Surrendering to Hope: A Visit to the Karen

How do you tell a story?

A story that’s probably already been told by dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands?

One that largely remains hidden from most?

With just one voice and a few photographs?

This is my attempt to tell a story. Really, it is a compilation of stories likely told and shown before, but this time, it comes from my perspective. I should have told it months ago, but perhaps I was not ready… I just didn’t feel what I had was adequate for the task. But I’ve come to realize that in sharing this story, it’s not about my talent for words or whether my photographs will “wow” anyone. It’s simple: I just want to tell what I’ve seen, and I trust that God will do the rest.

Unexpected Journey

In early 2012, I had the privilege of traveling to the Far East for the first time. I had never desired to go to Asia before, and yet, life afforded an opportunity too good to pass up on. A friend of mine was teaching English in China and would have a considerable amount of time off during Chinese New Year. If I wanted to, I could come visit. I hardly knew what to do since I wasn’t sure if I could swing it, but when else would I have such a chance? It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

So I took it. And in January 2012, off I went.

I chronicled my trip in other ways on this blog, but there is a story that I didn’t tell. Of the many sights I saw, people I met, and experiences I had, there was one that has stuck with me in a way very different than the others.

A People Without a Country

A Break to Smile

There are many hill tribes in Thailand, especially in the North. One such hill tribe, the Karen (kuh – ryn), is one of Myanmar’s internally displaced people (IDP) groups, a people driven from their land by their own government, as military forces storm their villages, burn their land, and abuse and murder numerous innocents in a storm of violence that leaves a trail of destruction it their wake without regard to men, women, or children. In the face of such injustice and extreme danger, the only choice the Karen have is to stay and suffer the consequences or run. So they run.

Leaving any hope of freedom in their land behind, they take what they can carry and run. Once they find a suitable place to hide, they rebuild a village of sorts and try to move on with life. But the military is tireless in their rampage against the people, so when the Karen are found again, they are attacked again, and so they must run again or risk their very lives. There was no place safe to call home in their own land.

Dreams, education, advancement, and even just a stable place to work and raise a family are elusive hopes for IDPs. If they were to stay, the Karen would either have to continue running in their own country and risk further harm. Otherwise, they could migrate to Thailand to live in one of the border’s neighboring refugee camps. The refugee camps offer somewhat of a haven from artillery fire, but without the appropriate Thai documentation or identification, the Karen have few rights in country and citizenship is nearly an impossibility. So in Thailand, they were safe on the one hand but without true freedom, trapped on the other. For the Karen, it seemed there would be little to no hope for a future.

The Karen’s story has always caught my heart. I had learned about the Karen some years ago through a friend in the States who had done some volunteer/ministry work to serve them. It was deeply saddening. It seemed so hopeless. It was injustice at its best (or worst). What could I possibly do about it?

Well, I prayed, and I supported those who gave of themselves, their time, their resources to help in the way they felt God leading them to. I’d always wondered if I should have joined them, perhaps on one of their mission trips, but I felt hesitant. Perhaps another time will come, I thought to myself. And another time did.

A Change in Plans

Nearly three years later, I would be off to the “Land of Smiles” myself. I hadn’t really been intent on being a tourist; I wanted the Lord to meet me in two ways on this trip: 1) to speak to me about my life and my future, and 2) to work through me and my friend in ways that would speak clearly of Him. My traveling friend and I had discussed our plans and decided to hold them quite loosely, leaving ourselves open to whatever the Lord would have in mind. We deemed it an “informal missions trip,” and we planned accordingly. We plotted a few points where we wanted to go, a few sights we wanted to see, and soon a rough itinerary was born. We had few connections in Thailand, but we thought it likely we would serve in some capacity while we were there, a possibility that delighted and excited us both.

Country Flags

Along the way, our rough itinerary was changed, radically altered, and stymied in ways that tested our patience and flexibility. Trains were booked. Flights delayed. Buses missed. It turns out that we didn’t get to connect with our acquaintances to serve as we had hoped. I particularly wanted to meet the Karen after hearing so much about them, but it appeared that I’d have little opportunity to do so. As it would happen, we acquired a new member to our little traveling band while in southern Thailand. She was also headed north and wanted to visit the Karen because she had heard much about them from friends. Coincidence? Not likely. We decided to go up north together the next day and made visiting a Karen village a priority on our agenda. Now, we just had to figure out how to get there.

After making our way north to Chiang Mai via Bangkok, we ended up finding a tour where we could visit an “authentic” long-neck Karen village, go elephant trekking in the jungle, hike to a waterfall, and visit a temple of tigers. Honestly, I was hesitant. The idea of visiting a village as part of a tour made my stomach churn. I didn’t want to go gawk at these folks as if they were on exhibit, but I knew at this point I had very few options. After a resigned “okay” and several hundred baht later, we were scheduled for our tour just beyond Chiang Mai.

