Refugees find hope in a new country and Christianity

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 31st.  Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a story of rescue.

When the Akha people fled Burma’s civil war three decades ago, they couldn’t have known they’d be going for good. What they did know is that staying was no longer safe. Many of them ended up living deep in Thailand’s northern mountains.

REICHARD: But over the past decades, many Akha have found a new life and unexpected hope in Thailand. WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson recently visited three Akha villages and brings us this report.

AUDIO: Sound of pickup

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: It takes nearly two hours driving on a rutted, single-lane dirt road to reach the isolated villages where the Akha fled three decades ago.

AUDIO: Jungle sounds

The road ascends 5,000 feet into a lush canopy of eucalyptus and banana trees. The melodic song of the Barbet—a bright green bird native to Southeast Asia—fills the air.

AUDIO: They left everything in their villages, everything in their houses. They left all their possessions and just ran.

AUDIO: Ryan talking in Thai

That’s Ryan Stowell. For 6 years he’s worked with the Akhas. He runs a dorm for Akha students at the base of the mountain so they can attend school. But today he’s acting as guide, hoping to introduce me to village elders so I can hear their stories.

AUDIO: Men talking

The opportunity comes in Huay Sia—one of three Akha villages I visited. The Akha homes sit on stilts above the ground. In one house, four elderly men sit cross-legged on a wooden floor. All four were born in Burma and only speak Akha.  That makes translation a little complicated. A man named Lopa translates from Akha to Thai. Then Ryan translates from Thai to English.

They tell me their stories, how back in Burma, soldiers would randomly enter their villages and steal their belongings.

AUDIO: …and sometimes take hostages. If they needed someone to carry a heavy pack, sometimes they would hold them at gunpoint and say you look like a strong young man. You’ll come with me. You’ll carry my pack. 

If the Akhas tried to escape, the soldiers killed them. But serving the soldiers was also dangerous. Alla Lacheur, a thin man with high cheekbones, describes what happened to his brother:

AUDIO: His younger brother stepped on a land mine and it took his leg off. He bled out and they couldn’t save him. 

To escape this military harassment, 10 families banded together to sneak out of Burma one night.

AUDIO: They went deep in the jungle where nobody would find them.

They found refuge in these mountains. In the early days they feared that Thai authorities would catch them and send them back. Now Thailand tolerates their presence as long as they stay here in Chiang Rai Province in the far north.

For the first decade, life continued for the Akha as it always had. They were animists who engaged in ancestor worship, one of the men explains.

AUDIO: Before with the animism it was very arduous because they had to continually sacrifice animals to the spirits. He said in one year, 12 times. So it sounds like monthly, they would have a monthly sacrifice.

AUDIO: Men talking back and forth

Each village had a spirit gate at its entrance to ward off evil spirits. They believed twins were a bad omen and killed them.

But 17 years ago, missionaries brought Christianity to this village. Now most of the villagers are Christian. In this home I notice a wooden cross and three cross necklaces. I asked the elders why they became Christians.

AUDIO: Reason number one: They observed other Christians living, and they saw something different that was attractive.

AUDIO: Village lunch

Because of their new beliefs, the Akha abandoned many of their old ways—including spirit worship and the killing of twins. But some traditions they want to preserve. They point to a colorful, embroidered bag hanging over Alla’s head.

AUDIO: Their hope is that the youth will not lose that tradition. How to make the clothes, how to dye with natural dyes, how to make the clothing from nature and to wear it.

AUDIO: Reciting ancestors

They seem most passionate about passing on the tradition of memorizing their ancestors all the way back to what they claim is the very first Akha.

It sounds a lot like Old Testament lineages and goes on for about 40 seconds.

AUDIO: Sound of instrument

The next morning, Alla pulls out a stringed instrument carved from wood. He only plays  a few traditional Akha songs because most speak of spirits. But Alla’s wife disappears into another room and returns with a worn notebook of songs written in Roman script. She beings to sing.

AUDIO: Alla’s wife singing

Since the Akhas do not have a written language, Ryan says this book was probably made by a missionary who created a script for their language. A niece also knows these Christian songs and joins in, a sign that the older generation is passing on its faith to the next.

AUDIO: Singing

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson, reporting from Huay Sia, Thailand.

(Photo/Jill Nelson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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