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Evergreen Youth In Action

A Conversation with Ta Kwe Say :

Ta Kwe Say a 23-year old Karen from Burma whose name

means “Silver Rainbow” is a fine young man with a caring

heart, keen mind and a very deep faith.

Read on to hear what he had to say...


Youth In Action

Youth In Action

A Conversation with Ta Kwe Say

By Paul D. Aita, Minister to People from Burma, Panther Lake Community Church, Kent WA

It was my privilege to get to know many wonderful refugee youth from Burma (Myanmar) during the summer of 2010.  My wife Gail and I had originally planned to be in Burma at that time, teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, as we had done every other year since 2000.  However, my mother’s declining health led us to cancel that trip.  The Japanese Baptist Church of Seattle, where I was Senior Minister until my retirement, had already planned for me to be away, and they graciously permitted me to use the authorized “mission time” to work with refugees from Burma here in the Seattle area.  Leaders of the Karen congregation in Kent (which has since organized as the Karen Community Church) encouraged me to work specifically with their youth, which is how I met the young man who is the subject of this interview: Ta Kwe Say, whose name means “Silver Rainbow.” (His elder brother, now married and living in St. Paul MN, is Ta Kwe Htoo—“Golden Rainbow.”)  I was delighted to have been asked to conduct an interview with this fine young man. I think you will get a sense of his keen mind, his caring heart, and his deep faith as you read what he had to say.

PDA:  Ta, when I first met you, you were in high school.  Where are you now attending, and what are you studying?

Ta:    I go to University of Washington, where I am majoring in social work (also known as social welfare).  I’m currently a senior, looking forward to graduating in June next year.  Right now, I’m doing an internship with Asian Counseling and Referral Service for my major.  

PDA:  As a senior, do you have plans for what you’ll do after graduation?

Ta:    After graduation, I might work on a Master of Social Work or maybe one in Public Health.  I haven’t decided.  I might work for a non-profit.  I might go to seminary to become a minister.  Or I might do both.


PDA:  I understand that your studies at UW included taking a course in London this summer.  Tell me about it.

Ta:     I took a course that was mostly about public health, but we also talked about issues in London that people don’t know, such as racism and classism, and how they correlate to health. (The title of the course was “Dark Empire.” The professor explained that the course would show us things people often don’t know—the “other side of the UK.”) In class, we had a lot of guest speakers from London, who shared about their profession.  For example, someone from the National Health Service came to talk about health care in the UK, so we learned a lot about that.  It’s all free, but the people have to pay tax to support it.  For a final project, each student has to write a research project, which is due in November.  So now that we’re back at UW, we have to collect data and write about it.

PDA:  What else did you do in London besides take classes?

Ta:    We had a chance to explore about the history of London.  We went to museums, including the Holocaust Museum, and we discussed what we saw in class.  We also went to the national art gallery and got to see a lot of different pieces of art.  It was very interesting.  We learned that the history of London goes back much farther than US history.  Oxford University was created in 1056, I think, and Cambridge in 1209.

PDA:  How long were you in London, and where did you stay?

Ta:    We were in London for 30 days. We studied at the Eltham campus of the University of Greenwich for three weeks, and then one week at the main campus.

PDA:  But your trip to London wasn’t the only one you took abroad this summer.  I understand you also took a course in Ghana.

Ta:    Yes, I went there under a program at UW called “Sankofa,” which means “come back and get it.”  It provides African-American students a chance to go back and learn about their ancestors and the places they used to live. The program helps them to explore about their culture, history, and identity.  Sankofa partners with a non-profit organization in Ghana called the Cheerful Heart Foundation.  The course gave us an opportunity to take part in four different volunteer programs: public health (which emphasized the issues of teenage pregnancy and sanitation), an orphanage (working with younger children), a program dealing with child labor and human trafficking (which involved conducting interviews with children, many of whom had no choice but to become fishermen at a young age), and teaching at a local school.  Each of us could choose a program to do a service project.  I chose teaching.  I taught 4th and 5th graders mostly basic math for their grade level: two classes a day, Monday through Friday, for three weeks.  I taught about money and multiplication, and about profit and loss.

The children were great. They are very interested in learning because they want to get an education and have a better life.  One thing I learned from teaching is that I learned from the students.  They appreciated what they had. One pencil is very important to have.  For me, it’s nothing.  For them it’s very precious, a treasure.  My background is as a refugee, but since I came to the US, I have more resources, and I take things for granted.  So when I came back, I reflected on the things that I have.  

In Ghana, I also interacted with the teachers at the school.  One teacher told me that not many students from the US interacted with them.  I was shocked.  The teachers want to be engaged also, not just students.  They want to get to know people.  I’m glad I got to meet students and teachers and people that work over there.

