I Pray for Refugees Because I Was One. And God Was Faithful.

How “casting all my cares upon him” got this Karen girl from Burma to America.
I Pray for Refugees Because I Was One. And God Was Faithful.
Image: Hser Mu La
Sunday Htoo leads classes in her refugee camp in Thailand.

I walked for nine days in my slippers in the deep forest. My father carried all the food. My mom carried my one-year-old brother. My other younger siblings had to walk by themselves. I carried all the cookware, some blankets, and clothes for them.

After seven days, we reached the Tenasserim River and crossed on a big boat. We were climbing the mountain quickly, and I heard the gunfire again. I climbed up the mountain as fast as I could. When I reached the top, I put down all my things and went back to my parents and picked up my younger brother. I carried him piggyback; he held my neck tightly when I had to pull myself up the mountain.

Since I was a little girl, my favorite Bible verse has been 1 Peter 5:7–9:

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (NIV).

When we suffer as God’s children, we know we are not alone. He is with us, and our brothers and sisters around the world are with us in prayer and solidarity. We testify to share that truth.

I was very tired carrying my brother while climbing the mountain, so I spoke to myself, “Sunday, you cannot die here. You must finish your high school, go to college, speak for your people, and tell the world what you have been through and who you are.”

This is who I am. This is what God has done for me.

I was born in Burma, but I am not Burmese. I am an ethnic Karen, one of more than 10 ethnic minority groups in Burma. The Karen are one of the largest groups among the two million people displaced from Burma due to ethnic conflict. We speak and write a different language. When I was a little girl and moved from place to place every day in the deep jungle, all I wanted and prayed for was to have food for the next day, to study in a school, and to have a place to live safely.

I believe that prayer is a Christian’s breathing windpipe. Since the time I could talk, my mother taught me how to pray—before I ate, before I went to sleep, and after I woke up from sleep. I learned Bible verses by heart and went to church every week. She made sure I listened carefully.

My grandparents were not Christians. My parents became Christians when I was born. My father was a church secretary, and my mother was a chairperson for women’s ministry. Both of them sang in the choir at church. (After we fled, my father became an ordained pastor at Karen Baptist Church in Logansport, Indiana. As we are a part of the denomination Karen Baptist Churches in the USA, he has to travel almost every week to marry couples and give Holy Communion. When he travels, I lead the church for Sunday service.)

My parents celebrated my love of Scripture as a child. When I got the “first place” and “outstanding student” award at summer Bible class, I could not carry the prize. It was a huge bucket and too heavy for me. My father jumped up on the stage and carried me. He forgot to also grab the prize because he was so happy. We had to come back to the stage together and the crowd was clapping and laughing at us.

The place where I was born and grew up had no electricity, no hospital, and no clinic. It was the Karen Revolution area, secluded after years of conflict. We carried water from the river to our house. We ate the fruits from our tree on the farm. My parents passed only grade three.

The very first time I saw a movie was when I lived in Burma. I think I was only five. I was so excited and curious to be around strangers at my village’s soccer field. They were digging the ground, connecting the electric lines, turning on a machine that looked like the villagers’ boat engines. It was a generator for electricity.

“Sunday, you cannot die here. You must finish your high school, go to college, speak for your people, and tell the world what you have been through and who you are.”

They set up two long, fresh, green bamboo posts. They stretched a large white cloth between the posts. They waited until villagers arrived and the night got darker. I grabbed a dry leaf of a betel palm tree to sit on. I did not want my bottom to get wet from the grass. They turned on the light like a huge torch that shined on the screen. It was the first time I got to watch Bible stories from Genesis to Revelation. These “strangers” were Japanese missionaries.

When I was in the fourth grade, my parents sent me to another Karen school. I worried that I would not pass my final exam. Usually, people had to take it many times to pass and some quit school at that point. I told God that if I passed the fourth-grade exam, I would be baptized as soon as an ordained Karen pastor became available. Once I knew that I had passed the exam, I told my teacher—who was also a pastor—that I wanted to be baptized. My parents told me that I was too young and I should wait. I did not listen to them. I kept my promise to God and I did as I said—I was baptized.