The Way to Ban Mae Mae

Orchid FarmThe day of our tour came. We had a lovely time in Chiang Mai the night before, walking around town, eating yummy food that brought tears to my eyes with its spicy little red peppers, bicycling to the Night Bazaar and enjoying the parade for the new year. Though our plans for that previous day had been trumped thoroughly again, we found our spontaneously-formed, new agenda surprisingly satisfying. It was exciting to think of the adventures awaiting us on this fresh, sunny day in Chiang Mai.

We met the rest of our group and piled into the truck. We drove through long stretches of mountain road and saw sights that reminded me of the mountain range of my own home. Our first stop was to tour an orchid farm with the most beautiful blooms you could imagine, and then, we would visit a tourist-sustained, long-neck Karen village. At last! This is what we had been waiting for.

Upon arrival at our next stop, I realized the churning in my stomach hadn’t left. Perhaps it was the breakfast of leftover papaya salad from my friend’s cooking class the night before or could it be the result of grappling with the reality of what I would see? The surrounding mountain vistas, thatched-roof huts, and flooded rice paddies betrayed that we were no longer in the bustling city center of Chiang Mai. We had arrived at our destination: the long-neck village or, as I would later discover, Baan Tong Luang Village in Ban Mae Mae, Thailand.

Another View of the Village

A Village Observed

The early morning air smelled heavy, a combination of dew, wood, and dust that you only enjoy when you are in the mountains. I remember removing my camera from my knapsack and strapping it about my person as I took in my surroundings. Our guide beckoned us along the path leading further into the village, noting that we only had a short time to stay. I let our group go ahead of me as I stopped and took pictures, slowly taking in all I had observed. I wondered if this place was any where close to being authentic. I wondered what the people thought of our visit. I wondered if every day looked just like this one for them. I wondered that I should be there.

There were little houses, they reminded me somewhat of the huts I saw in the small villages of Uganda many years before. Women took their post at looms and manned tables full of merchandise and baubles similar to what I had spied in the markets in town and at the tourist sites we’d visited before. Children ran around playing, simply dressed with formerly vibrant colored sandals on their feet. There was life here, but it was strangely unsettling… like a ghost town with people still inhabiting it.

Hanging TunicI made my way further, slowing down from the pace of the group ahead to ensure my solitary reverie. With camera by my side, I took pictures of what caught my eye. A brightly colored tunic. Rows of a farmer’s vegetable crop on a small patch of land. The mountain peaks visible through the grand sweeping branches of the surrounding trees. People busy at their daily work. I had learned to ask before taking pictures of people, and I found those in the village quite obliging. Perhaps they had hoped I would purchase some of their wares. Perhaps this was part and parcel of living in this place. I knew they couldn’t have had much choice to be here. I knew enough of the Karen to know they had limited options.

I continued down the road, deeper into the small village area, taking pictures as I went, intentionally making eye contact and smiling at the village’s residents. During my time in Thailand, if there was anything I felt strongly about, it was to remember that people are made in the image of the Creator no matter where you go. Every person deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and courtesy, regardless of what “tourist attraction” sign may don the walls or the amount of money one spends on the visit.

Meeting at the Hilltop

I found the road inclined a bit as I went along, and at the end of it, the sight of a church surprised me. It stood tall at the top of the hill with a large white cross at the peak of the roof. The front doors were open though a low gate was drawn across the entryway. St. Nicholas Church. It was a Christian church, a detail which certainly stood out after many days of traveling through a land where temples, statues, and offerings of flowers, food, and incense were a more common sight.

St. Nicholas ChurchThere were two other tourists from another group atop its steps. I hesitated a bit until they left because I wanted to be alone. Once they were gone, I drew near to the church, climbing its few, small steps. I leaned into the church, resting my hands on the iron gate, looking about the room. I wondered at its presence here but then recalled that historically, a number of the Karen had embraced Christianity at some level. I looked inside the building from my place, slowly taking in what I observed. I wondered what it would be like during a service, the regional dialect reverberating from the walls as the minister gave a passionate address from the front podium.

I glanced to the left and spied a manger through the open windows. I thought of the significance of this manger’s placement, a symbol of the lowly place where the Son of God was born, a representation of the humble places in our lives where God meets us. I reflected some more and considered what all I had seen that day and on the previous days during my time in this country. I knew some of the plight of these people, and it broke my heart. I felt compassion well up inside of my heart as tears filled my eyes and my throat grew tight.

God, surely You know what is happening. Surely, there must be something that can be done.

I just stood there, the weight of the situation pressing in on my heart and head, praying in the silence.

Do you see it now too, Sheree?

The question surprised me at first, but soon I understood. On this trip, I had seen a lot of things that weighed on my heart and brought many questions to my mind, but our travel was so full with activity and conversation that I had little opportunity to process all I had witnessed. It seemed there was too much to take in and properly digest with such little time and space. There was hardly a moment for quiet times let alone journaling! Yet, God would not be bound by such limits. He used this brief quiet moment and an economy of words to show me that He understood. He knew. He saw. He heard. And I could rest assured because He wasn’t simply aware, but He was actively responding.

Then, He turned the tables on me…

Are you willing to join Me as I am calling you to?

I could only answer “yes.” It was the only word in my heart.

