A Long Journey Home

Kachin State, in the northernmost part of Burma, is a land of impenetrable jungle, rugged mountains, mudslides and malaria. It is also the land of jade, specifically a high-quality jadeite, much prized by neighboring China.

Mining for jade. Kachin State, Burma. www.uk.reuters.com
Mining for jade. Kachin State, Burma. www.uk.reuters.com

Vast fortunes have been amassed from the gemstone, but the people of Kachin reap no benefit from the dangerous work of its extraction, nor do they see evidence of these huge profits in their daily lives. There is little investment in health care, education, infrastructure, or basic services in Kachin.

In a country whose name has long been a byword for oppression and brutality, the Kachin, persecuted for both their Christian beliefs and ethnicity, are conspicuous as an oppressed and brutalized minority.  The Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army have essentially been at war for 60 years, but every Kachin is viewed as an  enemy by the Burmese, particularly the young men.

“They treat us as less than human.”

Naw’s first experience with the Burmese military came when he was just eleven years old. Caught passing out pro-democracy pamphlets in support of a student strike, he and several other boys were locked in a small, airless room. They were repeatedly beaten, threatened and starved for eleven straight days. When the boys were finally released, Naw had no difficulty promising to keep away from politics and war. From now on, he vowed, he would concentrate on studying and working with his father at the jade mine.

Naw may have been finished with war, but it was not finished with him.

Forced laborers, Kachin, Burma. www.freeburmarangers.org
Forced laborers, Kachin, Burma. www.freeburmarangers.org

The Burmese military frequently forced the people from Naw’s village to labor for them. Sometimes that would entail carrying supplies, cleaning latrines, or constructing camps; other times, the soldiers would use Kachin civilians as human mine sweepers.

Naw was forced to labor for the army a total of four times, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. “We never knew for how long, “says Naw. “And we never knew where.”

When Naw was eighteen years old, he was again captured for forced labor and marched into the war zone. After two weeks of carrying heavy ammunition and living on reduced rations, they found themselves in the middle of a ferocious firefight between the KIA and the Burmese army. “We were surrounded by flying bullets,” he remembers. “Body parts and blood were everywhere.”

Naw and a few of the other prisoners managed to untie their ropes and escape to the jungle. Naw lived there for one month, living off of taro roots and fruit, trying to make his way home while keeping clear of soldiers. When he emerged, he was exhausted, malnourished, delirious with fever, and gravely ill from drinking contaminated water. But he had survived, and what he had learned in the jungle would be put to good use later.

This was Naw’s life. It was the life of everybody he knew.

Sundays, of course, were for church.

That Sunday in July 1999—the Sunday that would change everything—started out like any other. It was morning. Naw was attending service, just as he did every Sunday. His father was a deacon of the church, his entire family deeply devout. The parishioners—mostly women and children—were singing a hymn. Their voices lifted in praise, they didn’t hear the soldiers until they had burst through the door.

There were three of them and, as usual, they were rounding up people to be their beasts of burden. The pastor and Naw’s father pleaded with the soldiers to allow them to finish their worship and honor their Sabbath. The soldiers’ reply was brief, but vicious: a rifle butt to the heads of both the pastor and Naw’s father.

“I was young, I lost my temper,” Naw says softly, the remorse in his voice still painfully raw nearly 16 years later. “I could not stand to watch these soldiers beat our pastor and my father.”

Naw and three of his friends fought back, attacking the soldiers from behind, trying to protect their elders. They didn’t realize there were more soldiers waiting outside. They didn’t realize it until these soldiers rushed into the church and started shooting.

Naw’s father tried to shield his son. “Run!” he cried. It was the last word Naw ever heard from his father. It was the last time he saw his father alive.

Staying clear of soldiers from both sides. www.pulitzercenter.org
Staying clear of soldiers from both sides. www.pulitzercenter.org

Four boys ran, but only three made it to the safety of the jungle. One of  Naw’s friends was shot in the back as they fled the church. They left him where he fell. They did not look back.

Naw and his remaining friends hid all day and all night, emerging from  the jungle early the next morning, creeping quietly to the home of one of  their church members. The news that awaited them was even more  terrible than they had feared. Fourteen parishioners had been killed inside the church. Naw’s father had been carted off, beaten, tortured, and  executed. His mother, never in the best of health, had suffered a heart  attack. There was no way to go see her. His younger brother was alone in their parents’ house, but Naw could not risk a visit. The soldiers went there several times a day, looking for him. They had a warrant for his arrest.

There was nothing left to do but run.   

The boys spent another two weeks in the jungle before they could hop a freight train to the capital city of Rangoon. For 700 miles, they slept crammed into a car full of recyclable trash, afraid to venture out for food or other necessities. Once in Rangoon, Naw’s mother sent him money and told him to go to Thailand, where other Burmese refugees were living.

