-Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election for Prime Minister in Burma (Myanmar) in 1990. The military junta prevented her from taking office and instead incarcerated her. She has spent 14 of the last 20 years in prison or under house arrest. Despite her long imprisonment, Suu Kyi has been the leader of the fight for human rights and democracy in Burma. In 1991 she was given the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in promoting the non-violent movement. In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks marched the streets in anti-government protests, demanding that the violence against the people stop. Their “Saffron Revolution” galvanized the citizens, and some protests reached 100,000 people. The military response was swift and violent. Though the official count tallied only 13 deaths, other sources say hundreds died and hundreds more were injured. When her people told her of their suffering under the brutal military dictatorship and their feelings of utter helplessness, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.”
In a conflict that began in 1950 and continues today, there are millions of people rendered “helpless.” Thousands of people from ethnic groups who resist or have resisted the government have been internally displaced or forced to flee for their lives to escape ethnic cleansing. The Karen and Kareni are two groups targeted by the military regime. More than 100,000 refugees now live in camps in Thailand.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet three Kareni refugee families. One of them was a member of the “Free Burma Rangers,” a humanitarian group that smuggles medical supplies and doctors from Thailand into Burma and collects evidence of human rights abuses to give to news agencies, human rights groups, and organizations such as the U.N. and Amnesty International. They continually risk their own lives to save others. Another of the refugees was a weaver. Another was a mother. Another was a brother and grand-daughter and child. All of them were hoping for a second chance at life and freedom, here in a country whose iconic gatekeeper says, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Refugees selected to come to the United States are given about three months of government support. After that, they must be entirely self-sufficient. The refugees I met, however, are given an extra opportunity for transition by Jubilee Partners. Founded in 1979, Jubilee Partners is a Christian Service Community located in Comer, Ga., just about twenty miles from Athens. They are also a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, run entirely on donations. Their name comes from Biblical times, when once every fifty years there was “the year of the Lord’s favor” or “the year of jubilee.” In this year, prisoners were freed, debts forgiven, and the poor cared for (Lev. 25). The folks at Jubilee Partners have modeled their lives after this message of justice and mercy. Don and Carolyn Mosley are the two original partners remaining at Jubilee. They have been there for 30 years. Along with several other full-time “partners” and groups of volunteers throughout the year, the Mosley’s run a Refugee Program that takes in refugees as soon as they arrive in the States, gives them a place to stay, intensive English language training every day, childcare, and a variety of other services designed to help the refugees adjust to their new lives and prepare for the difficult journey that lies ahead. More than 3000 refugees from over 30 countries have passed through Jubilee. Down the dirt and gravel road that leads to the small refugee houses, there is a white sign. It reads, “Welcome,” in about twenty languages. Refugees from Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, the Congo, Sudan, the former-Yugoslavia, Burma, and more, have arrived down that path to see a sign of hospitality in their own language, bright against the Georgia pines and red clay beyond.
I arrived at Jubilee with my mom last Tuesday. We rolled down that gravely path, parked in the shade, and walked to the “Koinonia House”- the communal cooking and eating hall of the community. Carolyn took us around the grounds, pointing out their two cows, the free-range chickens, the refugee houses, the school house, the small lakes, the gardens. Back at the “K-House,” as it was commonly called, we joined the girls in the kitchen chopping ripe tomatoes from the garden. There were hundreds of them. We sliced them into quarters and eighths before tossing them into a large silver pot. They smelled like fresh dirt and sun. A little Karen girl, Mu La Paw, ran between the tables and laughed, spreading her fingers and eyes wide with delight.
For the next three days, we worked. Mom made pear sauce from the pears collected in the garden. We ground them up in a food processor that clamped around the end of the table and worked when you churned by hand. We helped out in childcare. Two of the more recent arrivals to Jubilee, Preh-Meh and Nga-Meh, cried for most of the two hours that their parents were in English class. But the others, Mu La Paw, Talli, Berto… played happily with blocks and munched on apple slices and hard-boiled eggs. On Wednesday I helped a volunteer named Emma to teach her English class. Her students were a married couple, Lee-Reh and Plu-Meh. We went over greetings, how to buy groceries, and the different times to use “excuse me.” On Thursday, everyone jumped in the community vehicles and we went to Lake Hartwell. The Kareni children raced along the shore and then crouched in frog-squats to watch speedboats and jet-skis skip across the water. They tied their skirts expertly around their legs and waists before wading into the murky water. Before dinner, we held hands in a large circle and sang a song thanking God not only for the food, but for hands to eat food, and friends with whom to eat.
Back in February of this year there was a rainy but relatively warm day. My mom’s feet disappeared into my dad’s size 13 shoes, and she trudged out into the storm, clipping the leash to our dog’s collar and pulling him outside. I was just stopping by, but I decided to walk with her for a while. The rain was letting up, drops falling only every few seconds. The worms had made their way out of the soil and onto the asphalt where they now wriggled and writhed. I bent to pick one up, then tossed it back into the grass. I picked up another. There were so many, too many to save them all, but I’ve always done this. I never cared that it was weird. I looked over my shoulder. My mom was bending down, too. She already had several earthworms twisting in her palm. “I’ll put them in the garden,” she said. I didn’t tell her then, but I was flooded with happiness at that moment. Someone else thought it mattered to save a few worms. And it wasn’t a big deal, or a show, or for any sort of gain. I took her arm, just for a minute. I thought about how twenty-one years earlier she and my father had chosen to adopt me, had waited at the Atlanta airport for their small refugee to arrive, and taken me home as their own, and somewhere along the line taught me that it was okay to save worms, maybe even worthwhile.
So where does this all fit together? Aung San Suu Kyi, protesting monks, the Statue of Liberty, Jubilee Partners, chopping tomatoes, earthworms, my mom. Inspiration. Peace. Hope. Somewhere and some time I don’t remember, I read, “A little light dispels a lot of darkness.”
In his speech given to the graduating class of Arizona State University, President Obama put to rest the controversy over the fact that the university did not confer upon him the coveted “honorary degree.” He agreed that his “body of work” was not yet complete, nor would it ever be. He said, “I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one’s title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one’s life has been led – and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”
The people out at Jubilee live like that. My parents live like that. The Rotarians and Kiva volunteers I have met live like that. As if their body of work is not some dead thing to be remembered and honored, but a living, breathing instrument of change. As if their lives depended on it. As if mine does. And yours. And no matter if they win prizes or degrees or even thanks, as if the reward is in the act itself.