The Places We Come From: Nu’s Story
17 November 2023
*Names changed for security purposes
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is made up of men and women of different faiths and ethnicities from around the world who are joined together in love to serve the oppressed. From the frontlines of war, to jungle hospitals, to headquarter offices and supply rooms, these men and women are united in the same mission. The stories of those serving in support roles often go unshared but not because they are any less remarkable or worth telling. This is the story of Nu, a valuable member of FBR’s headquarters staff: where she comes from, the obstacles she has overcome, and the journey she is on now.
Unrest in Burma: The Early Years
“I remember we had a big bunker under our house. We had to run and hide there every time we heard the news about the fighting.” When recounting her early years in Burma, Nu remembers living in a constant state of fear. Nu was born in Leng Ke, Shan State, Burma. The Burma Army had a nearby base and controlled the area, forcing the Shan people to live under their oppressive rule. Nu’s father worked as a jade miner and her mother worked as a farmer. Nu and her parents lived with her grandparents. Her grandfather was regularly detained by the Burma Army and subjected to forced labor. She shared, “He had to hide because, as a man, he was a target for Burma Army kidnappings, no matter his age. My grandfather told us he had been taken and used by the Burma Army since he was young. Even in his old age, I remember watching my grandfather hide himself under clothes in a big box in our home so that the Burma Army wouldn’t find and capture him.”
There are a few impactful memories Nu remembers as a young child; one, tragically, is the day her father died. She remembers playing at home when her neighbor ran to the front of their house and yelled, announcing to everyone in the home, that her father had just died. “Even though I was quite young, this day I will never forget,” said Nu. Nu’s family was told that her father was sitting in a truck coming back from working at the mines when someone shot and killed him. “We are still not sure who killed my father, but we believe they killed him to take the jade that he had mined.” Later, after Nu’s grandmother also passed away, Nu’s mother decided it was best to relocate the remaining family members to somewhere safer and with more opportunity. Nu’s brother had already fled to Thailand and was living in a Buddhist monastery. Nu’s mother told her that at that time, “We felt unsafe, we could not work, there was no business, and we could not provide food for ourselves. So we had to go.” When Nu was around 3-4 years old, her mother took her and her grandfather to meet her brother in Thailand in hopes of finding a better life. Nu said, “We left everything in Leng Ke. Eventually we heard the Burmese government took our home and gave it to the Burmese people.”
Nu and her family not only lost their home, but they would also eventually lose their native languages of both Burmese and Shan. Nu said, “My mom told me the first week that I moved to Thailand, I was still singing Burmese songs and speaking Burmese. After I stayed with local people in Thailand, I lost my ability to speak Burmese. Even now I feel that my first language is Lanna or Northern Thai Language.” Her family has now lived in Thailand for a long time. Nu shares that even their ethnic Shan language that they speak in the home is no longer like the original Shan language and that the accent and vocabulary have been mixed with the Thai language.
As an undocumented worker, Nu’s mother had to move constantly to find work to provide for her family. At one point they had lived in almost ten different places within their province. At 10 years old, Nu started school for the first time. Before finishing high school, Nu had to change schools four different times. She remembers not having much motivation to study at first. Then, she vividly remembers a day when she was walking down a road with her mother. As they walked along side each other, her mother pointed up to a street sign and said, “Nu, do you see these signs? No one in your family can read them. You must be diligent and study hard so you can read signs like these and go places someday.” Nu had now seen her family and her people suffer from lack of opportunity in both Burma and Thailand. It was from then on that Nu was determined to finish her studies so that one day she could help those who didn’t have the opportunity she did.
