Aung Naing and Ahu Thang don't have any pictures from their home in Myanmar. Their journey to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where they often hid in the jungle, left them with few belongings. But the computer in the parlor of their new home serves as a link to their past.
Ahu, 15, checks his Facebook-like Web page, where he can chat with other Chin refugees he knew from the camp. One of his online friends is a girl who now lives in Norway. Both boys also watch YouTube and other video sites, which have a rich array of Chin-language songs — many of them love ballads set to romanticized videos of young men and women wandering blissfully through the gorgeous countryside.
Technology allows them to access parts of their childhood home, but more-traditional means of communication — telephone, mail — are a bit more complicated. Aung and Ahu's grandmother, Hniang Hnem, who raised them after their father left for India and their mother died, still lives in Hakha Township, a mountainous region in the middle of Chin State, in northwestern Myanmar. A neighbor has the closest phone, and the boys cannot send mail directly to their grandmother because of governmental restrictions.
From There to Here
Like Ahu, the boys' grandmother is thin and has light skin, but she also has white hair, stands 5 feet tall and often wears a scarf or a blanket when it's cool. Still, she never wears slacks, like ladies of a certain age all over the world. The boys guess she is between 60 and 70 years old. They are from a small neighborhood about seven miles from the city of Hakha , where the nearest market is held.
Transportation there typically means walking, bicycling or occasionally catching a ride on a bus, and the boys — now in their snug, electric-powered American household — can recall their lives before electricity. Their home in Hakha had a kitchen, a living room and a fireplace where all the cooking and boiling of water was done. Right now, it's chilly in Hakha — the mountainous region often sees ice in the winter, although the temperatures can rise to the 50s and 60s during the day. In the summer, torrential rains are a nearly daily feature. Water used for cooking and drinking came from a lake shared by 15 families. Their bathroom was outdoors.
Sitting in their home, wooden walls topped with a thatched grass roof, Aung and Ahu's grandmother would tell stories, ancient tales from the "Stone Age, or something like that," Aung remembers. "She's always been happy. She talks a lot."
The boys find it difficult to speak to their grandmother very often. When they do, they can't stay on the phone long because both caller and receiver have to pay a steep fee, Aung says, and phone cards aren't always reliable. Also, there's the time difference of 12 hours. When they talk, the boys usually call around 8 p.m.
In Hakha, Aung and Ahu's diet was varied; it included small fish caught in a nearby lake, rice, corn, potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, chicken, goat and even water buffalo. When they had enough money, they enjoyed tea, milk, nuts, chocolate and sugar. Burmese dishes feature aspects of Indian and Thai cooking, with an emphasis on spice.
Their grandmother says she is doing all right, but money is perpetually short. The military government is leaving her alone, "because she's old," Aung says. They've stopped asking where the boys are, although soldiers applied pressure to find out where Aung was when Ahu still lived with his grandmother, a major reason why he left for Malaysia in 2007. From time to time, Aung and Ahu send their grandmother money, but they can't send it directly because of the government control over the postal service. Instead, the boys send letters to a Burmese friend in Thailand, who somehow gets the mail to their grandmother through a complicated system of channels.
Aung, 18, has been trying to find a job since he got to the United States, with no success. His search has included Wal-Mart and Ukrop's and other stores, but, he notes, "They don't let me know anything." He and Ahu try to save money however they can, including cutting each other's hair, which ended in a mishap in December, when Ahu let the electric shaver go a little crazy on Aung's head — he's nearly bald in the Neff family Christmas photo.
The Chins, Aung and Ahu's ethnic group, are Christian and celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts and attending church. Birthdays, however, are not a big deal; the boys didn't remember their exact birthdays when they arrived here. Children attend a large, central school in Hakha (the enrollment is about 3,000, Aung says), but after the equivalent of eighth grade, they must pass an exam to remain in school. Aung failed the test, in part because he missed a fair amount of days because he had to work to raise money.
In 2006, his 40-year-old uncle, Ngun Peng, offered to pay him to go to India, a weeklong walk, to sell cattle. This practice has occurred for years along the porous border between the countries, but the military junta, which has a history of persecuting the Chin people, has been known to arrest or fine Chins involved in the cattle trade. Aung and his uncle went to India twice, and in March 2006, they were arrested by Myanmar's junta.
After Aung was released from the Than Thang jail two weeks later with a bribe to guards, he had to leave his home and escape to Malaysia, where he lived in a refugee camp with other Chins before coming to the United States in September 2007. Ahu arrived in Malaysia in 2007, and he came to Richmond in September 2008. Their uncle was eventually released and has returned home.
The Effects of Cyclone Nargis
Before catastrophic flooding caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, most Westerners had little awareness of Myanmar, or Burma, as it is still officially called in the United States and other countries that do not recognize the military government as legitimate. Americans may have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 63-year-old pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has spent years under house arrest, where she remains. But few have entered the country, where tourism is allowed but highly restricted, especially in the Chin State.
The destruction caused by the cyclone — according to news reports, 146,000 people were killed, and more went missing — and the government's initial refusal to allow international aid workers into the affected region brought the nation into focus for many people around the world. Nargis' damage was confined to the southern part of Myanmar, the area near Rangoon (or Yangon, as it is called by the government); Aung and Ahu's home was not affected by flooding or other storm damage.
However, the Chins' region was indirectly affected, as resources and money were redistributed to the Irrawaddy Delta, where the storm hit. As a result of this funding shift and an unexpected plague of rats attracted by the rare flowering of bamboo plants in the western part of their state, the Chins have seen tougher times in the past year, with many suffering from hunger after rats devoured crops, according to a report in the New York Times . In August, then-First Lady Laura Bush visited a Burmese camp in Thailand, drawing world attention to political refugees' plight.
The boys like to watch the romanticized world of the Chin love songs, but a more realistic and sobering side of life is found in videos of refugee camps for exiled Chins . (Note: There is some disturbing content in the linked video.)
Although the boys have become accustomed to living in Richmond, they hope to return to a freed Myanmar one day, Aung says, and maybe in the meantime, their grandmother will be able to send them some pictures.