Friday, September 23, 2011

Hill Country Hill Tribers: Refugees from Burma in Texas: Guest Post 2


{Guest Post}
Please take some time to visit Hill Country Hill Triber's website to find out 
more about the hope they are bringing to refugee families in Texas.

Meh is one of our most artistic weavers at Hill Country Hill Tribers. She is a Burmese refugee living in Austin, a member of the Karenni hill tribe. In 1996, the Burmese Army launched a massive village relocation plan aimed at bringing the population under military control and eliminating ethnic resistance. At least 3,000 ethnic villages, including Meh’s, have been destroyed since 1996, displacing or killing over one million people.

When the Burmese Army came to her village, Meh’s extended family fled across the border into Thailand, across 25 miles thick with jungle. Meh had already lost her husband and her oldest daughter, and was fleeing with her five small children. But Meh Mo’s sister, Koe was in a much worse condition.


At eight months pregnant, Koe went into labor in the middle of the jungle. While the rest of the family raced on, Koe, her husband and sister Meh, found a refuge of sorts, a village that had already been destroyed by the Burmese army. Meh remembers their frantic search for anything to boil water in so she could clean the newborn baby since the Burmese army busted out the bottoms of the cooking pots. In an abandoned hut in the ransacked village, Koe gave birth to a tiny girl named Shay, now a fourteen-year-old high school student.

Koe weaving on her backstrap loom

 Two days later, Koe was up running through the jungle again. The family was reunited in a make-shift refugee camp in Thailand, a no-man’s-land they waited in for fourteen years. Unable to work because of their refugee status in Thailand, Meh pushed her family to apply to come to the States. Most of their family moved to Austin in 2009. Two of their brothers are living in Thailand and, through legal issues, will never be reunited with the rest of their family. Their father just died a few months ago of cancer. The brothers could not come to the funeral. We sent pictures of the family to their brothers who are living illegally in Thailand. A friend of mine tracked them down and took this picture of them holding photos of their sisters (we cropped their faces to conceal their identity). The family will not see each other again in this life.

Meh and Koe's brother and sister-in-law in Thailand, holding pictures of their sisters

Growing up in their tiny village in Burma, Meh stayed on their rice farm while her 8 younger sisters and brothers all went to a larger city to be educated. She learned to weave the traditional cloth, clothes and bags that women in her village had been making for generations. Meh perfected her craft; her weaving is exquisite and intricate. All of her sisters weave well.

The sisters in their traditional clothing at a weaving demonstration:  
Oo, Boe, Koe, and Meh

But Meh cannot speak English and is not literate in her own language; her employment options are limited. The agencies who brought Meh and the other refugees to Austin are fierce and amazing. Their creative and continuous support of the refugee community has literally saved lives. Refugees come to Austin to give their children a future. Meh is blessed to have a family that supports each other, so she is not as destitute as some of the other women we know, but she and other women like her are struggling to make it in their new homes.

In addition to selling the products Meh, her sisters, and the other HCHT artisans make, we also teach them basic English and other life skills to help them adjust to a new life in the US. Other economic development models we’ve seen help women become self-sustaining in their own country—helping them learn about a new culture and new homeland is an extra difficulty facing the artisans we work with every day.

The difficulty is that Meh and some of the other artisans have a hard time making it to our regular HCHT meetings, so we have a new Communications Director who is going to their homes to assess and meet the needs of our refugee artisans. You can learn more about Kelsi and the new English-on-Wheels program here. Meeting the daily needs of our artisans is a big part of what we do—the refugee agencies we partner with are amazing, but their commitments end after 4-6 months, leaving many families without intense help before they’re ready to be on their own feet. We work with agencies to help identify and work around gaps in their system. Economic and educational development is critical to their survival here.

Refugees need you. There are several ways you can help with refugees like Meh and her sisters. We have information on our website about refugee resources both in Austin and around the world.  Almost every large city in the United States has a sizable refugee population. Even a simple Google search could help you locate specific refugee agencies in your area. The refugee agencies we work with in Austin have ways to volunteer that are common—teaching ESL, adopting a new family, or having your church become involved with specific families or communities in crisis. If you find resources in your city, could you share them in the comments section to help other people connect with refugees where they live?

And, of course, you can always buy HCHT products. Next week we’ll have a giveaway to help you win one of our beautiful new necklaces. Spreading the word about HCHT is something you can do to support Meh and our other refugee artisans.

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 

Refugees from Burma living in Texas:  Guest Post, part one


Rachel said...

