A few days before I left on my drive up here to Washington, I sat down with a few Chin refugees from Burma to interview them about how they ended up in Texas. I spent the day listening to their stories, typing notes, and thinking over the experience of conducting these interviews. During my last few years in Yunnan, part of my work involved driving a truck to remote villages along the Burma border to interview indigenous peoples about their language and culture and religion. I absolutely loved sitting in their homes and asking questions and hearing their stories. Now here I was, after a 90 minute trip through rush hour traffic in Dallas-Fort Worth that required a different set of driving skills than the mountains of Yunnan, talking to young people from the other side of the Burma border from where I had lived. A strange circle of events, wouldn’t you say?
My interviews in Texas were for a project I’m working on about the persecution of the Chin people by the Burmese government, told through the stories of several young refugees now relocated to the U.S. Listening to the things these kids went through, first in their villages, then as they endured the dangers of escape, and later in the terrible limbo of undocumented status in Malaysia, I was aware that they were entrusting me with something precious. They were telling me the horrific details not as a means of shocking me, but in the hopes that something good could come of others hearing their story.
I sat there in Starbucks with one guy, a skinny 20-year-old in jeans and a t-shirt, while he told me about being shot at and beaten, about surviving in a tiny boat on the ocean. I was overwhelmed with the absurdity of hearing this harrowing account while sitting there all warm and cozy and safe with our lattes.
And I was convinced once again of both the importance of telling stories and that helping people tell their stories is something I can do well. I’m not saying that to puff myself up or to try to sound important — I say it because it’s good for us to find the things we do well, and then to, um, do them well.
So for me right now that means getting up each morning, turning on my laptop, spreading pages of notes and drafts on the table around me, and telling Lydia’s story, the story of the Chin in Burma, and the story of how food insecure preschoolers in Wake County, North Carolina, are getting their tummies filled and learning healthy eating habits.