Naw made his way to Thailand, but it was not the safe haven his mother thought it would be. The Thai government was actively deporting refugees back to Burma, and there were reports that Burmese agents were in Bangkok, searching for Burmese students to arrest. Naw had to stay indoors to avoid being caught—or worse.

“At that point, I did not know where to go or what to do,” says Naw. “I did not want to live in this world anymore. My father was killed, my mother was sick, and my brother was in danger. I was the only one left to look after them and I was a fugitive from the Burmese government.”

Naw had one relative living outside of Burma: an uncle in Richmond, Virginia. Naw was able to contact him, and his uncle began sending him money and trying to find people to help him.

Naw knew that he had to get to the United States. He had to find a way to get to his uncle and find a way to save what was left of his family.

An American veteran he met in Thailand advised Naw—poorly, as it turns out—to fly to American Samoa. There, he told him, Naw would be able to apply for asylum in the United States. Instead, Naw found himself caught in a legal limbo battle between the U.S. government and American Samoa. It seemed the United States didn’t want any more Burmese refugees. American Samoa didn’t want any refugees, period.

"Aiga" Bus, American Samoa. www.esrl.noaa.gov
“Aiga” Bus, American Samoa. www.esrl.noaa.gov

Naw was taken in by a Baptist church and allowed to live on their grounds, while various relief groups tried to figure out what to do with him. It was yet another low point in the life of the young man. Months dragged on into years. He was a non-person, the only Burmese living on an island far from his birthplace. He was teaching himself English as fast as he could, but there was no one to talk to in his native tongue.

Meanwhile, the only communication he had with his mother and brother was through the occasional letter smuggled into Burma. He was lonely and scared and desperate. The Samoans were about to put him on a plane back to Burma.

“He did not look like a lawyer.”

TJ Mills, staff attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors- New York, mostly serves clients in the greater New York area. However, due to his many years of experience in asylum cases, he is sometimes asked to assist in special cases in far-off places of the world. In 2002, he got a call from an acquaintance at the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees who knew about TJ’s previous work with Burmese refugees in Guam. The UNHCR had just received a distress call about a lone Burmese refugee in American Samoa. The Pacific Gateway Center and the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention were willing to fund the trip. Was TJ willing to go?

TJ flew to American Samoa to help prepare Naw for his refugee interview.

“I never before in my life met a guy who is so friendly, so cheerful, and so hopeful,” Naw remembers. “TJ did not give up. TJ did not give up,” he repeats emphatically. “And he would not let me give up, either.”

“There are a few cases when it becomes personal, and you just can’t stop,” explains TJ, smiling.

TJ spent a total of eight days in American Samoa with Naw, and the next 18 months laboring to obtain asylum status for him. Naw became a JFON-NY client and a friend. But Naw’s case was a particularly thorny one.

Although U.S. immigration law does not apply in American Samoa, international treaty obligations do, and Naw met their criteria for refugee status. In September 2003, Naw was recognized as a refugee and granted permission to resettle—but in American Samoa, not in the United States. His only hope for reaching America was through the rarely-granted option of humanitarian parole. TJ, ever diligent, made application after application and watched Naw grow more despondent each time his application was denied.

Naw and TJ in Washington, D.C. after his asylum interview. Naw's face is obscured to protect his friends and relatives still in Burma.
Naw and TJ in Washington, D.C. after his asylum interview. Naw’s face is obscured to protect his friends and relatives still in Burma.

Finally, after five years of struggle, five separate applications, along with a  campaign of petitions from Amnesty International, several U.S. Senators  and Representatives, and the Attorney General of American Samoa, Naw  was granted parole in July 2004.

It would be difficult to say with certainty which of the men was the happiest. “I just broke down when we got the notice,” recalls TJ. “I don’t do that often, but it was such a relief to have it over.”

Once Naw had joined his uncle in Richmond, TJ helped him obtain asylum  status and then his green card. Naw became a U.S. citizen in 2011, and  immediately petitioned to get both his mother and brother to the United  States. TJ and JFON-NY were with him every step of the way.

The Mother and Son Reunion

Fifteen years after he left Burma, Naw was finally reunited with his mother.

“I just cried,” admits Naw. “So many times I thought I would never see her again. I just…cried.”

Today Naw is married—TJ was a guest at his wedding—and has a 15-month-old son named Matthew. Naw drives a truck for a living. He works long hours, rarely getting home during the week, but it’s a good job. Naw has left many family members and friends back in Burma, and he worries about them constantly. Yet here in Richmond, he has his uncle, his brother, his wife, his child, and his mother. He is tremendously grateful for these gifts.

“My mom is able to carry her grandson,” he says happily. “I never thought we would live to see this moment. “

Naw falls silent, and when he speaks again, his voice is steadfast and as reverent as a prayer. “The Lord has blessed me,” he declares, “and I am so thankful for what I have right now. I didn’t think I would have the strength to go through everything, and the Lord gave that to me, too. Today I am alive through God’s grace.”


Cover photo of Kachin refugees courtesy of www.nd-burma.org


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