Refugee on a mission


Refugee on a mission

Jan. 2 was as good a day as any for goodbye.

It was a gray day, wet, with an occasional whip of cold wind. The holiday season over, winter would soon be getting down to business.

Despite the day’s pallor, 22-year old Jasmine Moo was ebullient.

Dressed in faded gray jeans, a red Lumberjack-style shirt and cowboy boots, she wore a smile that seemed like it would never break.

Surrounded by suitcases, plastic bags and a black guitar case in her family’s tiny Clarkston apartment, she hugged her little brother, Alex San, 5, and one of her younger sisters, Daisy, 13. Alex was as squirmy as Daisy was clingy.

With tears in her eyes, Daisy wondered aloud who would wake her in time for school. That had been Jasmine’s job, but soon there would be no Jasmine.

Final goodbyes waited for their mother, Du Doo. When she emerged from her bedroom, her dark hair still wet from her morning shower, her face showed none of the joy that lifted the daughter she had christened Paw Ner Moo. In Karen, their native language, the name means beautiful flower, and it inspired the nickname Jasmine gave herself when she arrived in the United States.

The two women have some physical similarities — both are small in stature with shoulder-length, dark hair and dark eyes. They share a type of opaque, matter-of-fact inscrutability. Neither enjoys talking about themselves or what they’ve experienced. But Jasmine is more confident, more willing to take risks for what she wants.

While Jasmine checked her bags to make sure she had everything, Du Doo looked off into the distance beyond the sliding glass doors of her living room, saying nothing.

Only she could truly fathom the significance of Jasmine’s journey. Only she knew what the luggage on her living room floor really meant: goodbye, yes, but survival, too.

And hope.


A country in chaos

From the time a military junta wrested control of Burma in 1962, students protested to restore democracy to the Southeast Asian nation on the Bay of Bengal, south of China and east of India.

The junta cemented its power by brutally squelching protests and killing students.

As the economies of other Asian nations took off in the 1970s and 1980s, the country spiraled into poverty. Rice exports plummeted. The country’s reserves of precious metals, oil and gas didn’t stop the free-fall.

Life was supposed to improve after the junta and its dictator, General Ne Win, were toppled by the 8888 Uprising — so named because it started on Aug. 8, 1988.

Two years later, a pro-democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father helped negotiate Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, won a large majority of the seats in Burma’s parliament. But instead of ushering in a new era of democracy, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she would remain for nearly two decades. The misery of everyday life for many Burmese continued.

The lush, mountainous country — renamed Myanmar — had always been home to people of different religions, but religious minorities were now singled out for attack: Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese and the Buddhist Karen, who lived on the margins of the nation, scratching out lives by selling bamboo products while keeping an ear out for the next purge, the next government raid.



A family displaced

Du Doo’s husband was away the day soldiers made another violent sweep into the village where the 18-year-old lived.

It was 1991 and the Myanmar government wanted to make sure the Karen, who lived in a southeastern area of the country called Kawthoolei, understood their hope for autonomy and religious freedom would be met with brutal force.

Human rights groups have made films of the government’s forays into Kawthoolei and captured the cries of the Karen as they abandoned their villages for the comparative safety of the jungle.

But no cameras rolled that rainy May when Du Doo’s village was destroyed. No one witnessed her slip into a neighbor’s hut, heavily pregnant and in labor. The delivery was difficult. And there was a surprise: Du Doo gave birth to not one baby but two: a boy named Ta Dah and a girl, Paw Ner Moo. A shaved stalk of bamboo severed the umbilical cords.

Life in Myanmar was hard enough for a young Karen woman. Life with two babies — two children to feed and clothe and protect — would be doubly difficult.

Her village now burned and with two newborns in tow, Du Doo needed to get to safety. Her husband was away trying to find work, but they would have to reconnect later. She and others from the village began a long, perilous trek through the jungle.

“We walked a week through the mountains,” Du Doo said in her native language, with Jasmine translating. “We had to hide from the Army. Because of Burmese on the road, we had to stay in the jungle.”

The family found refuge with a Karen family that had fled Kawthoolei earlier. Together the families shared a bamboo hut. Du Doo’s husband soon reunited with his family, but life was still a struggle.

