Saturday, July 30, 2011

Faces & Stories

Despite the best of intentions, it's been way too long since I've written, and so much has changed! A few weeks ago, I left Mae Sot (on the Thai-Burma border) to move back to the US of A. Even though I was confident that the timing was right to come back, it was nothing short of heart-breaking to say good-bye to such special people.

Here are a few faces that have captured my heart:

Chat has lived and worked in one of Compasio’s childrens’ homes for two years with his wife, Nee. They have two sons (Wai Wai, 4, and a new baby named Noah). They’re from a small Thai-Karen village, and now they care for about five other children whose mothers are in prison. I’m always overwhelmed by the warmth in their home every time I visit, and how things like money, my busy to-do list, and even time, don't seem to matter anymore.

During my last week in Mae Sot, I had dinner at their home, which consisted of fish we just caught from a pond in their backyard. I had recently set up an email account for Chat at his request, but he told me he still wasn't sure how to use it. So, we met at a coffee shop the next day, and we practiced on their computer... logging in and out of his email, sending me one from his, checking it in my email, etc. This is what he wrote to me (in Thai) while he was practicing how to send an email:

Hello Stephanie, how are you? Today my family was so excited to learn how to use email from our kind friend. For 2 years and 4 months I haven't been able to use a computer. Thank you so much for spending time with me.

We love you so much,

Chat thank you

Tell me that wouldn't melt your heart! It also struck me that I frequented this coffee shop to work or to study language, but it was such a treat for them to be there. Chat bought banana cake for us, and we all hung out for the last time. It feels so good to be part of their life, and now we can keep in touch via email :)


I met Yuzana a few months ago in the context of her helping me learn Burmese. When I first asked her about pay, she said, “I don’t want to talk about money. I’m just happy that you want to learn my language”. She had a full time job with an organization in town, but she let me come over to her house on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and every Saturday. She was an excellent language helper, enthusiastically embracing any project I brought to do, and pushing me further than I thought I could go. She was firm and encouraging. I heard things like, “I think you did not study today” after I had spent the entire day practicing (way to burst my bubble!), but also told me that she was always bragging about me to her friends at work, saying that I was trying so hard and learning so much.

During the last couple weeks, she started taking a two hour Thai lesson after work and asked if I could come over a little later in the evening. I told her that sounded like way too much - an eight hour work day, two hours of learning a language (believe me, it’s exhausting) and then helping me practice for over an hour? She said there was still so much she’d like to teach me, and that she wanted to see me every day if she could before I left. So, I went almost every day from then on, and absolutely treasured all the time I got to spend with her. I went to her Burmese church with her one Sunday (a five hour ordeal), and we went out for pedicures on my last day in town... I couldn't think of anyone better to spend some quality girl time with!

I saw another piece of her character at the end, which moved me to consider whether I'd be so selfless. When she heard that a local school her cousin worked with was struggling, she gave up her little apartment (where she enjoyed living alone), moved into the dorm-like housing with all of the students, and agreed to help with teaching mornings, evenings and weekends.

I love how spirited she is, and appreciate her cute sense of humor. The last thing she taught me to say in Burmese was so that I could ask her cousin this at breakfast the next morning: “Do you think I’m lovely? ...Because Yuzana says I’m lovely”.


I’ve been spending time with people from Mae Sot’s garbage dump for the last year and a half, and because I could never speak Burmese, I would play with the kids. There was a group of four or five kids that we called the “dream team” (because they were just that awesome), and this girl stole my heart on day one.

I don’t know her name, because I never understood the sounds well enough to remember it. She’d always run up to me when she saw me and insist on being held the whole time. She has the most infectious giggle, and even though I couldn’t understand her words, I could tell she was pretty sassy as well.

Because I had focused the bulk of my time learning the Thai language, which these people don’t speak, I had accepted the fact that I wouldn’t really be able to communicate. Playing and laughing was fine for awhile, but I eventually felt all kinds of frustration that I couldn’t really communicate with these kids I loved so much.