After I finished grade four at that Karen school, my parents sent me to the Burmese school far away from my home in the village called “City of Love.” Because my parents were so poor, they could not support me with money. I stayed in the home of family friends, a pastor’s family in a sister village. I looked after their cows, did the housework, and went to church, while they gave me free room and board. I did not have money to buy the things I needed for study or even for snacks. I needed a way to earn money and trusted God to provide a way.

Even then, I believed what the Bible says about tithing. Whatever we have belongs to God. I started praying to God. If I had a job where I could earn money, I would keep tithing. If I got ten, I will give God one.

After I prayed, in the morning, a pastor’s wife at the City of Love called me to her house. She said that if I carried water for her and washed her family’s clothes every weekend, she would pay me. The first time I got paid, it was about 30 Burmese Kyat ($5 USD), in 1995 (the value of the Kyat has fallen precipitously since that time). It was a lot for me. As I promised to God, I kept back 3 Kyat for God. Sometimes she gave me 40, 50, or 60 Kyat.

One day a businessman from my village visited my school and saw that I was a good student. He knew my parents and that I was the only girl from my village in that school. He asked me to try hard in my studies and gave me 90 Kyat ($15 USD) so that I would have pocket money. He told his friends about me, and they also sent money, reaching 200 Kyat (about $35 USD). Since that day, I can see how God has helped me. God’s words are true. I still keep tithing now.

In 1997, I was away from home in another village, taking my fifth-grade final examination. I heard gunfire from far away. About an hour later, our principal asked us to stop immediately and go home to find our family for our safety. When I got home, my family had already hidden in the forest. My father brought me to my mother and my younger brothers and sister, and we moved from place to place every day for our safety.

I missed my school, friends, and teachers and worried about them. One day when I was in the jungle, I was sitting beside the stream on a big rock washing ginger roots. I spoke to myself, “Sunday, you cannot end up with just a fifth-grade education; you must pass through high school.” I prayed to God for my future education and for our safety.

A few months later, the Burmese army came and set up their camp at my village while we were still living in the forest. Some families went back to my village to live there. A village leader came to my father and said that the Burmese general requested his presence at once.

We waited all day for him to come home. At midnight, he came home, woke all of us up, and said, “We cannot live here; we have to go back to the jungle.”

My father had been accused of owning a machine gun the soldiers wanted. Actually, he only had a rifle that he used for hunting. Not believing him, they threatened to tie him up and torture him if he did not give them the machine gun they suspected him to have. My father lied to them that he saw a hidden machine gun; if they let him go and get it, he would return on the next day. It was the best decision that my father made during this emergency for our family.

“We cannot live here; we have to go back to the jungle.”

We had to run away to the jungle before they came after us. Since that day, I have never gone back to my village, and the Burmese army camps are still there.

We hid in the jungle for a few months. Other families from another village came to live with us. Together, we had about 300 people. Then, we faced a new problem: food. If we stayed there longer, we would run out of food. It was very dangerous for us to return to the village. The elders decided we would travel to the borderline to seek refuge in Thailand. I did not want to go. My mother said, “There is not any school in this jungle.” I might have a chance to go to school in the refugee camp.

After we crossed the Tenasserim River and the mountain beyond it, we arrived safely in Thailand at a temporary place. A few weeks later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) moved us to Tham Hin refugee camp in a truck. We were allowed to build our house on 81 square feet of ground, not more than that. Our roof was black plastic. We could not leave the camp. After 9 p.m., the whole camp had to be quiet and all lights had to be turned off. Every month, I had to line up to get food at the store.

Around 9,000 refugees lived in our camp. Another nine refugee camps were established along the Thailand-Burma border.

Karen girls perform a cultural dance in the refugee camp during a campaign to stop violence against women.
Image: Sunday Htoo

Karen girls perform a cultural dance in the refugee camp during a campaign to stop violence against women.

There were no school buildings. At first, we had to study at our teacher's house, and sometimes in the community building. Before we got a donation for our school, one of our teachers (who is now in St. Paul, Minnesota) used pieces of cardboard and charcoal for teaching because we did not have chalk or a chalkboard. My class started at 7 a.m., and we had to finish at 11 a.m. Then another class had to come in. Every year, we got a better building and school supplies. I finished high school there in 2003.