The most basic necessities were hard to obtain. For diapers, Du Doo tore pieces of cloth from one of her few dresses. They lived on rice and fish caught from a nearby river. And they scavenged from burned-out villages, a dangerous endeavor because government forces often planted explosive mines to deter the retrieval of abandoned supplies. They lived that way for five years.

Du Doo’s sister Klaw Htoo said the family knows few details of what Du Doo and her children endured.

“She doesn’t talk about that,” Klaw said. “We don’t talk about that.”

Eventually, the generosity of the Karen family who opened their jungle hut to Paw Ner Moo’s family waned.

There simply wasn’t enough food and, ironically in a nation drenched by annual monsoons, not enough drinking water. There was no school for Paw Ner Moo or her brother to attend. There was no infrastructure. There was only survival.

A refugee camp held out hope for a better life. And so Paw Ner Moo took the first steps of a journey that eventually would lead her to the other side of the world, and — if her dream comes true — back again.



An uneasy refuge

Paw Ner Moo doesn’t remember life in the jungle. Her earliest memories start in a refugee camp in Thailand, just across the border from Myanmar. They come to her in slivers of images: the mud, pools of standing water, scattered bamboo huts, families desperate for food, water and safety.

The Mae La refugee camp is a sprawling facility perched on the slope of a mountain near Thailand’s western border. When Paw Ner Moo and her family moved there, it was home to some 13,000 people. Then, as now, most were Karen.

Paw Ner Moo remembers the barbed wire used to cordon off parts of the camp. A sheer cliff bordered one side.

“We don’t go there,” she said.

Mae La was Paw Ner Moo’s home for 11 years. She shared a hut with her mother, father, twin brother and a growing brood of younger siblings. Technically, it was against camp rules to come and go, but Paw Ner Moo’s father was gone much of the time, as was her twin brother, Ta Dah. Deprivation still stalked the family, and father and son were always in search of work and supplies that could supplement what the camp provided.

“We only had a little,” Paw Ner Moo said. “Limited food and water. We ate rice every single day. They gave us rice, peppers, salt, peas.”

Drinking water was available twice a day for a short time.

“In rainy season, it was very muddy in the refugee camp,” she recalled. “That made it very hard to go to school because we did not have enough clothes to wear. We didn’t have boots or umbrellas. We also did not have laundry to dry clothes.”

Fear of raids by Myanmar soldiers filtered into camp life. Their Thai hosts also provoked fear.

“Thai people come to the camp and sometimes they do bad things to the girls,” said Paw Ner Moo, who managed to escape harm.

The family mostly kept to itself; Paw Ner Moo’s closest companion was her twin brother. And as they got older, they took on more responsibility.

“I did cooking, washing clothes, cleaning,” Paw Ner Moo said. “Because we are the oldest, we have to take care of the family.”

Like others in Mae La, Paw Ner Moo’s family hoped to resettle somewhere safe. It would be a long process, and the first step was securing identification papers from an aid agency. When the day came for Paw New Moo’s family to get their papers, Ta Dah was away.

It was two years later before the family got the opportunity to resettle, but once the wheels were in motion, the process moved swiftly. An interview, a medical checkup and everything was in order.

Paw Ner Moo had never heard of the United States; she didn’t know even where it was.

The day they began their journey, the whole family waited at the bus stop. But when the bus arrived, everyone got on except Ta Dah. He had never received his identification papers.

Few things seem to dampen his twin sister’s mood these days, but memories of the separation from her brother darkens her countenance.

“He was so sad,” she remembered. “We all are crying because he was the only one to stay in the camp.”

Neither she nor her parents have seen or spoken to Ta Dah since that day.



Strange new world

Paw Ner Moo had to go to the bathroom. And that was a problem.

She and her family were on an airplane flying to New York, and it would be hours before their arrival. She knew there was a lavatory on board, but it seemed forbidding. Others had used it and left unharmed. Still, the loud, urgent swoosh of its flush was disturbing for a girl who had not grown up with indoor plumbing.

“I was scared I was going to lock myself in,” she said, smiling at her naivete. “I was scared I was going to fall through.”