A Different Perspective

Our local guide briskly walked up the lane to the church, declaring our time there was nearing an end. I quickly wiped my eyes before turning my attention to him. By this time, my two friends had also reached the stairs of the church where they spent a few minutes to ask questions of our guide, about the village, about the people, about the situation with which they were largely unfamiliar.

He told us more about the Karen and their government’s military that made it impossible to go back to their own homes. As he explained further, it became clear to my friends the desperate circumstances the Karen were facing. The note of resign in his voice betrayed that though he thought their situation regrettable, since little could be done, the Karen’s fate would have to be accepted. After what I had seen and experienced, I could not disagree more.

Another Verse

Hilltop View of the VillageIt was time to go, our guide instructed. We were to go back to the truck if we were to reach our next destination on time. He sprinted ahead, collecting the rest of those in our party and hurrying them along to the vehicle. Strangely, I wanted to stay. How I wished for the command of multiple languages so I could ask questions, learn more about the people from the people, inquire about their perspective on this painful situation. I could only content myself with my camera and taking a few last hurried pictures as I went on.

Not far down the road, I encountered a woman who played a roughly constructed guitar. Her voice and her melody was haunting. I stopped and pulled out my phone to take a brief video of her. I figured the worse that could happen is that our time-conscious guide would spot me and shoo me off. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another opportunity, so I had to seize the moment. After communicating through the universals of body language that I wanted to take her picture, she nodded in agreement and smiled. I knew I might not get the best quality video or audio, but I was desperate to capture something.

She continued on with her song, a veritable loop of a strange lilting, bewitching melody, one that betrayed a hopeless situation but a resolve to continue living, even if just a shadow of what life could be. Her smile and demeanor was friendly toward me, but her eyes seemed so far removed, betraying an exhausted detachment with the present. I gave her a smile as I continued filming on my little phone. It seemed the only thing I could give apart from the few baht that my visit had brought them. As she made eye contact with me, it seemed for a brief moment we had connected, saying more than word could have accomplished through hours of conversation.

A final call from our tour guide let me know that I was out of time. But my heart continued to grapple with what I’d heard and seen.

One Last Picture

With deeper insight and a new perspective, I quickly took a few last shots as I left the village to return to our tour’s transport. In particular, one shot of a young girl I met standing at the side of the road really struck me. Wearing a brightly colored tunic that matched the rouge on her lips and multiple strands of jewelry about her neck, she stood quietly in front of a bamboo fence with the sweetest gaze. I smiled and motioned to my camera, and she nodded and stayed still as I lined up my shot and released the shutter. In my haste, the photo did not come out as sharp as I would have liked, but it still captured what was most important.

Little Girl Smile

There was something in this little girl that shone, like a light that brought a renewed sense of joy. It’s hard to look at her without smiling. She represented a kind of hope that I found to be emanating from all of the children I encountered.

At Play

Perhaps she and the other kids don’t fully understand what’s going on… Maybe they don’t know how difficult their situation likely is. (I know I don’t fully understand it.) Or maybe they could care less. Perhaps they’ve learned to be where they are at without regard for their surroundings, to be content with life at present and enjoy what they do have. I imagine this was one of the last interactions I had at the village because I needed to witness joy despite the circumstances. I had to see hope in a tangible way that I could take back with me and share with others.

A New Story to Tell

A Portrait of a Karen WomanI had come to Thailand with an awareness of the heartbreaking story of the Karen, a people group caught in limbo, imprisoned by the injustices inflicted by their own countrymen. And the Karen’s story is not the only one to be told. There are so many similar stories of pain and brutal injustice around the world in places like the Sudan, the Middle East, Uganda, eastern Europe, and right here at home in the States. Frankly, it’s overwhelming to think of it all, which, unfortunately, can make it that much easier to ignore. After all, what can be done?

But God surprised me with an immense hope in the midst of a dire situation. He reminded me that there is indeed One Who cares about the Karen and every story heard and unheard on earth. There is One Who sees and knows each person’s plight no matter how hidden from view they seem. Whatever the circumstance, however despairing or immense, God will conquer it and bring about redemption and freedom in His perfect timing. But even while in the midst of waiting, God will encourage hearts with His presence, provide grace for every single need, and bring deep joy despite the particulars of the situation. Will we trust Him?

Though I had read about, heard of, believed in, and experienced God’s goodness, I came to realize in a much more profound way how much God loves the oppressed and the oppressor, those who call on His name and those who have never heard of Him, those who are near and those who are far from Him. God, Who sends light to the nations, delivers the captives, binds the brokenhearted, and brings hope to those without a future, is here right now, ever present to those in need. Will we see Him?

And I am convinced that He’s calling each of us to join His work in the specific way that He desires. I know He’s calling me. To answer will require the humble surrender of our own agenda, expectations, even our very will. But if we will yield to our Lord, if we will prayerfully ask Him to move through us, if we will submit to His purposes no matter how big or small, then we will know the joy of taking part in His good plans and purposes, to bring His hope to the nations, to bear fruit that lasts.

This is my simple way of joining Him.

What will yours be?

Learn more about the Karen:

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