When I finished my work with Compasio, there was a couple month gap where I was learning Burmese, going to the border and the Burmese Market, spending time with a visiting team, etc, and I didn’t go to the garbage dump. I went during my last week to say good-bye, and was just praying I’d see my girl again.

She ran out of her little hut alongside the mountain of garbage as I pulled up on my motorbike, and grabbed my hand to run off with her. I sat down with her and a few other kids, and was finally able to have a conversation with them! I asked their names and ages in Burmese, and they joked about taking my motorbike for a joy-ride. While it was all pretty basic, it felt incredible to finally speak with them in their language. It’s like I had been waiting for this for years... a dream come true.

I don't know what's in store for this precious little one, but I've seen enough examples of God's love being stronger than bad circumstances, that I have hope for good things in her future.

One thing I learned from my life in Mae Sot, is that everyone has a story. Everyone has been through something, is battling something, dreaming about something. It might not be as dramatic as a refugee's from Burma, but everyone we meet has something special that's waiting to be discovered and shared.

There are many more people whose lives have made their mark on me, and I'm lucky to have wonderful friends from all over the world now. Back in the US, my story is slowly unfolding. More on that as it comes...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Annual Recap, Movie Style

I put together a short 8 minute video of my experiences in Thailand from the pictures I’ve taken.
I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abandoned Babies

How a mother could look at this face and say, "I think I'll just sell him to someone in Bangkok," is beyond me. That was the response of this little boy's mother as we were encouraging her to keep her baby, at which point we were happy to take him. He was 5 days old. He is Burmese, and the same ethnic group as one of our staff members, so we asked her to name him. He has a traditional Wa name: Mong Doon, or just "Doon" for short.

He has no other family that we're aware of, so we realize that we're in this for the long haul. We have enough involvement in the community to know that this need may be presented to us again in the future, and we want to be ready to respond. We're also aware that mothers occasionally leave their babies at the clinic after giving birth, and that the Burma Children Medical Fund could use help caring for babies while a parent is receiving medical treatment. All of this has pointed to us opening a new "Infant Home". We have already rented a house, and are currently working on hiring the staff for it. Until then, Doon is staying with a wonderful family who has just joined us from California. He's now a month old, he sleeps well (most nights!), he loves being held, and he's getting bigger every day.

Su Su will also join our new baby home when it's ready. She is about three months old, and she's an absolute miracle. She was born with Harlequin Syndrome, an incredibly rare skin condition that is almost always fatal at birth. She fought through infections and seizures, shed her layer of thick, red scales, and is growing stronger and stronger. She was born with her eyes swollen shut, and her fingers and toes were black and webbed together. Her mother left at the first sight of her.

Because we have a good relationship with Mae Tao Clinic, we became aware of Su Su's situation. We took her to Chiang Mai to get her as much medical attention as we could, and we visited her daily in the hospital to hold her and feed her. She finally became well enough to go home, so she went home with our staff member who has a background in nursing. Su Su requires a lot of treatment to keep her skin from hardening, and she needs to be loved like any other child. We have dreams of her being able to grow and play with other little girls, to wear dresses and feel beautiful, and to have a future.

You can read more of baby Su Su's story HERE.

It's amazing to me how much emotion can be had for such a small person. Maybe it's the way they're created into being, how they enter the world so ready to love and be loved, and how there is so much possibility surrounding their new life. I'm so thankful that I can be part of these lives unfolding.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I've made a huge mistake.

I've gone through a lot of physical and emotional adjustments while living on the Thai-Burma border, and I've allowed myself to take credit for making it to this place of peace and overall fullness of life. Compasio's training program is entering the third and final month, and has included guest speakers from all over to talk with us about a range of topics. The focus this week is worship, and I'm reminded that it's not an hour of singing, but a lifestyle... an attitude of praise and thanksgiving. I don't want to pretend that I have held everything together anymore, or that I have the future under control, and I'd like to give credit where it is due.

First, I'm so thankful for the people in Minnesota, Idaho, California and Germany who have been a huge source of support and encouragement for me. Through emails, Skype, and even Facebook, I have been included in your lives when it could've been so easy to become disconnected. You have allowed me to process difficult things with you and to share meaningful experiences. Thank you to everyone who has prayed for me, for Compasio, and for the people at risk here.