We also had a soccer tournament.  They really love “football,” which is what they call soccer.  They organized a soccer tournament for us.  They played soccer with another school: students against students, and teachers against teachers.  I played for the teachers’ team.  We didn’t have time to play a full game because we had to leave.  

PDA:  How did you do?  

Ta:  I did well.

        Life in Ghana is very different from the US.  Roads are bumpy, and there is a lot of traffic, but the people were great,         very welcoming.  I got to eat different food.  We had yams every day—like rice for me.  They do eat rice, but they         eat a lot of yams.

PDA:  What else did you do in Ghana?

Ta:    We went to a slave castle and learned about its history.  We saw where slaves used to be held and shipped to          different places.

While we were there, the local chief gave 1,000 acres of land to the Sankofa program, so that students in that program could build a village for the benefit of local people.

On weekends, we did a lot of fun things.  We visited waterfalls and a village built on top of a lake.  People fleeing from their enemies wound up living there.

PDA:  Let’s back up, Ta.  Tell me about where you were born and raised, how you came to America, and what it was like for you when you got here.

Ta:    I was born in Davoy (also called Tawai), Burma.  I lived there for five years and then moved to Myeik, because my parents had separated.  Later, I stayed at boarding school for five years with a lot of other young people who came from different villages to get an education.  When I was 12, I went to Thailand and lived there, undocumented, for about three years.  It was rough in Thailand.  I had no ID and always had to hide because I didn’t want to get caught by the police.  I could always be deported.  I lived in a small room with lots of people.  Later, I moved into a better place, with a pastor that my mother knew.

In Thailand, I applied to the UN, because my mother had applied to sponsor me.  Then I came to the US.  (My mother was already in the US by the time I was in Thailand.)  I was 15, but I turned 16 the following month.  I started school as a freshman at Kent-Meridian School and studied there for about four years.  

PDA:  What was it like for you at K-M?

Ta:    When I started it was very difficult.  I didn’t know how to find classes, and I got lost.  I didn’t understand English and didn’t know how to communicate with people.  I got to see a lot of different cultures and languages in school, but I just tried to work hard and to study.  

PDA:  Did you speak any English at all when you came to the US?

Ta:    I spoke basic English, because I had a chance to learn in Thailand.  People from the Philippines doing ministry work taught us English.  I also learned a little Thai from Thai people of Korean descent.

PDA:  Tell me more about your time at Kent-Meridian.

Ta:    I did a lot of activities in high school.  I played soccer all four years.  I joined a couple of clubs: Cascade Challenge (a club that did outdoor activities such as water rafting, rope course, hiking, and camping), and the Southeast Asian Cultural Club.  

PDA:  When I went to your high school graduation, I had a hard time finding you alphabetically among the students.  Then I realized you were sitting in the front row.  Why was that?

Ta:    I sat there because I was in the top 10% of the graduating class.  I was also working with my friend, who was valedictorian.  

PDA: So what was your grade-point average?

Ta:  My GPA was about 3.6 over all four years.

PDA:  So you worked hard on academics while you were in high school, but also were involved in sports and clubs.  You were also deeply involved at church.  Tell me the kinds of things you did there.

Ta:    Before I went to college, I was involved in a lot of things at the Karen Community Church.  I was part of the choir and on the music team.  I was also the youth leader during my senior year in high school and my first year at college.  I worked with youth and tried to inspire them to be involved in the church and the community.  I worked in the community, helping refugees.  Sometimes I would go to their house to read the mail for them, or I’d take them to DSHS [Department of Social and Health Services].  I helped young people with sports events and extra-curricular activities.

PDA:  What does faith mean to you, Ta?

Ta:    My faith means a lot to me.  My faith got stronger when I was in Thailand.  I would not have survived without God. Since I came here, faith is trying to read the Bible, to reflect, and to be a good follower of Jesus.  College years have been difficult, focusing on school.  It’s not easy to focus in on what God wants you do.  I’m trying to reflect back on myself: After I finish college, what do I want to do in life?  How do I line up my faith with what I’m doing?  Faith will really help me in my community and the broader community.

PDA:  You mentioned being a good follower of Jesus.  What does that mean to you?

Ta:  It means serving others, loving your neighbor as yourself.  

PDA:  Ta, as you think back on your life, were there people who were especially helpful to you?

Ta:    My mom is very independent, and a role model for me.  She’s been through a lot.  She wants us to be successful and to have faith in God.  I didn’t have a chance to live with her much when I was younger.  She left when I was 5 or 6.  She had faith that we would be together and be able to go to school and be good followers of Jesus.  I really missed my parents during those years when I was younger.  When I got here and was about 16, I hadn’t seen her for 10 years.  It is very important to have parents who work hard to support you in many ways.

PDA:  Anything else you’d like to say?

Ta:  I thank God for opportunities to explore about the world.  I never thought I’d get to do these things.

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