easy for Thein, USD’s environmental health and safety manager. In fact, she encountered obstacle after obstacle: The DC-10 set to carry the ShelterBoxes needed permission to land before it could even take off; American volunteers aboard that plane, including Eby, needed visas on arrival; and the plane unexpectedly showed up without enough fuel to get back to Kuala Lumpur. Thein maneuvered the bureaucracy in each instance — navigating four or five ministries just to get permission for the charter flight — to make the proper arrangements.

Thein, who became an American citizen after coming to the U.S. in 1983 because she wanted to travel freely, wears a sarong when in Yangon and blends in easily since she’s a native speaker.

But there’s another reason she was able to make things happen in Myanmar: Her husband’s father is a national hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated at age 32.

Thein, who met her husband after moving to the United States, says that the way they’ve conducted themselves by not making waves over the years when traveling back and forth to Myanmar has helped to smooth the way this time.

“When I said, ‘I want to donate directly to the people,’ they didn’t stop it. They trusted me,” she says. “That’s a miracle. They let me do it. It’s a win-win situation.”