Last week, the Refugee Coordinator at Jubilee Partners invited my family to an “open house” for a Karen Burmese family who has just moved to Athens. As yet unemployed–but together and happy–their journey is just beginning.
The details of the story are theirs to tell, but here is a little background: Paw Htoo arrived in the United States a widow. She had three young daughters and was expecting her fourth child, a boy. She left behind her “mother,” a woman named Pleh Htoo who had taken her in when Paw Htoo was orphaned at six-months old. Pleh Htoo fed her own child and Paw Htoo on breast milk and rice. When Pleh Htoo and her husband Myo Min were selected for resettlement in America, they were finally reunited with Paw Htoo and her children.
When I first saw the girls, Paw Mind Ta, Ma Tha Aye and Nga Lae, they were dancing and singing, somewhat off-key but smiles wide. Their little brother Saw Cri Hay crawled around on the floor. A circle of about 15 people sat around, talking, eating Karen food, and thinking of ways to help this family enter the community (and workforce) of Athens. Paw Htoo greeted my mom with a big embrace and ‘thank you.’ Pleh Htoo pulled me into a chair the moment she saw me sit down on the floor, and within seconds one of the girls had jumped into my lap and pulled my arms around her. Pleh Htoo instructed me to ‘many eat, many eat,’ and spooned food onto my plate faster than I could eat it. It was like meeting old friends for the first time…
It was like being back in Tanzania, a time marked by the extraordinary generosity, openness, and compassion of the Tanzanian people. I got used to passing “strangers” in the street with exuberant shouts of greeting–but this was not altogether unfamiliar, just an intensification of what I’m used to here in the Southern United States. Whether its a kind “hello” from the owner of the LaFonda Dogs hotdog stand, the person who smiles at me as we pass on the sidewalk, or the homeless man who sits on Clayton St., I’m always humbled by and grateful for the people who do not know my name but brighten my day with their friendliness nonetheless. Rotary’s ‘Polio Plus’ campaign was created with the belief that just because a disease doesn’t effect children in the U.S., does not mean we have the right or the privilege to ignore it. In 20 years, Rotary and its partners have all but eradicated the Polio from the planet. Kiva was founded on the idea that anyone can be a humanitarian, that a person with just $25 dollars to lend can make a meaningful connection with someone on the other side of the world who is struggling to make a living. What all of these people are doing is breaking up borders, tearing down the fears and prejudices that divide us, and making this world a more peaceful, joyful place.
Here is my new commitment: To live in a world without strangers. To give out of love, not pity. To see that charity to others is never a chore. To know that compassion is the realization of the brotherhood and sisterhood of man. For people like Pleh Htoo, this way of life is natural, a necessity for survival in a dangerous world. For me, it’s a goal, a hope, and a promise to myself. It is the most golden of opportunities.
And it is something I would like to pass on. If anyone is interested, I will be visiting Pleh Htoo and her family in their home a couple of times a week to help them practice English, do homework, and get to know people in the Athens community. I would love to introduce you! Also, if you know of work opportunities for Pleh Htoo, Myo Min, or Paw Htoo, please let me know. They can clean, garden and do yard work, etc- but do not have a car. They are also looking for business locations where they can sell their traditional woven Karen bags and clothing. Thank you… and please, don’t be a stranger.