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. 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. As we were climbing the mountain, I heard the gunfire again.
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.”
I am an ethnic Karen, one of more than 10 ethnic minority groups in Burma. My parents became Christians when I was born. The place where I was born and grew up had no electricity, no hospital, and no clinic. 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.
After I finished grade four at a Karen school, my parents sent me to the Burmese school far away from my home. 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, while they gave me free room and board.
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. A few months later, the Burmese army came and set up their camp at my village while we were still living in the forest. 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. Then we decided we would travel to the border to seek refuge in Thailand. 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. Around 9,000 refugees lived in our camp. Another nine refugee camps were established along the Thailand-Burma border.
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 used pieces of cardboard and charcoal for teaching because we did not have chalk or a chalkboard. I finished high school there in 2003.
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. We got married in the refugee camp on September 4, 2006, after finishing at our school.
My husband and I 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. It was the only document that took refugees to the United States and other resettlement countries. We did not give up praying. My husband’s refugee camp leaders helped, 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.
After two years, we got the chance to move to Indiana and reunite with my parents and siblings.
[Excerpt of CT article by Sunday Htoo, a refugee from Burma (Myanmar)]