By Greg Warner
At the age of seven, Mary Htoo and her family fled civil war and persecution in their native Burma. They spent the next seven-plus years living amidst the poverty and confinement of a mountaintop refugee camp just across the Thailand border.
Like Mary Htoo, most of the approximately 50,000 people in the Mae La refugee camp are members of the Karen ethnic group, a hill tribe that has been in conflict with the oppressive government of Burma (now known as Myanmar) since World War II.
But even in those conditions, the young Christian kept alive a childhood dream to serve others. “One day I want to go back to my village and help my people there,” said Mary Htoo [pronounced “too”].
In a way, her dream is coming true — but not in the way she imagined.
In March 2008, Mary Htoo, then 15, had a chance few other Karen people have — to leave the refugee camp and be resettled with her family in the United States. Since her arrival, she has graduated from high school and become the first in her family to attend college.
Mary Htoo also served as an intern with Student.Go, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s student missions initiative, from January through August 2015 in Louisville, ministering alongside the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Annette Ellard and Steve Clark.
Her role was to help more-recent Karen refugees navigate the complexities of life in the U.S., like enrolling in school, translating a doctor’s instructions, and dealing with social-service agencies — the same kind of assistance Mary Htoo and her family received from Ellard and Clark when they arrived in Louisville.
“I always thought I would help people in my village, but I never thought I would help my people here,” she said with surprise. Approximately 1,000 Karen people live in Louisville.
Mary Htoo comes from a family of Karen pastors and has been a Christian since she was four years old. Although deprived of her homeland, culture and extended family, she sees God’s hand on her life.
“I know that God has a plan for me to let me help my people here. I am happy.”
Happy is Mary Htoo’s natural state. Always polite and demur, as Karen culture dictates, she is also cheerful, optimistic and determined, especially for someone who lived more than half of her life surrounded by oppression and sadness, according to Ellard.
Ironically, Ellard and husband, Clark, who felt called to mission service while on a 2001 volunteer trip to Thailand to paint a hostel for Karen youth, now work full-time assisting and building relationships with the Karen in Louisville, among other things. Like Mary Htoo, they have “returned” to the Karen without traveling halfway around the globe.
The couple, who were commissioned in 2006 to minister among the Karen in Louisville, were involved with Mary Htoo and her family even before they arrived. The family was supposed to be sent to Louisville, where some of their extended family had already settled.
“But instead of Kentucky, their family got sent to Kansas City by mistake,” Clark recalled. He and Ellard arranged to get the family transferred to Louisville and the couple has been close to them ever since.
Ellard and Clark work up to 12 hours a day as advocates for the Karen. One day that could mean taking someone to a doctor or leading a worship service in a Karen home. The next day it could be going to court with someone who got a traffic ticket.
When Mary Htoo arrived in Louisville at 15, she was immediately placed in high school, despite limited schooling and no knowledge of English. She had a lot of catching up to do and needed extra time to get her diploma. But her progress has been remarkable, said Ellard.
“She really has done well, and she is very determined,” Ellard added, noting that in high school Mary Htoo was accepted into a very competitive magnet nursing program.
Now she attends Jefferson Community and Technical College, where she is studying radiography. She hopes to become an ultrasound technician so she can deliver good news to expectant parents.
When Ellard and Clark decided to request a Student.Go intern through CBF Global Missions, Mary Htoo immediately came to mind. Although other candidates might have more missions training, “a student who was Karen could help be a bridge for our ministry,” Ellard reasoned.
“Actually Mary Htoo shared with me a long time ago that she was interested in missions and helping her people,” Ellard said. “In addition, we knew the Student.Go experience would increase her exposure to the ways she could help her people.”
Student.Go gives students the chance “to experience firsthand the deep cries of the world and the response of God’s people in service and love,” said Devita Parnell of CBF, who manages the Fellowship’s Young Baptist Ecosystem.
The student missions initiative, which provides a stipend and networking opportunities, is open to those who have completed at least one year of college.
Mary Htoo was receptive, and began volunteering even before applying for a Student.Go position. She served a semester internship and then returned for a summer term. Even though her terms have expired, she continues to help Ellard and Clark.
She served primarily as an interpreter for Karen residents, accompanying them to doctor’s offices, government agencies, hospitals and aid organizations. She helped them fill out job and aid applications and other paperwork.
“She did a lot of the same things Steve and I do,” Ellard said.
“I love working with Steve and Annette and the Karen people,” Mary Htoo said. She and her parents saw the internship as a great way for her to augment her English skills and work experience.
Mary Htoo is one of the few international interns to participate in the Student.Go program and the first who came to the United States as a refugee, added Parnell.
“Often Student.Go interns take on the role of learner, as they pay attention to a culture different from their own,” Parnell explained. “Mary Htoo, however, emerged from within her own culture to serve among her people in a unique way for which only she was prepared. What a beautiful picture of a modern-day Moses!”
Mary Htoo said the most transformative experience of her internship was serving as an interpreter for a young pregnant Karen woman around her age. She worked with the young woman for about a year and became much more than an interpreter.
“We got very close and she told me most all of the things she was feeling [about the pregnancy],” Mary Htoo said. “The night before she delivered, she had contractions. She called me at 1 a.m. to drive her to the hospital,” while the woman’s husband stayed with their other children.
