Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guest Post: Refugees from Burma Living in Texas: Part One

{Guest Post}

Jessica Goudeau is the Co-Founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers in Texas.
Be inspired!

Hill Country Hill Tribers began when God interrupted my nap one Saturday in late October 2007. Despite the fact that we were tired and weren’t sure we wanted to go, my husband Jonathan and I took our 10-month-old daughter to a fall festival that our church puts on in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Austin. One of our ministers had asked us to come because we’re some of the few Spanish-speakers in a church of mostly gringos. The baby wouldn’t take a nap, meaning no one else could either, so we stuck her in a last-minute costume and went.

God interrupted my long-term plans that day. In the midst of all the Spanish, I heard another language and turned to see a group of people straight from the hills of Thailand. The scene was surreal to me. I spent two summers in Chiang Mai, Thailand while I was in college, but decided to focus on Latin America. Both Jonathan and I had both gone back to graduate school to prepare for a future of economic and educational development in a Portuguese- or Spanish-speaking country.

As I stood in a field of Spanish speakers, with a Spanish pamphlet in my hand, I’ll be honest that my first thought was, “Are you kidding me, Lord?” Because there on the rise was a woman adjusting her handwoven skirt as she squatted to spit in the grass. I saw children that looked so much like children I had seen in hill tribe villages in northern Thailand. They looked at me shyly from behind their hands or their mother’s legs. The smell on their clothes was one that was both unique and familiar, wood smoke and a rich combination of spices. I found out later they were Burmese refugees who had moved to Austin after fleeing persecution in their home villages. They lived in the no-man’s-land of refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Austin. All I knew then was that God opened a door in my life.

I made friends with a woman named Heh Ler who could barely speak any English. Her youngest daughter, Too Ti, had on sandals despite the cold weather. When we left, I told Jonathan that I was going to do something about Too Ti’s shoes.

I went back a few days later to track down Heh Ler. What I found was a large group of Burmese refugees living in an apartment complex nearby. We asked some of the refugees what they needed the most from us. Their response was English classes for the women. So we began teaching them ESL. We became great friends. And we learned that many of the women we had come to love were phenomenal weavers, desperate to earn money for their families.

We had a carpenter replicate one woman’s backstrap loom. We found a yarn supplier in Maine who made the right weight of thread. We handed out the looms and yarn and asked the women to make us some samples. It gives me goosebumps to remember that day: Handing us their new handwoven bags, their pride was visible. They had lost their homes and livelihoods when they fled Burma, sacrificed everything to live in refugee camps in Thailand, faced hardships and uncertainty beyond anything I can imagine, and now navigated a new life in a bewildering country. Everything was wrong. But weaving was something they knew—their mothers and grandmothers had been weaving for generations. And we were finally giving them the chance to do something at which they excelled. Their hardworking artistry inspired us

We organized a fair trade festival at our church. We prayed that if God wanted us to continue with this ministry, he would show us that day. In four hours, we sold over $3000 worth of products.

A few months later, we became a non-profit and launched our new business. Our products have changed as we’ve added new artisans to the group, but our commitment to helping Burmese refugee artisans make supplemental income to support their families is as strong as when we began four years ago.

God has continued to interrupt our lives in beautiful and holy ways. My co-founder, Caren George, and I have changed the rhythm of our comfortable middle-class lives because God has shown us these women living within a few miles of our homes. Our small children are growing up surrounded by refugee children; our kids are more comfortable in some of the shadiest neighborhoods in Austin than most adult Christians we know, a blessing for which I am constantly grateful. Caren and I have given of our time, our resources and our lives because it is impossible not to--once God gave us a heart for these women and we saw a way to help them achieve both independence and artistry, it was easier to turn our lives inside out than resist that call. I’ll tell you tomorrow the story of one of our artisans and you’ll understand why. They constantly bless and inspire me.

Other posts in this series on "Caring for the Poor While Living in the US":

Caring for the Poor While Living in the Good ol' U-S of A?

Who Are the Poor?

Looking for the Poor 

Hi, My Name is Heather and I'm a Modern Day Slave Owner

Helpful Links

Barn Burning 

First, The Purging 

The Better World Shopping Guide 

More Really Great Shopping Resources 

Running Hard After Redemption 

Seeko Sandals 

Batik Boutique 

Be Informed 


Shop for Clean Clothes

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part one

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part two 

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part three 

Refugees, Part 1 

Somalian Refugees:  Guest Post from Portland, Oregon


ref250 said...

I want to thank you so much for your recent series of posts on "Caring for the poor in the U.S.". Sometimes an issue can be so big it brings me to a state of immobility, but these posts have been very educational and helpful. The recent one's on refugees were eye opening. Thank you for the information!

johnny b said...

What a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing the lives of these beautiful people with us!

Anonymous said...

thanks jessica for husband is at the moment in Mae Sariang, Thailand.....working with the karen people and the free burma rangers...he has said to me some of their stories are too sad for words.....too sad for comprehension...yet there is hope....


Hill Country Hill Tribers said...

Keri, I have an absolute crush on the Free Burma Rangers. They are doing amazing work--they have saved the lives of some of my dearest friends. They are knights in shining armor. Please tell him thank you. And I hope stories of how these families are making it now in the States does give hope. They are going to make it, thanks to people like the Free Burma Rangers.