When I was in high school, I prayed so hard and fast and read the Bible every day before I went to sleep. Before I graduated, I spoke to myself again, “Sunday, you cannot end up spending your life in a refugee camp. This is not the real world.”

Living in a refugee camp was like a group of frogs or tadpoles living in a small well. For them, it is like an ocean. I knew that the world was out there; the ocean was out there, waiting for us to see.

I prayed and sought my way out of the refugee camp and started learning to use a computer, the internet, English, and news reporting with my Karen news group. I left the camp illegally and was arrested by Thai police two times before I made it to Chiang Mai, the second biggest city in Thailand.

I enrolled in a journalism course in Chiang Mai. This is where I met my husband. He was from another refugee camp trying to earn his GED diploma at another school in the same city.

God gave me even more than I had asked. I got a husband who loves and values education, loves and cares for family, is kind, and helps everyone. He never looks down on people. He does not drink alcohol, does not smoke, loves God, and is patient. He is a slow and quiet person while I have an open personality, go at a fast speed, and am not as quiet. I can never thank God enough for giving me such a fine husband.

We got married in the refugee camp on September 4, 2006, after finishing at our school. The day after our wedding, my parents and siblings resettled to the United States.

My parents were in tears on their departure day. When my mother asked us to follow them to the US, I lied and told her that I would. I wanted them to feel happy on their trip, but I had no intention to follow.

I went back to work as a Karen reporter, and my husband worked as a translator for a Karen publisher. We continued to live outside the refugee camp and did not want to come to the US. It took us five years to decide to join my family.

What changed? Our first child was born. From the time I became pregnant with her, we tried many ways and spent a lot of money for her to receive a Thai national ID. We wanted her to be a Thai citizen. But it did not happen as we planned and wanted.

We thought about the future of our daughter and family’s life. We did not want to live as stateless people anymore. We did not want our children to go through what we went through, with no national identity, uncertain about the future.

When I first saw my daughter’s bright eyes looking at me, I prayed for her and decided to go back to the refugee camp. From there we could apply for resettlement in the US.

Someone is running for their life right now in Burma, or another country torn by war.

We soon encountered a new problem. Our daughter did not have the Refugee Registration Document, issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), because she had not been born in the camp. We had received our papers when we first arrived, but the UNHCR office in my camp would not grant one to my daughter. It was the only document that took refugees to the United States and other resettlement countries.

We did not give up praying. We discussed and decided to try my husband’s refugee camp. Maybe the situation would be less strict. God answered our prayer. His refugee camp leaders helped us, so our daughter got her UNHCR registration card with my husband. That meant that she could resettle with him, but I would have to go back to my own camp. We would resettle apart.

I missed them so badly. In the camp, I spent my time helping teach in the camp school. I made myself as busy as possible to release my stress. We reunited again after eight months, in Bangkok, Thailand. My daughter did not care to look at me or to listen to me at all. I was like a stranger to her. She only wanted her dad. It took us a few months to get back to normal as daughter and mother.

After two years, we got a chance to move here and reunite with my parents and siblings in Logansport, Indiana, on December 11, 2013.

I took care of my daughter when my husband went to work. When he came home, I went to English Language Learner class. At first, I did not understand every word. After two and half years studying in The Adult Learning Center, I graduated and obtained my high school equivalency diploma (HSE). After that, I continued my study at Ivy Tech Community College, and I will finish my degree this December.

My husband is now attending Indiana University Kokomo, and my daughter is a second grader in a dual-language class. We also have a one-year-old son. This year was our fifth year living in Logansport. We feel so blessed and thankful to be a part of America. The education opportunities here are endless. I want to become a writer, and if possible, I want to be an advocate for refugees, because I am a war survivor.

When I was in the jungle and running for my life, I felt that I would be safe. I felt that someone I did not know was praying for me.

Someone is running for their life right now in Burma, or another country torn by war. Please pray for him, for her, for the children, for the elderly, and for a woman who may be pregnant. Your prayer is full of meaning. As the Scripture says in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Sunday Htoo is a refugee from Burma (Myanmar), and current Ivy Tech Community College student. She is an instructional assistant at the Logansport Community School Corporation Adult Learning Center.

September
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
close