A Grandmother's Courage, A True Story
When Ja Bu was a young girl she lived in democratically ruled Burma, today known as the Union of Myanmar. At 12 years old she was concerned only with the innocent joys of life and the love of her parents. However, in 1962, life abruptly changed when Burma became a military run country. At that time the young girl could not have known what great strength and heroism she would show in her lifetime.
From then on, Ja Bu saw leaders and the name of her country change, but the military rule remained. She grew up only knowing to fear her government. When the people protested, the government retaliated with violence and sanctioned the ethnic cleansing of minorities. The government could tell you what to wear, read, watch and buy. Media and production were nationalized. “You did not say no to a member of the military,” recalls Ja Bu.
Ja Bu was married as soon as she graduated high school. She and her husband, G-Kamli, had 4 boys and a little girl. They lived life careful to obey the laws and provide for their children. However, when their children were still very young G-Kamli became addicted to drugs and seemed to fade away. Ja Bu supported her family through her skills as a specialized cloth maker. On her loom, she designed and created intricate patterns of colorful beauty. Despite her efforts, her husband died when she was only 38 years old. Ja Bu continued to raise her children as a single parent. After her children were grown, she decided to move back to the small village of her youth, Tanhpre. There, she opened up a small grocery store. She found some stability for a short time.
In 1998, when Ja Bu was 48 years old, her oldest son passed away and his 1 year old baby boy, Zau came to be in her care. In the same year, her only daughter also passed away leaving her 2 year old son Gam and 8 month old daughter, Ban, behind with their father. When their father remarried, 11 years later, he sent the children to live with Ja Bu. Ja Bu’s heart ached for the loss of her son and daughter, but she again found the strength needed for her family. Her home was full of grandchildren and her love for them.
Shortly thereafter, Ja Bu was faced with a fearful decision. Ja Bu’s youngest son was a career truck driver and of Kachin ethnicity; one of the ethnicities who were targets of the military led government. A local military group saw a need for his services and forced him to deliver goods for them without pay. He could no longer afford to pay his lease on the truck and lost the vehicle. Ja Bu’s son was threatened by the military that if he did not come back with his vehicle, he would be killed or imprisoned. Ja Bu’s son had little choice; he fled the country. When the military found he was gone, they came looking for Ja Bu.
The military official told Ja Bu to produce her son to them in 10 days. If she did not, they would imprison her. Ja Bu was nearly 60 years old with 3 grandchildren in her care. Her only hope was to leave behind everything she had ever known.
It was illegal to leave the country without permission, but Ja Bu hired an agent to sneak her across the border into a neighboring country to hide until she could receive help from the United Nations. Scared and alone, she put her trust into an agent she prayed would help take her family to safety. Initially, Ja Bu had only enough money to bring herself across the border, but would go on to raise the money to have the agent help her grandchildren out of Burma as well.
Ja Bu packed only a solitary bag of her life’s belongings and entrusted her grandchildren to family until she could safely get them across the border. “I prayed a lot,” said Ja Bu. Through the grace of God, the agent was an honest man and helped Ja Bu on the long journey across the border. It was against the law for citizens of the neighboring country to hide those seeking help from Burma, so he brought her to a church that kept her in hiding and treated her with the love, compassion and humanity she so desperately needed. She worked for the church and they helped raise the money needed to bring her grandchildren over the border. The Pastor of the church also connected Ja Bu with contacts at the United Nations.
It took two trips to help sneak her grandchildren across the border. Zau was only 10 years old and remembers how scary it was traveling over the border, but he said, “The agent stood close by my side and kept me safe.” After 1 1/2 years, Ja Bu’s grandchildren were safely back with her. Once the children were with Ja Bu, representatives from the United Nations started their interview process.
Ja Bu and her grandchildren were approved for refugee status and provided emergency assistance. Only 6 months later she and her grandchildren were told they would be going to live in the United States, in a city called Lansing, Michigan. Still scared, but trusting in God’s mercy, they boarded a plane in July 2009. When Ja Bu and her grandchildren stepped off the plane an STVCC staff member was waiting to greet them. She smiled and held out her hands in welcome. “It was July but it was still cold,” laughs Ja Bu as she shivers and holds her shoulders with the memory. “But now, July is okay,” she laughs. The STVCC staff then drove the family to a furnished apartment to begin their new lives.
Over the following months her STVCC caseworker helped connect Ja Bu with the local Burmese community, fill out her needed paperwork, find employment, learn English and adjust to life in the United States. STVCC also connected Ja Bu with one of their local volunteers, Betty Pond. Betty welcomed Ja Bu as a neighbor and helped her navigate through her new challenges and opportunities. Ja Bu and Betty remain friends today.
“Everything is new, but I put everything with the Lord and I am comfortable,” said Ja Bu, always with a smile. Ja Bu is now 61 years old, Gam 15, Zau 14 and Ban 13. Ja Bu works in a clothing laundry business and her grandchildren attend Lansing Public Schools. Zau wants to be an engineer when he is older. Gam and Ban know they can be whatever they want when they’re grown and are still trying to decide.
Today Ja Bu is a church elder with the Ethnic National Christian Fellowship and helps others with their spiritual faith. She finds her creative outlet in designing and making jewelry of the same beautiful colors and quality as in her cloth making. “I will bring some for purchase at World Day in Hunter Park in June,” she beams.
“Thanks to the Lord for bringing me to this county, and to this government and the people at St. Vincent Catholic Charities who helped me,” said Ja Bu. “Every refugee who comes here, the Lord is sending here, the United States government is helping and the refugees will honor the government and work hard. Thanks to the Lord.”
There are an estimated 300,000 Burmese refugees in hiding and in refugee camps. Only about 5 percent will ever be resettled.
If you would like to learn more about STVCC Refugee Services please contact Judi Harris, at (517) 323-4734 ext. 1402 or send her an e-mail. Learn more about World Day at Hunter Park, on June 11, 2011.