Every person has a story to tell, everyone around you. Not the stories of celebrities or of the rich and famous, but stories of your neighbours, your coworkers and even your friends. Stories of the lives they’ve led, the challenges they’ve faced and sometimes the mistakes they’ve made.
One such example of a so called “ordinary” person with an extraordinary story is a young woman named Moolaw Eh who lives here in Thompson.
Moolaw is a licensed practical nurse (LPN), a student (currently working towards her bachelor of nursing degree) and, most importantly, a mother to her five-year-old daughter Hyacinth.
Moolaw was born in a refugee camp in northern Thailand in 1990 to Karen parents. (Karen is an ethnic minority in what was formerly Burma, now known as Myanmar.) She spent her entire childhood and most of her teenage years in different refugee camps along the Myanmar/Thailand border. When Moolaw was born there wasn’t the usual fanfare of bringing baby home from the hospital, or a baby shower; there wasn’t actually a crib for baby Moolaw to sleep in. Moolaw’s family “home” was pretty much the same as everyone else’s in the refugee camp. A bamboo hut, mats for beds on a bamboo floor. No bedrooms, no beds. No running water and no electricity. Baby Moolaw slept on a plastic mat on the floor, protected from mosquitoes (and malaria) by the highly coveted mosquito net. She was one of the lucky ones. Food for the kids and adults were rations supplied by one of the humanitarian groups and consisted of beans, rice, fish paste and oil. Her family, along with hundreds of thousands of others, were displaced and forced to move into these refugee camps for safety. What they were fleeing from was and still is, one of the longest running civil wars in history. When Moolaw helps explain why her family had to spend years in refugee camps, the words “ethnic cleansing” are mentioned and it really hits home how vulnerable these populations are. Her people, the Karen, suffered imprisonment, torture and persecution at the hands of the Burmese government. Ethnic cleansing in the New Oxford American Dictionary is defined as “the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society.” In Canada, it’s difficult for us to imagine this but it was Moolaw’s reality growing up, running/fleeing for their lives, based on their beliefs.
Surprisingly, Moolaw describes her childhood in the refugee camps in a very matter-of-fact way. She doesn’t look for pity, she’s not looking for admiration. She does, however, know she survived something incredible and recognizes her childhood memories vary drastically from those of her Canadian friends. The tears come only when Moolaw talks about the formidable bravery and ingenious resourcefulness her mother displayed to keep them all safe, alive and thriving. The family’s clothing was, for the most part, not store-bought but hand-sewn or woven by Moolaw’s mom. With five children in the family, that’s countless hours of work. There was no formal education system in the refugee camp where Moolaw lived, yet her parents insisted that she and her siblings grab onto whatever lessons they could.
For several years Moolaw lived away from her parents to attend school in northern Thailand. “Even in the jungle, education was important for us. People could take advantage of us, without an education.” Beginning at age seven, Moolaw was sent away for nearly a year at a time just to go to school. By age eight, Moolaw recalls having to wash her own clothes by hand at the school.
Moolaw and her family survived some extraordinary circumstances and faced challenges almost too hard to believe. Yet her story can’t be told without noticing some of the parallels between the conditions in which she grew up (in a third world, civil war-torn country) and the conditions which still exist today in some First Nations communities here in Canada. Moolaw herself mentions this when she gets to the part where her family is being sponsored to come to Canada. They are told Canada is prosperous and provides for everyone. She is surprised to learn that in fact, many First Nations people live, just as she did, with no running water, unsanitary and substandard housing and less than ideal educational opportunities. “I felt safe living here and making a life here having seen the First People’s resilience to overcome obstacles.”
Moolaw and her family were thankful they were selected to be sponsored and welcomed to Canada with open arms in 2006. At age sixteen, Moolaw began her new life in Vancouver with her mom and siblings. She recalls the journey being long and exhausting, armed with very little English, beginning in Bangkok, a transfer in Japan and finally landing in Vancouver. Having lost her father in 2001 in a landmine accident, Moolaw’s mother had kept the family afloat all on her own in horrible conditions and with few resources. The decision to move the entire family to Canada was not an easy one and the feat of getting the whole family relocated required some superhuman strength and determination.
Moolaw adjusted to life in Canada, as did her mom and siblings. She took a post-secondary nursing diploma course and set out once again, on a journey many miles from her family and home in Vancouver to move to Thompson. Moolaw first worked as a health care aide at the Northern Spirit Manor and once her Manitoba nursing license was completed, she worked (and still does) as an LPN at the personal care home. Moolaw’s greatest joy, her only love and her greatest blessing is her daughter Hyacinth, whom she gave birth to here in Thompson and plans on raising here in Thompson. Moolaw’s drive to provide her daughter with every opportunity, every simple pleasure and yet every worldly experience has lit a fire in her. She wants every chance for her daughter that she was deprived of. She’s working hard as a full-time LPN and in school full-time at University College of the North to complete her bachelor of nursing. She wants to prove to herself, her family and the world that no matter where you come from, how little you have to start out with, determination and perseverance will get you the life you want. “It is blessed that I can make a living, work full time, watch Bubu grow … provide for Bubu and myself. I’m always thankful for this town.” Moolaw gives every credit to her mom for getting them where they are today. Moolaw today looks at the sweet innocent face of her daughter and knows that she is striving for the best for her, just as her own mom did for the family in a whole different world.
Carla Antichow, who lives in Thompson, is a nurse, a mother to three teenagers and most recently a devoted “grandma” to a six-month-old golden retriever.