Ultimately Paw Ner Moo conquered that small fear. She survived the trip to the lavatory to marvel at the giant buildings of New York City. That was when she realized nothing would be as it had been.

“We can’t imagine that now we are in this country,” Paw Ner Moo said.

The family continued its journey to Clarkston, where agencies and charities were set up to aid their arrival. But adjustment wouldn’t be easy.

“I did not know how to eat hamburger,” she said. “I just eat the meat and throw the bread away. Then I looked at others and say, ‘Ah, they do it like that.’”

Even the smallest details of every day life proved challenging.

“We did not know how to turn on thermostat, gas stove,” she said. “Many different things that we didn’t know.”

Other refugees helped the newcomers get acclimated. The family got a television, and Paw Ner Moo found a new joy: cooking shows. She’d watch with fascination as chefs went through the fine points of preparing elaborate meals.

The struggles of the jungle and of Mae La were behind them now, but finding their way would present new challenges.

Du Doo’s marriage, troubled during those last years in Mae La, broke apart not long after the family arrived in Clarkston, and her husband left the family.

Neither Du Doo nor Paw Ner Moo would talk about the split.

“Private,” Paw Ner Moo said when asked.

Her father remained near Clarkston but has little contact with the children. Some who know the family say leaving his son behind was a devastating blow, as was the struggle to find steady work in the United States.

It fell on Du Doo to provide for herself and her four children. She found work preparing food at a local jail, her shift starting at 1 a.m. and ending at 9 or 10 a.m.

Just as she had in Mae La, Paw Ner Moo, now 16, took on a leadership position in her household, quickly learning enough English to translate for her mother and siblings. She served as a second mother to the little ones, cooking and settling disputes.

Her mother enrolled her in Clarkston High, but the confidence she was developing at home did not carry over to school. Her limited English kept her from engaging with other students. She nicknamed herself Jasmine because it was easier for English speakers to say and remember.

Still, her circle of friends remained limited. “Just Karen people,” she said.

And the discipline problems of other students frightened her.

“Some students are really bad to the teacher,” she said. “They just do whatever they want to. Every year, students were fighting with teachers. I don’t want these things to happen to me.”



Two lives change course

In 2009, occupational therapist Kelli Czaykowsky heard a plea that changed her life and the life of the girl now called Jasmine Moo.

She was attending a board meeting for Duluth Adventist Christian School, of which she is a member, when Jonathan Sumner, associate superintendent of Adventist schools in Georgia, made a request. He said refugee families were desperately looking for ways to get their children out of public school. Their children were scared and struggling, he said. They wanted their children in private schools but couldn’t afford the tuition.

“I thought it was sad,” said Czaykowsky. “They wanted a safe environment to learn. It wasn’t because they wanted the label ‘private school.’”

School leaders decided to accept as many students as possible, knowing they’d have to be flexible and creative when it came to covering the students’ tuition. And Czaykowsky decided she would try to help any way she could.

She started by going to Clarkston looking for anyone in need. If she came across a child with no winter coat, she’d find a way to get him one. When she learned of a child who needed to go to the doctor, she’d find a way to get him there.

“I didn’t know what a refugee was. Isn’t that terrible?” said Czaykowsky, the wife of a surgeon and mother of five. “I didn’t know their need.” Only now she could not now un-see what she had witnessed in Clarkston. She couldn’t overlook the buttonless coats, the shoes that were too big.

Just a few days after Sumner’s appeal, Czaykowsky found herself at the apartment complex where Jasmine and other refugee families lived. She was there to sign up students for private school scholarships through Arete Scholars Fund, but communicating proved difficult. That’s when Jasmine stepped in.

Czaykowsky was struck by the teenager’s determination to help despite her shyness. After the meeting, Czaykowsky gave Jasmine her telephone number and told her to call if she had questions or needed anything.

And Jasmine did call. Then she called again. And again.

“She started asking a lot of questions,” Czaykowsky said. “Questions about America. It would be everything — food, homework. ‘How does this work?’”

Before long, the two were talking regularly. Czaykowsky started taking Jasmine to get her hair done or buy clothes. When she took her own children on a fun outing, Czaykowsky would swing by Clarkston and invite Jasmine and a sibling or two to join them.

