As today dawns in the U.S., our friends in America look forward to a day celebrating the freedom of our nation.
I thought this would be an appropriate day to celebrate a book that I recently read about another small nation’s fight for freedom from the absolute despotism of a tyrannical government.
As the title of the book suggests, no set-back or struggle seems to stop or slow the protagonist’s movement forward, which for me symbolizes the determined attitude of the Karen as a nation as they struggle to achieve the peace and freedom they have fought for over the last sixty years.
The author, Ms. Zoya Phan, reveals in the introduction that she wants the reader to know the other Burma, the less well-known Burma, full of natural beauty and ethnic diversity. She paints a picture of an idyllic childhood set in lush jungle villages. At the end of the book, she makes a resounding call for assistance in bringing peace to her land, so that she can return to the home she loved as a child.
The book spends the bulk of its chapters focusing on the author’s childhood in Burma as the daughter of a well-respected leader in the Karen Resistance, finally reaching her family’s eventual escape into Thailand about two thirds of the way through the narrative.
The remainder of the book quickly covers the challenges and obstacles that she faces as an adolescent and young adult refugee, a person with no legal citizenship to any country, who inadvertently finds herself thrust into political activist stardom.
The closing chapter relates the tragedy of losing her father to assassination and her subsequent renewed commitment to continuing her father’s life’s work, achieving freedom and peace for the Karen people.
This book fits into the growing genre of war-child literature, autobiographical accounts of children who grew up in regions experiencing war. Phan’s account highlights how the war continually disrupted typical childhood pursuits for her and the other children of her village.
These disruptions included a dead body she and her siblings discovered while swimming in the village river, separation from family members as they participated in the resistance work, and particularly the set-backs in their education due to the time spent moving around to avoid the violence, and eventually fleeing the country altogether.
The book evokes a narrative tone, as though the reader has sat down to have a cup of tea with the author, and she is recounting her story of family, suffering, challenge, survival, and hope for the future. After reading the novel, I felt so much respect and admiration for the author.
As one review claims, “The real power of this memoir is that it is a crucial political act” (The Globe and Mail, Undaunted back jacket). Just having told her story is an act of bravery. It has cemented her place on the Burmese government’s hit list.
Indeed, she describes in the book having experienced death threats and escaped physical assault while living in the relative peace of her new home in England. Yet she continues to speak out and advocate for her people. She has not walked away from their plight, despite her fortune in having escaped the immediate danger of life in Burma.
After reading this book, I was also struck by how widely applicable her story is to children all over the globe. While Burma may have one of the highest number of child soldiers in the world and has been accused by the UN of a crime against humanity for its record breaking use of slave-labor, Ms. Phan’s childhood experiences of war and life as a refugee is being played out again and again across the globe.
Most of us have seen the footage of Syrian refugees escaping in boats in order to reach the relative safety of European soil.
Her call to action is for assistance for her people, the Karen of Burma. After reading this book, I am moved by this call, especially since so many of the people we meet here in our little border town have been affected by the cruelties of the Burmese government.
However, I think that the author would agree that the call is not for the benefit of her people only. The call is for the global community to be a community that refuses to turn a blind eye, to accept the status quo, or to build enormous walls in response to suffering.
Much of us in the Western world have been blessed with freedom and provision, either through our own sacrifice and hard work, or through the sacrifices of those who came before us. The question before us, especially on this day when we remember a little nation who sought to find freedom and peace for its citizens, is what will we now do with it?
What I would love to read from this author is a book highlighting her perspective on a responsible global response to the plight of refugee families.
Maybe you will feel sorry for me after what i have been through in my life. Don’t. I am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky I am still alive. I am lucky I haven’t been raped. I am lucky I that I am not still in a refugee camp with no work, no freedom, and the same food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for year after year after year. And I am lucky to be able to work to help my people. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, I want you to feel angry, and I want you to do something about it.
-Zoya Phan, Undaunted