Giving Refuge At Home and AbroadFeatured, Social Justice — By Rebecca Henderson on September 21, 2010 at 11:41 am
Kidnapped from her home by the Burmese army at age 14, Hlawn Tha Chum watched helplessly while soldiers beat her older brother, Lian, as a means of coercing her into joining their ranks. Later that night, after their guard fell into a drunken stupor, Chum and Lian were able to flee under cover of darkness, beginning a nightmare journey of escape from their home country of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the current military regime)—a nightmare that is sadly common to thousands of others in the heavily persecuted Chin ethnic minority. With the help of their parents, Chum and Lian first fled to Rangoon, the largest city in Burma, where the two teenagers joined a group of Chin refugees headed through neighboring Thailand for Malaysia.
Chum recounted to me the four day walk from Rangoon to Malaysia. Four days through the mountains and jungle, in the rain, with no food or water. Their group included children as young as six years old walking with their parents. Some among them drank dirty water from the ground along the way, out of desperate thirst, but Chum couldn’t bring herself to do it, too scared she would become too sick and weak to finish the trek.
Four days walking away from her parents, from her younger brother and sister, her childhood friends, her home. To stay would risk another capture by the army. Lian could be sent to do heavy labor. Chum told me that other Chin girls her age were forced to become “girlfriends” of the Burmese soldiers. For their parents, the only option to keep their children safe was to get them out of the country.
But Malaysia was hardly safe for Chum (her name, along with her brother’s, has been changed to protect her identity). Before arriving in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, she was separated from Lian and didn’t see him for six months. The Chin Refugee Committee gave her a bed in an overcrowded apartment house, but without parents or an older brother to protect her, men propositioned her repeatedly—it was the scariest time of her life, she told me. The Malaysian government doesn’t recognize or protect the rights of international refugees, so Chum was in the country illegally. Any time she walked out the door, she faced detention, and police could raid the apartment at any moment.
After being reunited with her brother and working several months at their cousin’s restaurant, Chum was eventually identified by the United Nations as an unaccompanied refugee minor, and at age 16 she left Kuala Lumpur for her new home in a small town on the plains of Texas. I listened to Chum tell her story in the living room of her foster parents’ house, where I had come to interview her and her foster mother for an article about the local non-profit organization that helped with her placement in Texas.
Two years have passed since Chum left the mountains of southeast Asia. Now a junior in high school, she has adjusted well to her new life, though she had to make the journey to America without Lian. He applied to the UN to leave Malaysia with her, and twice he was denied approval. Brother and sister were separated again.
Terri, Chum’s foster mother, reminds her of details that she’s leaving out as she describes her experiences. Like the size of the snakes in the jungle during the walk from Rangoon to Malaysia. I can see the maternal love and concern in Terri’s face as she watches Chum tell the dramatic story of her young life. Terri and her husband Bernie are the parents of four biological children and one adopted daughter from Russia, and they have had five international foster children in their home at different times over the past few years. Their desire is to open their home to teenagers from other countries—children who have been separated from their parents because of war or persecution and now need a family and a safe place to grow up in a new and confusing land.
I’ve seen the same look on the face of mothers where I worked in rural southwest China, just across the border from Chum’s home country of Burma. A look that says, “I want my child to have better opportunities than I had.” And “My heart is wrapped up in this child, and my greatest wish for her is safety and protection and a chance to grow.”
It’s the look Lydia’s mother turned toward her oldest daughter when I visited in their village home. Lydia came to me, her English teacher, when she was a junior in high school and asked to move into my home so that she could concentrate on passing the national college entrance exam. Her family’s village is a half day of travel through the mountains from the school, and her dorm room of eight girls was too noisy for her to focus on her studies into the late night hours. She was the first student from her Bulang ethnic village to graduate from junior high. The first to go to high school. In a year she would be the first to graduate from high school, and I could help her try to be the first Bulang student from that region to go to college—you bet I’d let her move in.
In my naivete, I was thinking “roommate.” I was 26 at the time, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to me to let a teenager stay in my spare bedroom. It wasn’t until Lydia came home with paperwork from the school for me to sign that I realized I was becoming her guardian. Soon I was having parent-teacher conferences, but I was the parent.
Lydia wasn’t coming into my home from a crisis situation like Chum had experienced, but she was a young girl in need of a place to stay, an older figure in her life, some semblance of family while she was away from her own parents and village. Like millions of students in China, Lydia had to make the decision at a young age that if she wanted an education she would have to leave home. She went from grandmother’s house to aunt’s house, from dorm to dorm, moving further from her village with each step she took higher in education. She hadn’t lived with her parents for longer than a school vacation since she was in first grade.
Several times during her stay with me and in the following years while I was supporting her in college, I went home with Lydia to visit her family, where I was treated like the long lost white cousin from America. Her grandmother admonished me that I needed to come “home” to them at least once a year at Chinese New Year. Though many things remained unspoken between Lydia’s mother and me, she made me many bowls of noodles and eggs poached in rice wine and brown sugar as her own gift of hospitality and generosity—not because I had given anything to her daughter, but because I too was a young woman by myself in a land far from home. She knew that my own mom was somewhere in the world praying for kind souls to be my family right where I was.
During my meeting with Chum and Terri, I asked Terri if she had any advice for people who are considering becoming a foster parent. She paused only a few seconds and said, “I have people say to me, ‘You must be special to be able to do this, I could never do what you do,’ or ‘You’re such a blessing to those kids.’ But it’s just the opposite. The kids fill a spot in our family.”
Opening our homes and giving people a place to live, to have life—that’s hospitality. Sometimes we can fool ourselves into thinking that being hospitable would take too much emotional energy that we don’t have, that someone else is better equipped to play that role. In reality, there are times when we must step forward and be hospitable because lives depend on it. Chum’s life did. Lydia’s education and future did. My happiness away from home did. I’m not saying that everyone should become a foster parent. But I am saying that finding our cultural equivalent of Lydia’s mom’s eggs poached in rice wine and brown sugar and giving it to the lonely person right there, that one right there, would be a very good thing. And it might mean we end up with the blessing of unexpected people filling a spot in our family.
Rebecca Henderson is a Texan returned to the States after ten years working in southeast Asia as a teacher, amateur linguist, translator, barista, dental assistant, and various other jobs that meant spending lots of time in villages. Her blog is found at www.rebeccadiann.com.