My mom and dad are amazing...
and I love Skype dates with my nieces and nephew... they're getting so big!

I do not receive any pay from Compasio, and have been fully supported by family and friends to be here. I can't thank you enough for this. This was my greatest source of anxiety before coming here, but I have always had enough to support myself and enough to give. I have been able to feed the street kids on many occasions - and sometimes spoil them - and have not had to worry about whether or not I could afford it. Not that I have taken this for granted, but quite the contrary. Being dependent on others is very humbling, and is teaching me what it really means to be a good steward of the resources that are provided for me. As I continue to live and work here, I will continue to trust God to "give me my daily bread" through the generosity of others. I hope you all know how much your gift is appreciated, and what a large role you play in the good things that are happening here. Thank you.

A great afternoon of soccer with kids from the Muslim Community!
Ali is one of the street kids, and the highlight of any day I get to see him

I'm also in awe of the wonderful friendships I've been blessed with here. I have a few close friends that I can (and do) share everything with, and many more that make up the community of friends I "do life with" here. We can spend time having coffee, praying with each other, studying Thai, watching movies, crying, exploring, making music, laughing, and enjoying nature. We learn together how to take heart when we feel broken over all of the suffering and injustice we see, how to be independent but not hardened, and how to be family to each other when ours are on the other side of the world. For these people, I am so utterly grateful.

Last but absolutely not least, I am so thankful for my God who has been my Father, my love, and my best friend. I struggled a lot with loneliness in the beginning, and have at one time or another felt insecure, hurt, depressed, or violently ill. He has urged me on, saying, "Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me" (Song of Solomon 2.13). He has shown me that he has never taken his eyes off of me, that he loves me more deeply than I can comprehend, and that he is good. He is so good. He has invited me into a deeper relationship with himself, and through that has given me more abundant life than I would've thought to ask for.
Psalm 139 is pretty fantastic:

O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O Lord.
You hem me in - behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.

When I awake, I am still with you...
...Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Okay, so there you have it. Thanks to you all for being part of this adventure with me.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

there's something about the baby house...

I was not in the mood for my "shift" at the Baby House. I was tired, had some important emails to respond to, and was concerned that a whole evening of taking care of the kids would wear me out too much. The Baby House is where kids who had been living in prison with their moms could receive a healthy home environment in which to grow and go to school. We also welcome in the moms when they are released, give them time to reunite with their child, and help them regain an independent lifestyle. All good stuff, yes, but like I said, I wasn’t in the mood for it.

Chat and Nee are the house parents, and they stuck around all night, even though it was their day off. I somehow forgot how I always feel like family when I’m there, and how warm they welcome me into their home. I spent about an hour watching the kids play together outside, and could see Saw Min Oo, the newest boy to the home, laughing hysterically as he was being chased by Simomo. After that, Bobo noticed my Thai dictionary and wanted to practice saying the characters of the alphabet. At four years old, I was impressed with her ambition. We sat there for an entire hour while she repeated the alphabet, learning from her mistakes and moving on to the vowels. As Chat walked by, she said (in Thai), “Look dad, I can read the alphabet!” He gave her a smile that warmed my soul, a thumbs up, and said, “Alright! Great job!” as enthusiastically as possible. He was so proud of her, and she knew it.

We broke for dinner, and I realized that the best was yet to come. After goofing around with the kids and making some videos (Nee and one of the kids’ mom’s got in on the action, too), Chat gathered the kids together for some worship time. Did I mention it was his day off? This was not something he had to do, nor was it something the kids had to do. They were so excited. They gathered in front of him, ready to sing and dance their little hearts out. In between each song, Chat asked them what they thought God was like and got these responses: good, kind, and “I feel happy around Him”.

He asked me if I had anything to say to the children, and I thought it would be neat to ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Bobo, who is usually very quiet, said she wanted to be a doctor without any hesitation. While the boys wanted to be pilots or truck drivers, Simala, a 14 year old girl who has already endured a lifetime of suffering, had the most thoughtful response. She said she’d like to work at the Baby House, to help Chat and Nee, and that she would like to work with people who have broken hearts. This kind of wisdom and heart is rare in anyone, let alone a young girl with plenty of her own pain. It’s beautiful to see God’s healing and restoration at work.

