Bwet Phaw is an average 17-year-old girl, small in stature and big at heart.
She wears a lip color that accentuates her flashy smile. She throws her black, wavy hair up into a high, sassy ponytail. She idly twirls her earbuds round and round, wearing them around her neck like an accessory. Phaw’s eyes gleam with excitement as she lists off her favorite pop artists: Taylor Swift, One Direction and Big Bang, a Korean boy band. She loves everything about the Korean culture, from the language to the people.
But deep inside, Phaw associates herself with that of another noun — one that is recurring daily on the news, and one that is becoming more critical with each passing day.
Seven years ago, Phaw arrived in the land of America seeking peace and stability. Seven years ago, Phaw came to America as a refugee.
According to United Nations, there are more than 43 million people worldwide who are refugees, the highest number since the 1990s. Children constitute about 41 percent of this number, with 50 percent being women. These people are forcibly displaced as a result of country conflict and persecution, as was the case with Phaw.
“The government of Burma wanted to control everything,” Phaw said. “I’ve never seen it, but Burman soldiers kill and attack not only our people but other ethnicities, too. They’ll rape girls, and they kill people by torturing them to death. It’s really bad. I get really mad whenever I hear about it.”
Phaw, a Karen, was born in 1998 in Loikaw, Burma, at a time when the Burman government was in a state of war. The Karen National Union (KNU) was the main resistance movement among the ethnic minority, making up seven percent of Burma’s total population. Many Karen people migrated to Thailand during this time, settling mostly on the Thai–Karen border.
Phaw and her family were among thousands of other Karenni and Burman neighbors seeking refuge and safety from the perilous government. The Burman govenment took control of whatever possible, including their own people.
“The government of Burma wanted to control everything,” Phaw said. “They want our land, and we wanted our own freedom. There was no freedom and no peace. Many people had to work for [peace] in order to survive. My parents worked on a farm until we moved to Thailand.”
Six months after Phaw’s birth, Phaw’s grandparents, father, mother and two sisters started their long journey to a foreign territory they would call home. By foot they traveled from sun up to sun down until they reached their final destination: a refugee camp in the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“We walked to Thailand all day,” Phaw said. “I was just a baby then, but my mom said I liked holding onto her. My mother began to get really tired and weak, until she passed out and couldn’t walk anymore. My grandparents came back to carry me and my mother. We survived because of my grandfather.”
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Phaw and her family were stationed to a living headquarter where they were expected to build their own home for their family of seven. In a couple of years, the Phaw clan would grow to eight members with the birth of Phaw’s brother, Sha La Mo.
“The way we live in refugee camp, we don’t just ‘rent’ a house,” Phaw said. “We build one with small trees with leaves for the roof. It was pretty small. But it didn’t leak when it rained.”
Phaw and her family resided in refugee camp for 11 years, all the while living in constant fear and apprehension. Without any form of legal documentation such as a passport, Phaw and her family were stuck in camp.
To make matters worse, Phaw’s father was enlisted to serve in the military. Phaw and her family members’ hearts were never at ease.
“My father was a soldier,” Phaw said. “He didn’t want to help, but he did for our own Karen people. They called my dad to work for three years, but it was a lie. My dad ended up working for more than three years. It was hard for all of us.”
Recollecting the past, Phaw vividly recalls one particular day at camp — a simple venture that could have cost her and her uncle’s life. Phaw tells the story with faith and interminable fear.
“One time, my uncle and I went to the forest to get vegetables and bamboo shoots, and across the road there were two Thai soldiers with four huge dogs,” Phaw said. “We were hiding under bamboo shoots so they wouldn’t see us — if they saw us, they would have killed us. I was really, really scared. All I could do as an eight-year-old was say a bible verse in Matthews 6:9 over and over again.”
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven…
“I read that in Koran, and then the owner called the dog back,” Phaw said. “We were saved. I was so thankful [for God].”
During her stay at Chiang Mai, Phaw taught herself the Thai language through immersion of education and culture. The Thai government funded books for the children — but nothing more. Surrounded by refugees of all different backgrounds, Phaw became accustomed to the diverseness of home.
After 11 years of living in Thailand, Phaw’s life changed for the better.
In 2009, Phaw hopped onto an airplane for the very first time, watching the land that had harbored her and her family the past decade fade slowly into a mere speck. Several hours later, Phaw landed in the country of her newly proclaimed home: the United States of America.
“I was so excited [to come to America] because I got to see some of my friends who were already here [in Texas],” Phaw said. “I was really happy. I was also amazed by how big the city was and how many people there were. I never knew. I never knew there were so many different people and religions.”
Phaw lived in Houston, Texas for approximately four years before she and her family relocated to Columbia, Missouri to join her aunt. With increasing tension and danger in Texas, Phaw’s family made the decision to conform life to a smaller, safer environment.
“My parents wanted to move here because my aunt said that Columbia is a quiet place,” Phaw said. “It was also getting dangerous in Texas and my brother is growing up, so my mother didn’t want him to get any bad influences.”
Two years have passed since Phaw moved to Columbia. Phaw and her family live steady, normal lifestyles, having obtained U.S. citizenship in May. Phaw’s mother has a job and her father is continuing his education at a community college.
In the two years that she’s been in Columbia, Phaw has improved substantially in English, her fourth language.
“She displays interest and positivity toward school, always wanting to learn new vocabulary,” ELL instructor Lilia Ben Ayed said. “I don’t have enough adjectives to describe Bwet. She’s diligent, cheerful, attentive, creative, cooperative, clever and always on time.”
Bouyant and affable, making friends comes naturally to Phaw. She’s the center of attention during lunchtime, always cracking jokes and making the whole table burst into laughter.
On Sundays, Phaw sings alongside her youth worship team at Midway Heights Baptist Church. On school days, she enjoys delving into the world of polygons and angles in her geometry class and in P.E., she enjoys playing soccer and volleyball. When Phaw has the time, she self-teaches the guitar, taking it one chord at a time. On weekends, Phaw attends bible study at her church friends’ house.
Through this regime and other spontaneous moments of life, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. Time only increases since the day Phaw left her country. And through it all, she holds onto what matters the most: her identity and her past.
“Home means family and culture,” Phaw said. “Home means my own country.”