What an amazing work! The Artisans on the website are beautiful! One thing I have been wondering, though, throughout this whole series, is about their spiritual condition. I think it's wonderful that these men and women are able to find a way to sustain themselves and share their amazing artisan skills here in the U.S., but that only goes so far. Giving people, whether they be refugees, homeless, or anyone for that matter, a means of physical or emotional security is a wonderful gift and should be something every Christian pursues. But the great commission given to us by Christ is to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Caring for the poor is a big deal, but sharing the Gospel with them is an even bigger deal.

I'd love to hear about where these beautiful women stand with Christ!

Hendrick Family said...


Maybe someone from HCHT will answer this question for you, but I wanted to chime in (without speaking for them).

From what we do here in Haiti, I find it impossible to truly share the gospel without befriending people first. Befriending people means hurting when they hurt. Grieving when they grieve. It means loving them like yourself. We are called to care for the poor, meeting their needs (all of them, not just the spiritual ones). In doing so, we are invited into their lives, are trusted, and can share the gospel with them in natural, genuine ways. I think people reaching out to refugees is a great way to share ALL of the gospel as we deeply connect with others and pray for opportunities to share about the Lord.

The women who run this business are believers. Even if there are not set Bible Study times, (there may be...I have no idea) I think it's beautiful how they are caring for the poor, and I know from my particular situation that even without scheduled "let me tell you about Jesus times" that God comes up constantly in conversations with the women around me. There seems to always be an open door to share about who God is as I get to know the women we work with here in Haiti. I'm guessing it's similar with the believers who oversee HCHT.


Hill Country Hill Tribers said...

Heather, what a great answer. Rachel, I think Heather summarized well our position among our Burmese friends. Most of them are Christians--their hill tribes were converted by missionaries in the 19th century, so Christianity has been passed down for generations. Meh and her sisters are Catholic. Heh Ler and her family are active members at the Karen Baptist church. Our translator, Dr. Salai, led a solo demonstration against the junta. In jail, when the army would not give him his Bible, he led a hunger strike that resulted in Amnesty International intervening on his behalf. He said he could live without food, but not without his Bible.

We learn at the feet of these refugee Christians. What they know God's mercy and faithfulness floors me. They truly understand the God of the Psalms who is a refuge for the oppressed. I listen to them and learn from them about all that Christ does in the world; it challenges and humbles me.

Some of our artisans are not Christians, but we don't preach to them. Instead, our goal is to be a constant presence in the lives of those who are suffering. And they are suffering, enormously. Our friendship means they have someone who cares whether they make it to the doctor or whether their kids are doing well in school. From those friendships, out of our presence in the midst of their suffering, Christ is evident.

In one of my favorite new developments, several of the refugee families have been coming to our church. One of their husbands who was a believer wanted to learn more. When he asked, we were ready to talk about our faith. He has grown in depth and maturity in a faith that was already well-established. He is now bringing 6-7 Burmese families to our church every week. They're not coming because they feel like they have to in order to get help, but because our presence in the community showed that we are trustworthy people. They also want to learn more. We live strongly by Francis of Assisi's saying, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." We've found our love and service to be much more persuasive than our words.


Sara Danie Concepts Studio Blog said...

Here is a link to Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Inc. in El Paso.

Rachel said...

Heather and Jessica,

Thank you for your responses! I understand the importance of building relationships with people. I see how that helps build trust, and from experience see how God can be talked about in most every conversation.

I'm thrilled to hear some of the testimonies of the Burmese men and women. Hearing those stories brings great encouragement and humility, thankfulness and brokeness. And, while I like the saying of Francis of Assisi, I can't completely agree with it. I think it's always necessary to use words (Romans 10:14). At some point, after relationships have been built and people have been loved and served, everyone still needs to *hear* that Jesus was sent to live a perfect life, die for our sins, and rise again, defeating sin and death forever.

I know God's love should be lived out in our actions, and that through relationships it's easier to share how a person can be saved, but at some point I think that message definitely needs to be preached, even if I don't have a relationship with that person.

This is not something I've mastered either. I still have excuses for why I don't make much of Jesus with my neighbors. Yes, I'm building relationships with them, yes I'm serving them, so yes, I'm being Christ in action to them; But if they die right after our time together, I want to be someone who loved them enough to verbally share the message of the cross with them, whether they accept it right away or not. I want people to know that any of the good I do for them is because of the great love of God for them through the finished work of Jesus. I guess that's why I can't accept Assisi's quote in it's entirety.

Thank you for sharing!