The following comments were made by Flicka Bateman, Habitat for Humanity of Orange County Board member, at the house dedication for Lu Pu and San Mu:
This is the story of Lu Pu and San Mu. It is a story of the rebuilding of shattered lives, a story of courage, resilience, hope, and trust. And it is the story of almost all of the Karen refugees our country has been honored to receive.
Lu Pu and San Mu were both born in Ta Wei, Burma, a remote village in Burma. Their families were farmers who worked daily in their own rice field. Candles provided light at night; cooking was done over a open fire; water came from a communal well; and school was provided for children whose families who could pay for it. Neither of theirs could. Life was simple, and carefree in terms of no bills to pay, appointments to keep, forms to fill out, etc. They were happy with one major exception—they lived in constant fear.
Since a military coup took control in the early 1960s, the Burmese government has practiced genocide against all minorities. The Karen, the indigenous people of Burma and the largest minority, have especially been persecuted by the military dictatorship. Gen Than Shwe, thug leader of the Burmese government, said, “The only Karen I want to see in Burma is one in a museum.”
Even as children, Lu Pu and San Mu say they remember the Burmese military repeatedly raiding their village, burning houses, destroying crops and livestock, killing villagers, enslaving men to be porters for the military, and raping the women. They remember fleeing into the jungle with other surviving villagers and returning later to recover what was left and to rebuild their homes. This has happened to over 3,200 Karen villages in the past 40 years.
In 1996 San Mu and Lu Pu were married. The following year their village again was burned and again they ran for their lives. However, this time instead of finally returning to the site of their village, they decided to try to make it to Thailand. This was a three month journey by foot in the jungle for the two of them and they did it without provisions. They got to the Thai-Burmese border, but started to worry about their families and decided they shouldn’t cross over without them. So they made the three month journey back. When they arrived back in Ta Wei 6 months later, San Mu found out that her father had died of an infection soon after running into the jungle to hide from the soldiers. The following year there was another raid on their village and many of the villagers, including San Mu and Lu Pu, made the decision to flee to Thailand. Luckily this time they were part of a much larger group of Karen who were escorted and protected by armed members of the KNU, the Karen National Union army. However, this time the journey to the border took only 5 days and they were loaded with supplies!! They waded across a river and crossed into Thailand.
The couple and their families were admitted to Htam Hin Refugee Camp and thought it would be temporary. Things didn’t turn out that way. It was here that their three children were born. Htam Hin is considered the worst of the nine refugee camps in Thailand. The camp is located on 13 acres and at its peak there were 9,000 people crowded there. There was/is no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no running water, and all the food they got was supplied by the UN on a semi- predictable basis. Hunger was commonplace as was poor sanitation and diseases such as TB, malaria, AIDS, and dysentery. These conditions prompted Doctors Without Borders to pull out of the camp. In 2005 announcing their departure to authorities, they wrote, “How can we be asked to save lives of people when they are living in conditions that can kill them?” San Mu, Lu Pu and their 3 children lived here for 10 years.
In 2000 an announcement was made in the camp that the United States had agreed to take in many refugees from Burma, and several years later they applied for refugee status. When they arrived in May 2007 the family did not have a congregational sponsor. I would see them frequently around Carolina Apartments when I was there looking in on the family United Church of Chapel Hill was sponsoring. In August Lu Pu got a construction job. After working six weeks, he came to me when I was at the apartment complex and said meekly to me, “I like my job. Thank you for helping me get it. But how can I get money for this paper--- aka six weeks worth of checks?” I was flabbergasted and realized this family needed a sponsor. Thankfully our church agreed to sponsor them. It has been a gratifying, sometimes frustrating and sometimes hilarious journey of three years for church volunteers assisting the family.
One of the best things that has happened to the family is Habitat. As a Habitat Board member, I am both grateful to and proud of the Habitat staff for taking on the challenge of working with people who speak a totally unfamiliar language, whose culture and traditions are hard to learn about, and who have had scant experience in building, maintaining or owning a modern house and no experience in the process of purchasing one. Habitat staff is working tirelessly to make room at the Habitat table for this deserving population.