She didn’t have to be here. Hilly country. Dense jungles. Long trails. But she was called. For Eh Mhu, life was about more than just her own ambitions or desires. She was a Sunday School teacher, and now, God had called her to a remote place. She was heading to a village of an isolated tribal group. Not that she was unused to being off the beaten path. She herself lived in the hilly Karen state, where walking – not cars – was the norm for travel.
The village that Eh Mhu visited that day was poor, desperately so. She noticed that the people had very little food or much of anything else in the way of possessions. And when a Burmese army unit approached, concern grew. In those days, the Myanmar Junta ruled by military force…and that force was absolute. When the army arrived, a peaceful outcome was far from certain.
The war between Karen rebels and the Myanmar army had been raging for almost 50 years. And the government forces were known to be brutal. As reported in Vice news, “One former [Myanmar army] soldier recalled being told to “do whatever you want” to civilians in black areas.” The army had been accused of attacking civilian areas, destroying food stores, laying land mines in civilian locations, and shooting fleeing civilians, not to mention raping women and using human shields to protect them from rebel army snipers.
But even though the army was the backbone of the Junta’s authority, many soldiers were underpaid and underfed. To ward off hunger, government soldiers were known to freely requisition food from the villages they passed through. As Eh Mhu watched, that was exactly what was happening to these “Black Karen” villagers. “Soldiers took whatever food they wanted, stealing from these very poor people!” she later recalled with indignation.
The Sunday School teacher then chose a course of action that would change her life forever – she challenged the soldiers. “I couldn’t stay quiet. I was so angry!” she said. “I went up to them and told them, ‘What you are doing is wrong. Why are you stealing from these people who are so poor? How dare you?'” The soldiers were surprised – as likely was everyone else – but that initial shock turned to anger a few days later.
When Eh Mhu arrived home, her friends and family told her she had to flee. “The army has found out who you are and are looking for you. They are coming to get you.” Knowing the history of rape and torture inflicted on Karen women by the Burmese army, Eh Mhu knew she had to flee. By herself, she set out on a journey that would take her around the world.
She faced smugglers, corrupt Malaysian police, backbreaking work, and years of separation from her family.
The thing is, until you hear her harrowing story of courage and escape, you’d never guess all that Eh Mhu has lived through as a refugee. She’s a leader in her community. After arriving in North Carolina, she helped organize a Karen speaking church and Bible study. She learned English and provided translation for other new refugee arrivals. She worked hard jobs, but always with a smile, a laugh and prayer. She’s a treasure to all who know her.
Most of all, Eh Mhu is an example of bravery. She spoke out when it would have been easier to be silent – and paid the price. Our country is stronger for such refugee women as these.