Chat told the kids that they all have dreams, and that they have futures where anything can happen. He told them that they can ask God for anything, and that God will help them. We prayed for the kids, for their futures, and for their precious little hearts.

I left because I felt like if I stayed any longer I would be keeping them up, and not because I wanted to or had to. I left feeling whole and alive, without a care in the world about the emails in my inbox. It was not a distraction or an obligation, but an absolute privilege to be welcomed into their lives, and to experience the community of family that takes place in this home.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

hope and a future

Chico is a handsome young man from Burma, who has been spending some time in Mae Sot trying to earn money for his family. He is too old to beg (depending on the day, he says he is either 13 or 19), so he has had a tough time here. He visits our Drop-In Center on Wednesdays, and never wants to leave. You can see the ache for safety and affection on his face. He has really connected with my friend Katie, and she has a special heart for him.

Last week, he showed up at our office with his friend Ali. They wanted to return to Burma that day, and wanted us to give them money. We stood at our gate and delivered our standard, "I'm sorry, we can't give you money" response. Looking miserable and defeated, they started to turn away. We asked if they were thirsty, and invited them to sit at the table in front of our office. They gulped down some water, and Katie went to a restaurant next door to order some food for them. Enjoying our unexpected visitors, Katie began speaking with Chico in Burmese, and I talked to Ali in Thai. We engaged with them separately in different languages, periodically stopping to tell the other what we were hearing.

Ali explained that he lost his vision when he was eight years old. He comes from Burma, and has no mother or father. He cannot work because he's blind, and he is lucky to have a friend like Chico who will hold his hand around town. They are currently staying in one of the poorest neighborhoods, and they face challenges every day just to survive. They don't know when or how they're going to get food, if they'll be safe, and now, how they'll get back home to Burma. As I watched Ali speak with such desperation, words weighted with the suffering he feels every minute, I came quite close to bursting into tears.

What kind of future does Ali have? Will this incredible spark in Chico's eyes last much longer?

Where will these young men end up?

Just as it was all feeling too heavy for us to stand, Chico casually mentioned that he speaks English. When we asked him if he actually does, he just said, "yeah!"... like it was no big deal. We quickly calculated what we had already said to each other in English, and realized he understood us saying how cute he was. Oh well.

Ali told me all his troubles, with every bit of misery apparent, but then told me that he felt good sitting there with us. He asked if he could come back every day, and I had to say no. I explained it was our office and that they couldn't come every day, but that we really liked spending time with them and would meet them over the weekend. He said, "Really? You'll come see me?", and I replied, "Really, we will!" (it sounds so much cooler in Thai)

So we did. We took two of our male Interns to visit the community where they were staying, and found Chico in a small house with almost 30 other people. I had never been to this street before, and was overwhelmed by the poverty. I have seen poverty here, and let me tell you... I was overwhelmed. The dead-end road was lined with a long apartment-like structure on each side, and each little home was spilling over with people, laundry and garbage. We sat on the concrete floor in the living room with old men and women sitting against the walls, babies and little kids crawling all over (of course with no pants), young women lying down and watching TV, the men talking and watching it all, and another 15 people standing outside and crowding the windows to peer in. Ali was apparently staying at the mosque, but we got to see Chico and let him know that he was worth visiting. He smiled the whole time. So did we.

I pray for the futures of these kids, and for their hearts to be protected from all the trouble around them. Some of the kids have seemingly resigned to life on the streets, but I can see that Chico wants more. He has dreams, and I cling to hope that he can someday be all he wants to be.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. -Jer 29.11

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Burma has stolen my heart.Add Image

I came here because I knew there were social justice issues on the Thai-Burma border, but I was not prepared for what I would see and feel.

Issues can get to you… I cried my eyes out as I learned about sex trafficking, and my blood has boiled over other types of injustice.

