God continues to surprise us here in Thailand, even in our last month of ministry. We had a second opportunity to go to Phuket recently and God moved powerfully in our midst. Here’s an excerpt with a little more detail from our latest Newsletter.
We had the wonderful privilege of serving and loving on some of the most beautiful children this month. A team of 8 farangs (foreigners), two Thai, and two Burmese Christians went to a refugee shelter in PangNga province of southern Thailand and held a 4-day kids club/English camp for the 60 Rohingya children there.
The Rohingyans are a predominately Muslim tribal group from a western province in Myanmar (Burma), who have been undergoing persecution by the Myanmar government for 30-40 years. In 1982, a law was passed in Myanmar denying them citizenship, which over the last several decades has resulted in harassment, violence, imprisonment, and eventually mass exodus of hundreds of thousands Rohingyans. This last week, a law was passed prohibiting only Rohingyans from having more than two children. The UN has described them as the most persecuted people group in the world. Many of them, including the ones at the shelter where we worked, were driven from their homes after the government burned their village. They left Burma in three long-tail boats, with about 100 people in each. On their journey, they ran out of food, water, and gasoline for their engine. When they finally arrived in Thailand, the men were sent to detention centers where up to 40 of them are being held in a small room, and the women and children are being detained at women’s shelters across Phuket island until the Thai government decides what to do with them.
As we interacted with the children, their stories began to surface. Some of the children were just swimming and playing around the boats when they set sail from Burma and in the mass confusion, they were brought aboard and taken with the refugees. A 12-year-old boy told us he has no mother, father, siblings or friends here at the shelter. He was all alone. Akikstan, around 9 years old, is also alone. His parents were left in Burma, and are most likely dead. There is a rumor that the Thai government will send them back to Burma, and a teenage boy said he would rather die than go back to his home country. One of the women told us the violence was already happening when she was a child. Her home has been burned many times and she experienced many violent acts as a child and young woman. Mohammad Ismiel, about 12, drew a detailed picture of a boat with a Muslim flag, and two dead people in the boat. Most, if not all, of these children have seen war, death, and destruction, and have experienced much trauma, which was evident in the way they fought or in their suspicion of us.
Our mission in coming to this camp was to love on the children and mothers, and to tell them about the love of Jesus Christ. We played group games, sports, jump rope, had crafts or coloring available, taught basic English, and had a story and singing time. One of the women at the camp translated the Bible story from Burmese to their native tongue, but most of our communication was through the kids’ very small Thai vocabulary, hand motions, pictures and examples.
Through this experience, God taught me two things: how to trust and how to love.
Going into the week, we were nervous about how we were going to lovingly share the Gospel message with this group of Muslims who had been kicked out of their country due to religious and ethnic persecution. But faithfully, we prepared stories about God’s love for people, Jesus’ miracles and for the last day, his death and resurrection. The first three days brought discouragement when it came to the story time. The Rohingya woman who translated appeared wary of us and like she didn’t want to translate the story she was hearing. Most of the women stood to the side watching with very little interaction during the activities. They enjoyed playing ABC Bingo, but ran away as soon as we brought out colored string to make friendship bracelets. Buddhists often wear strings around their wrists to protect them from the spirits and we wonder if they were associating our bracelets with this Buddhist tradition.
During this discouragement, God reminded me of the verse in Romans 1 that says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” He told me it was HIM who brings salvation, not me. Therefore, there should be no shame in declaring Him to unbelievers. That day, God began to move in the translator’s heart. We were able to speak directly with her and ask about her story. She thanked us for coming and said for once, they have been able to forget their hopelessness and have fun. We asked if we could pray for them as a group the next day before we left and she willingly agreed. The next day, her response to our presence was very different. She was present the entire morning, laughing and playing right along with us and the kids. She was ready to translate the story of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross and appeared fully engaged. After the activities, we gathered everyone together and stood in a big circle while we prayed out loud for them and their people. Afterwards, as we said goodbye to our new friends, the women who had seemed hard and suspicious all week long, clung to us sobbing. Several of them asked us through hand motions if we could take them home with us. How we wished we could! Teenage boys buried their faces in their hands. The young kids looked scared that something terrible was happening. One boy burst into tears as we drove away.
It was a moving time, where God showed me a piece of his heart. It was my prayer from the beginning that Christ’s love would pour through me into those kids. From their response at the end of the week, we know that the women and children experienced the love of God through us. And I have never been so overwhelmed by emotion, so heartbroken for the children and women as we drove away. I think that must be a glimpse of what God feels every time a child is orphaned, a mother is widowed, or a family driven from their home. If I was filled with love so much for these people I barely knew, how much more does God love them and weep for them! Passages like Psalm 146:7-9 have new meaning to us now, and we are encouraged that it is the Lord “who upholds the cause of the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down… The Lord watches over the foreigner, he sustains the widow and the fatherless.” That is my prayer for the Royhingya refugees.