Slowly, Jasmine’s inscrutability cracked. After a few months, she started to talk about Ta Dah, the twin she fears she’ll never see again.

“At first, I didn’t even know she had a twin,” Czaykowsky said. Eventually, though, Jasmine opened up and tearfully shared her story.

Jasmine attended Atlanta Adventist on a $5,000 scholarship from Arete. It wasn’t enough to cover tuition, so she worked selling cookbooks and pamphlets on health and religion to make up the difference. She and others canvassed neighborhoods that summer, sleeping in the homes of church members or on mattresses in the school.

The work — going door to door, making sales, having doors closed in her face — changed Jasmine.

“She was more outgoing,” Czaykowsky said. “She was more confident in who she was.”

Jasmine continued to bloom at Atlanta Adventist. She was more talkative, more open than before. As her English improved, she performed better academically, though she struggled in a few classes, including a health class she’d have to take a couple times.

And she began to dream about her future. She told Czaykowsky she wanted to become a missionary, to find some way to help fellow Karen and other refugees.

“There are a lot of people in refugee camp that need me to go back and help them,” Jasmine said. “God gave me a life again. If not, I already die in the jungle.”

Czaykowsky and Jasmine were attending a religious convention in Orlando last fall when Jasmine heard about the medical missionary program at Hartland Institute in Virginia.

Mrs. Kelli, that’s what I want to do after school, Jasmine said.



Step into the future

On that cold, wet January morning, Jasmine Moo said goodbye to her family. She was headed to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, home to Hartland Institute.

“I’m so excited,” she said.

Du Doo didn’t share her daughter’s giddiness. But she didn’t stop her daughter, either. She had long ago given Jasmine her blessing to follow her dream, to help people who need the assistance their family had once received.

Jasmine climbed into Czaykowsky’s SUV and waved goodbye. Du Doo watched in silence until the SUV left the apartment parking lot and was no longer in view.


Jasmine Moo is currently a student at Hartland, studying health and agriculture. When she’s not in school, she works on a nearby farm.

Her finances are limited; she has no cellphone and she worries about paying for the remaining costs of the program. But she says she is grateful and happy.

Jasmine’s absence has been a difficult adjustment for her family. The family struggles financially, and younger sister Daisy has had a hard time emotionally.

Czaykowsky remains in touch with Jasmine and her family. She continues her work assisting refugees in Clarkston through the aid group she co-founded, Friends of Refugees Providing Empowerment and Education (FREE).

Jasmine still has not heard from her brother since leaving Mae La, although she hears through relatives he is now married and has a child. She says finding Ta Dah has nothing to do with her decision to be a missionary or her desire to return to the refugee camp where she last saw him. But during quiet moments at Hartland, she imagines seeing him again.

“I am very busy,” she said. “I have to study so hard for school. But I think about him. I pray for him.”


Kelli Czaykowsky introduced staff writer Wayne Washington to Jasmine Moo at the request of Arete Scholars Fund, which wanted to highlight some of the students it helped transfer from public schools to private ones. Upon their first meeting, Wayne found  Jasmine to be friendly, yet guarded. But her determination to do something positive with her life impressed him. He was particularly struck by her desire to return to Myanmar. “One would think that after surviving all she had, she’d be looking for the most American of experiences — college, boys, spring break trips, a well-paying job,” Washington said. “Instead, she is focused on doing something meaningful.”  It is an inspiring story about unfathomable hardships,  perseverance and the healing spirit of altruism.  And it is the kind of deeply reported,  deeply human story we tell  each week in Personal Journeys, only in the AJC.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys Editor

About the reporter

Wayne Washington joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012 and covers state education policy. He has 23 years of newspaper experience, including stints at newspapers in California, Minnesota, Florida, Washington, D.C., and South Carolina. He has covered professional football, race relations, county government, higher education, state government, the U.S. Justice Department and the White House. A married father of two college students, Wayne lives in Decatur.

Next week: Atlanta Ballet’s Christine Winkler was determined to return to the stage after she had her baby. And she did it, but not for long.

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