A Place to Call Home

A Place of Hope and Healing

Near Burma’s border with China, a Catholic leprosy colony provides shelter — and community.

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A Place to Call Home

Naung Kan is a leprosy colony near the city of Kengtung in Burma’s Shan State -- a place where those afflicted by the disease and rejected by their communities can receive treatment and support under the care of Catholic nuns. But Naung Kan is more than just a refuge. Bonded by their Catholic faith and by the stigma they still face outside its gates, the colony's residents, who number about 300 and represent many ethnic groups indigenous to the area, have created a thriving community. Some disabled residents receive free food and financial support, but many others work in the gardens or do other jobs to support themselves. Some live with their multi-generational families.

In keeping with its mission of Catholic charity, the colony also shelters others in need of support. It hosts a boarding school for children from impoverished families, houses widowers, and provides care to people with various other ailments.

Last October, I visited Naung Kan as part of an ongoing photo book project on Burma’s borderlands. Curious about the residents’ incredible stoicism and the unique diversity of the ethnic groups represented, I documented daily life at Naung Kan for two months. I intend to return soon.

In this photo, ethnic Akeu people hold a Catholic service in their village near the Naung Kan colony. The Akeu, who live in hillside villages in Laos and Burma, number only several thousand, and are little-known to outsiders. Most Akeu practice a form of ancestor worship, but the people of this village converted to Catholicism 49 years ago under the colony’s influence.

A Place to Call Home

A Sunday Catholic church service in the Naung Kan colony.

A Place to Call Home

Ei Awy prepares a meal in her residence. An ethnic Akha woman in her early sixties, she was brought to the colony from her home in China by her older brother after contracting leprosy as a child. It took them three days to reach Naung Kan on foot. After her brother dropped her off, Ei Awy never saw him again.

A Place to Call Home

Ei Awy pets a cat.

A Place to Call Home

An Akha teenager smokes a cigarette in the colony. The Akha people, much more numerous than the Akeu, but closely related, live in hillside villages in Thailand, Laos, China, and Burma.

A Place to Call Home

Na Noon, an ethnic Lahu woman in her late sixties, contracted leprosy as a child and was brought to Naung Kan from her home in China by fellow villagers at the age of thirteen. The Lahu are an officially recognized ethnic group in China, where they live mostly in Yunnan province. Burma and Thailand also have significant Lahu populations.

A Place to Call Home

Na Noon (left) and Lunn Tan (right), who is also ethnic Lahu, have both lived in the colony for decades.

A Place to Call Home

Maria Lee Moe, an ethnic Lahu woman in her seventies, has lived at the colony for decades. She is also originally from China, where she gave birth to five children.

A Place to Call Home

A prayer session in the colony’s cemetery precedes All Saints’ Day.

A Place to Call Home

Male residents pray in the colony’s cemetery at the end of a two-day Catholic retreat.

A Place to Call Home

Shwe Up (right) and other residents prepare to work in the colony’s vegetable farm. Shwe Up, an ethnic Lahu woman, does not have leprosy, but is deaf and mute. Because she can’t speak, nothing is known about her life before she arrived at the colony ten years ago.

A Place to Call Home

Shwe Up watches a music video on her TV in her room.

A Place to Call Home

Children who live at the colony’s boarding school finish an afternoon prayer in the chapel. None have leprosy. Some are orphans, but most were sent to the colony by their parents so they could receive an education from its Catholic nuns. When grown up, some will become priests and nuns. Others will return to their families.

A Place to Call Home

Leading up to All Saint's Day, children walk to the colony’s cemetery to pay homage to the deceased with prayer and by laying flowers and candles on gravesites.

A Place to Call Home

Na Law (left) and her husband Isam Bala (right) wandered the borderlands between Burma and China for over forty years before arriving at Naung Kan. By then, Na Law was blind and Isam Bala’s leprosy had reached an advanced stage.

A Place to Call Home

Na Law (left) and her husband Isam Bala (right) share a single room at the colony. The two have been by each other’s sides since Isam Bala was forced out of their village near the Chinese border as a teenager, several years after contracting leprosy. The enduring love they share enabled them to survive all those long decades of wandering before arriving to Naung Kan about four years ago.

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