Even with a new motivation to study, there was still the obstacle of funding. There were times Nu’s mother told her that she would need to eventually stop school because they did not have the funds to support her. Nu recalled, “At that time I just tried my best, I didn’t know anything. While I studied in high school, every weekend and break, I worked in a restaurant for a foreigner.” This foreigner, she says, “became like an uncle to me.” When Nu began applying for university, her uncle told her that if she passed the entrance exam, he would support all of her studies there. Through hard work and determination, Nu passed the entrance exam, and her uncle fulfilled his promise, supporting her all the way through graduation. Nu studied for five years and graduated from university with a major in business administration and a minor in English. Nu became the first person in her family to not only learn how to read and write, but graduate high school and university. When she graduated university, she remembers her uncle crying but her mother being mostly confused because of how new this experience was for them as a family.
Back to Her Roots
After graduation Nu worked for her uncle’s restaurant for two years. As these years passed, Nu began looking for work that aligned more with her long term dream of helping those less fortunate. In 2016, one of Nu’s friends connected her with FBR, and Nu has been working with FBR ever since. Most of the time Nu oversees finance and field reports, and, on occasion, Nu returns to her home state in Burma with FBR relief teams to bring help, hope, and love to the Shan populations displaced by conflict.
Nu’s first mission to Shan State in 2019 was, as expected, very impactful for her. She said, “I felt so happy to go. After fleeing from my home in Shan State, Burma, I only got to return to my home two [other] times. The two times that I got to travel back to my home were for dealing with my land and property problems. When I went on the mission in 2019, I felt like it was my first time going to Shan State. The picture in my mind of Shan State was a small narrow space. When I went on the mission, I saw how my Shan people and state looked. Even though I barely remember anything from my childhood, when I compared this new place that I got to see, to my life fleeing Shan State and growing up in Thailand, everything was so different. The politics, people, culture, and their daily lives were so different. Even how Shan people, Burmese, and other ethnic peoples lived together was so new to me. I love it when the children we meet on mission laugh and can play fun games. Their lives are not always fun like this. I know they have never met people that have done these types of activities with them. We always see how happy they are.”
Nu shared that in her first year at FBR she struggled with two things: her English and faith. She said, “First off, my English was very funny. The second thing was religion. I grew up in a Buddhist family, but I am not a religious person. Many FBR staff are Christian, some have no religion, some are Animists, and a few are Buddhists. My first few months were very difficult working with different kinds of people, but it began getting easier over time. Even though I don’t have a religion, I don’t ever want to separate myself from other people. Working here taught me I can be friends with anyone regardless of their ethnicity, religion, skin color, or beliefs. I am happy to work with FBR because there are people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Even though there are many religions in our organization we can still all work together for our common goal.”
Reflections and Hope for the Future
As Nu reflected on her own story, she shared, “I don’t feel lost. If I had the chance to be born again, I would choose to be the same person. If I could change one thing, I would choose to stay in Burma. I was born in Burma and I wish I had the choice to stay there. I don’t feel sad about the life that I have. I have always been lucky since birth. I was born into war but I had the opportunity to get a better life by fleeing to Thailand. But even despite this, I still faced difficulties as an ethnic minority in Thailand. I cannot live an equal life to a Thai citizen because I am an ethnic person. In every difficult situation, [however], I have been blessed. Even though my mom didn’t have money to support me in school, my uncle helped me. People around me have always helped and loved me.”
Nu said, “If I have the opportunity, power or money, I want to change my Shan country to be more developed than now. I am not a big person, so I stay with FBR and help my people and my homeland. We don’t just help my people, we help people of all ethnicities. I am just a small person in this organization, but I know I can still help behind the scenes. When I went on the missions, I could make the children smile and laugh during the Good Life Club program. I love to see them smile while they are doing activities with us. It was true happiness for all of us. Even if I only have a small opportunity when I stay with the Shan people, I will try to do something to teach them.”
“Working with FBR makes me happy because I get to be around people of different races, religions, thoughts, and cultures. I am constantly learning every day. Even learning about the little things is still important to me. The experiences that I get from working behind the scenes help me understand more about my own ethnicity. I want to thank Free Burma Rangers for giving me this wonderful opportunity.”
Thanks and God bless you,
Nu and Free Burma Rangers