Sunday Htoo: I Pray for Refugees Because I Was One

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.

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.”

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Source: Christianity Today