More than a survivor: Young hairdresser in Myanmar is turning tragedy into hope

The word "victim" is not what you would associate with him at all if you didn't know his story.

"What do you think about your haircut now?" Kyar Lawt asks his client as he dusts the snipped strands off his back. He gets a wide smile and a thumbs up in response. Satisfied, Kyar Lawt takes the money his client offers for the service and reaches for his crutches before escorting the client out. The 18-year-old hairdresser is pleasant, energetic and confident. 

A native of Lashio in Myanmar's northern Shan State, Kyar Lawt moved to Laukkaing, the capital of Kokang, a self-administered zone, looking for work so that he could support his large family of nine. One day in May this year, as he was heading back to his tent after a long day of work in a sugar cane field, he accidentally stepped on a landmine. "I realized it was a landmine as soon as I had stepped on it. The next thing I remember is that the mine blew up and I was thrown off. I could sense that my leg had been injured," Kyar Lawt recalls. His friend, who managed to escape unhurt, came to Kyar Lawt's rescue and carried him back to the tent. He spent the night without seeking medical attention but by morning the pain grew unbearable. So Kyar Lawt went to Laukkaing hospital and his right leg was amputated.

While he recovered at the hospital, local Red Cross volunteers connected Kyar Lawt to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team. The ICRC team in Lashio visited Kyar Lawt at the hospital and talked about what they could do to help him. "Our immediate response was to give him cash assistance, which we normally provide to all landmine victims. We also discussed with our Economic Security unit about helping Kyar Lawt rebuild his life by providing him vocational training. He expressed interest in hairdressing so we enrolled him for a three-month training course at a hair salon back in Lashio," says Nang Lao Swan Ywat Hseng, who works with communities affected by mines.

The training started in July and since then Kyar Lawt is living with his family back in his hometown while pursuing his dream of becoming a hairdresser. As Kyar Lawt talks about what he has already learned, his excitement is obvious. "I have learned different hair styles for both men and women. I've also learned how to straighten, curl and colour hair and give different hair treatments. I don't find the lessons too hard because I am so eager to learn as much as I can. This career suits me well," he smiles.

But the ICRC team had to win his trust before they could start helping Kyar Lawt in the rehabilitation process. Levon Abgaryan, the Economic Security unit coordinator, shares that they regularly visited him and his family to build a relationship. "Trust plays a crucial part in helping victims progress and succeed. Initially, Kyar Lawt was very shy and lacked confidence. As we worked on establishing a good relationship with him, he started opening up to us and also becoming very confident. The most important thing to us now is that he trusts us and that we will continue helping him after he has successfully completed his training regime in October," says Abgaryan.

With the help of the Myanmar Red Cross Society in Laukkaing and Lashio, the ICRC team was also able to register Kyar Lawt for rehabilitation assistance from Yenantha Leprosy Hospital in Mandalay, run by the Ministry of Health and Sports. Abgaryan adds that they plan to talk to Kyar Lawt about starting his own business in the future as a better source of income.

Meanwhile, at Confidence Hair Salon, owner and trainer Ye Myo Aung is proud of his hardworking and ambitious apprentice. "He is a smart boy. I'm very glad that he is interested in what he is learning and even practises techniques at home. I try to teach him in a way that is comfortable for him and have told him that he can drop in at the salon any time even after his training is officially over," says Ye Myo Aung.

The trainer is not the only one vouching for Kyar Lawt's skills. The ICRC officer who works with communities affected by mines also confirms that Kyar Lawt is doing very well. "While visiting him at the salon, our coordinator also got a haircut from him and exclaimed that the style was great," says Nang Lao Swan Ywat Hseng.

Looking at the last few months of his life and the turn of events, Kyar Lawt offers encouragement to others who may be suffering. "I keep pushing myself to do my best under all circumstances. That is how I have not grown weak or become overwhelmed by sadness. To those who have suffered like me, I want to say, do not to be discouraged because good things are always around the corner." Working hard to fulfil his dreams, Kyar Lawt is turning a personal tragedy into a story of hope.

As a result of several conflicts in Myanmar, landmines and explosive remnants of war pose a serious humanitarian and development challenge to its people, affecting all facets of daily life. As per figures, 162 people have lost their lives to landmines and unexploded ordnance in 2018 till August alone. While 51% of casualties were reported from Kachin State, 36% were in Shan State. Recognizing the need, the ICRC, together with the MRCS and other partners, carries out many activities to spread information related to mine-related risks in affected areas. People are trained to identify dangerous zones and given guidelines to avoid accidents.