But people… people can forever change you. When it’s no longer an issue, but a face – and then, not just a face, but a heart and a soul – all bets are off. I doubt that I’ll live in or near Burma for the rest of my life, but I will never forget these amazing people or the suffering they endure.

Let me start with a little background. The military junta has been in power for the last 50 years, and it has been an era marked by cruelty and tragedy. The country is closed, no photos are allowed and no news is supposed to travel in or out, and the military is constantly watching the people. They are always on the move, terrorizing whatever villages they come across. The people of Burma are subject to the rapes and killings that so frequently take place, and families are often separated. Because the military has planted so many landmines all over the country and doesn’t want to cross paths with them, they will take men, women and children from their homes to be human minesweepers for them. Or, they might be forced to be porters, carrying heavy loads for impossible hours until they are either killed or escape. If the people are so bold as to resist, there are bloody battles and the military’s control will only tighten. The Karen State in Burma has stood their ground, and currently has armies fighting Burma’s military, which is ironically called the SPDC – State Peace and Development Council. There has recently been activity on the border, with an attempted assassination, gunfire and bombs near Myawaddy (just across the bridge).

There have been two major uprisings – one in 1988 and one in 2007. Citizens came together to march for freedom, and were shot in the streets. The monks joined the protest in 2007, and their temples were raided, ending in abductions, beatings and killings. It is striking and saddening to see how the people’s hope has been strangled. After living under oppression for so long, hope was born in beauty as they saw the possibility of a better future. And it ended when that door was closed and the tyranny worsened.

I witnessed this in their faces when I spent the day in Myawaddy last month. While it was just a short walk across the Friendship Bridge, something changed when I entered Burma. I could see the military presence as soldiers marched around with their rifles. I saw the poverty, the children and disabled men and women begging on the streets. I saw the fear in their eyes and the absence of hope.

Can you imagine a life like this?

For many, their best option is to escape to a neighboring country like Thailand. While they may be escaping some immediate danger, they are entering a life as being an “illegal” person. They will have no documentation, no chance to work at a fair wage, to own a home or a vehicle, or to have health insurance. They still must live in fear of being caught and sent back to Burma, and they are unable to leave the city because they would not make it through the many security checkpoints.

I met a man who had gotten a full scholarship to a university in Sweden, but he couldn’t go because he did not have a passport. His plan was to traffic himself to another country, where he would then try to get the paperwork he would need to travel. I have not talked to him since he left.

Through Compasio’s engagement at Mae Sot’s garbage dump, we met a man and woman from Burma who shared their story with us. They had eight children in Burma, and after every child died, they came to Thailand looking for a better life. They had been living at the garbage dump for the last twelve years, along with about 200 more people with similar stories.

My friend works at Mae Tao Clinic, a non-profit clinic that serves mainly Burmese people. Many will save their money for years just to make it across the border, and will often sell everything they have to get there. The clinic sees some extreme cases of illness and injury, and they created the Burma Children Medical Fund to expand the care they’re able to provide. My friend has interviewed wounded soldiers, and she has shown me the prosthetic lab where 20-40 people who lost a limb from a landmine will receive a new arm or leg each month.

I have a friend who cannot return to Burma because of his suspected political involvement, and he has not had any contact with his family in over ten years. He spent four years in a refugee camp before coming to Mae Sot, and now his future is so uncertain.

I have sometimes felt guilty that I happened to be born in America, and I have never understood the value of having a US Passport until now. I can go anywhere I want to. I could go to school in Europe, get a job in Asia, go on vacation in South America, and return home at any time. Apologizing for that doesn’t get one anywhere, but it has both humbled me and angered me.

The Bible says that the enemy comes to kill and destroy. I’m pretty sure he’s living in Burma.

But I also know that the Lord loves justice, and that he calls us to love and care for the poor and oppressed. I’m not about to march into Burma and start demanding freedom, but I am praying. And I’m asking you to pray. If you feel something for these people, if you want them to have hope and a future, and if you are wondering what you can do, this is the answer: Pray. God hears, and he is always working. Let’s have faith that we will see great things here.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

… For I, the Lord, love justice. Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8