Together, they waited nearly three hours for the baby to come but it was a false alarm. The doctors sent them home. The next day the contractions returned but much stronger. As they drove to the hospital, Mary Htoo said, she was afraid the woman was going to have the baby in the car.
They made it to the hospital and waited through the night and next morning. Mary Htoo was there when the woman delivered that afternoon.
In addition to interpreting, Mary Htoo helped Ellard and Clark determine what other services would be helpful and appropriate for the Karen, who are notoriously reluctant to ask for help.
She helped start a ministry to college students, which was crucial in encouraging them to stay in school. Given the financial strain on Karen families, “there’s a lot of temptation to go get a job after high school and not stay with college,” Ellard said.
And when Ellard and Clark wanted to start a program to assist the Karen elders, Mary Htoo helped them understand that the elders didn’t want it. But because of their cultural value of extreme politeness, “they wouldn’t have told me,” Ellard recalled.
The Karen are typically happy people who take life as it comes. But those who come to America, although relieved to escape violence and persecution, struggle with their new lives.
“Life in an American city is very, very different from the mountain villages of the Karen State in Burma,” Clark explained. The language and cultural adjustments can be overwhelming.
“Most parents come here, not for themselves, but for their children,” he added. “They want their children to have an education and a future that they themselves did not have.”
But many long for their former life and grow depressed as it sinks further into the past. “For them, life is not better here — just a different kind of difficult,” Ellard said. They have virtually no chance of returning to Burma and their lifestyles.
The Karen opposed the military government that ruled Burma after the British left after World War II. The Karen State and other ethnic regions sought independent rule. For decades, armed Karen opposition groups have had skirmishes with government troops, while trapping civilians in the crossfire.
A 2005 investigation by the New York Times documented abuse of the Karen by the Burmese army that included slave labor, systematic rape, the conscription of child soldiers, massacres and the deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical services.
The result is the world’s longest-running civil war — and a perpetual, intractable refugee problem along the 1,500-mile border with Thailand. Although a civilian government recently assumed power and began instituting reforms, little has changed for Burma’s 6 million Karen, the country’s second largest ethnic group.
The Thailand government allows the estimated 300,000 refugees to stay under constant threat of forced return to Burma. Even after 30 years of operating the “temporary” refugee camps, the Thai government still won’t allow permanent structures — only bamboo and leaves and
plastic tarps can be used, and the huts have no running water or toilets.
Refugees are not allowed to work outside the camps and there are very few jobs within them. People live mostly on subsistence farming and handouts from aid groups, which also provide what limited health care is available.
“Living there is pretty hard,” Mary Htoo said of the Mae La camp. “We didn’t have a lot of opportunity. My dad had to work very hard.”
Despite the hardships, the camp was better than the danger Mary Htoo’s family left in Burma. Around 2001, a government soldier falsely accused her father of associating with the Karen rebels. He was arrested, interrogated and beaten, Mary Htoo said. “Our village leader talked the soldier into releasing my father, but he was scared that it would happen again.”
So they left. Once in Thailand, the family sought third-country resettlement as refugees so they could leave for a better life elsewhere, yet they languished in Mae La for seven long years.
Finally, one day in 2008 their chance came — approval to join relatives in the U.S. — but they had to leave immediately.
“We did not know until that day,” Mary Htoo recalled. “We did not have time to prepare. We were at home. My brother was playing on the playground. They told me ‘we have to leave today.’ We were told, ‘Take everything that you can and leave, because the bus is waiting for you.’”
“It was very scary and sad,” she said.
“I left friends behind, and I will never see my relatives again.”
Then she added quietly, “I didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandmother.”
“My grandmother is like our mother,” she explained. “She took care of us when we were young because my mom was 15 when she was married.”
Mary Htoo knows she probably will never see her grandmother again, who still remains in the Mae La camp waiting for resettlement approval. Her grandmaother is reluctant to leave behind her other son — Mary Htoo’s uncle — who now lives in Bangkok, Thailand, and doesn’t qualify for refugee status.
“Many Karen, especially those middle-aged and older, would like to go back to their homeland and their traditional way of life, but they still do not have that choice,” said Clark. “Despite political progress in Burma, persecution and violence against the Karen and other ethnic minorities continues. They do not have hope to go home because they do not really see that as possible. The only folks we really hear talk about going back to stay usually mean going back to Thailand, not Burma,” he noted.
For now, the 67,000 Karen refugees scattered worldwide bide their time and make the best life they can in strange lands.
Karen Christians seek out places to worship with their American brethren. About 300 attend Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, where Ellard and Clark are members. Most attend a Karen-language service, but about 100 also join in the church’s traditional worship hour. Because of their presence, the church has adapted to become more eclectic and diverse.
Crescent Hill Baptist provides Ellard and Clark with an office and space for some ministries. It also is an Encourager Church through CBF Global Missions and contributes support for Ellard and Clark’s ministries.
The couple serves with the Karen throughout Louisville, working with a network of churches, agencies, medical facilities and other organizations. They also cooperate with refugee resettlement agencies, such as Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries, but play a different role.
“The responsibility of the refugee agencies is resettlement,” Clark explained. “The responsibility of the church — and us as field personnel — is relationship.”