Freshman Pay Poe distributes bowls of Thai cuisine at her 19th birthday party May 4. Poe had invited her entire community of friends and family to her St. Paul apartment, where they filled every inch of the space for a celebration that included singing and traditional Karen prayer. “Adjusting to diversity [at Bethel] is hard,” Poe said. “I could go do everything with my roommates, but I still see that line: that I’m different.” | Photo by Jhenna Becker

War-torn land, unified spirits

Bethel University freshman nursing student Pay Poe overcomes adversity as a Karen refugee from Myanmar, using her education and opportunities in the United States as a tool to help others.

Jhenna Becker
May 21 · 6 min read

By Chloe Peter

When Pay Poe’s mother told her that they were moving from a refugee camp in Taiwan to America, Poe didn’t want to leave.

“I thought I had everything. I just didn’t see it,” Poe said.

Poe, a freshman nursing major at Bethel University, is a part of the Karen culture and community who emigrated from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Poe and her family fled civil war in Myanmar when she was five years old, seeking refuge in Mae Ra Moe, a Taiwanese camp, until she was 11.

In one day, Poe was able to walk around and explore the entirety of Mae Ra Moe. The camp provided a school, but it was often short staffed. Poe and other students in her class were left on their own when teachers didn’t show up. The school day took place mostly outside, the classrooms inside separated by bamboo. Each day, Poe would walk home to a bamboo house and eat a rice lunch before going back to school.

Poe’s brother and his daughter enjoy Poe’s birthday party near the playground outside her apartment. Poe had taken a break from the festivities to hold her niece and enjoy the warm weather. “Growing up, I felt like I didn’t have anyone to be close with,” she said. “I felt like an only child because me and my brother are 14 years apart.” | Photo by Emma Harville

Poe’s mother, Naw Htoo, would leave the camp illegally for weeks at a time to do farmwork in a neighboring village in order to provide for her family, often leaving Poe behind by herself. Poe has two older siblings, but the closest in age to her is 14 years older. She passed time by making pretend bamboo guns or climbing in the mango and coconut trees with other Karen children living next door to her. Some days she would pay a dollar to use one of two TVs in the camp to watch Burmese dramas.

The language, the housing, the education system and the technology of the United States were all foreign to Poe. She would give other students her school lunches because she wasn’t used to American food. She didn’t know how to deal with the harsh winter at first. The coldest temperatures in Thailand average at 79 degrees.

Poe’s friends and family gather on a mat outside her apartment in St. Paul to celebrate Poe’s birthday May 4. Bowls filled to the brim with white rice and chicken were passed around as guests filled their plates and ate in community. “I’m pretty proud to be here,” Poe said. “Just getting the opportunity to go to school and be in this place full of opportunities, and especially getting to talk about my culture and my people.” | Photo by Jhenna Becker

“We (Poe and Htoo) didn’t know how to turn on the AC because we’d never seen anything like that,” Poe said of her first Minnesota apartment.

Poe cried nearly every day in the back of her classroom at Central Park Elementary in Roseville. She didn’t understand what the teachers or other students were trying to say to her. Algebra, grammar and literature were harder to learn when she didn’t speak any English.

“I felt like a lost child; so tiny, so small … like I didn’t belong there,” Poe said. “Everyone knew everyone (in Mae Ra Roe), but in the U.S., I knew no one.”

Graphic by Emma Harville

A few months later, Poe’s teachers pulled out a group of immigrant students to help them learn English. Poe began to make friends at school. Even then, Poe said that the groups of friends she made were solely because they spoke the same language and were in a group set apart from the other students.

However, Poe sees her immigration story as an opportunity.

“Because of the civil war, I don’t think I’d get to come here or get an education, ” Poe said.

In Thailand, college wouldn’t have been an option for Poe. Tenth grade was the highest education level the refugee camp offered. There was only one exam each year, and if a student didn’t pass, they’d stay in the same grade. It didn’t matter how old they were. There wasn’t much help if a student struggled, and it was common to see a 16-year-old in the fourth or fifth grade.

After being accepted into Bethel University and University of Minnesota-Duluth, Poe chose Bethel in order to be closer to home. Poe returns to her St. Paul apartment to visit her mom almost every weekend. Htoo doesn’t have a driver’s license, so Poe spends her weekends driving her mother to get groceries from Dragon Star or attending a Karen church service on Sunday evenings.

“That’s the only way to communicate and catch up with her…we don’t get to see each other that often,” Poe said.

Poe’s guests at her birthday party, including her Karen church’s pastor, bow their heads and pray in their native tongue. Poe learned how to pray in English when she joined Pray First on Bethel’s campus, but she still attends a traditional Karen service every Sunday. “I have both a Karen and English Bible that I pray with, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand because prayers are often translated differently,” she said. | Photo by Jhenna Becker

At Bethel, Poe regularly attends Vespers and chapel. She joined Pray First, a prayer team on Bethel’s campus, where she first learned how to pray in English. However, many words in Karen translated differently than they did in English. One day, someone on the Pray First team recommended she combine both languages. Now, Poe still prays in Karen, but she’ll pray over others in English. She takes prayer requests in the back of Vespers and goes from dorm to dorm doing ministry.

Poe reads from her Karen Bible in her dorm room in Lissner Hall. She joined Pray First, a prayer group on campus, where she regularly prays for Bethel community members during Vespers services. “I grew a lot closer to God by coming here [Minnesota] and going to church everyday, building a relationship with my Sunday school teachers, and learning about the Bible,” she said. | Photo by Chloe Peter

“Both Bethel students and the Karen youth at my church have the same values,” she said. “We may be different in culture, but we both worship the same God.”

Ehehcho Dwe has been a friend of Poe’s for eight years. They have been going to the same church and youth group, and now go to Bethel together.

“Pay is a great leader and has shared many sermons in our own language, and

I admire how much effort she puts into everything she does,” Dwe said.

Poe and Dwe often pray at each other’s houses, where youth have opportunities to lead in prayer or sermons outside of the regular church service.

Graphic by Emma Harville

Poe also spends her days with friends, listening to music, watching Thai dramas in her room, or studying to become a nurse. Kindra Vande Kamp, a freshman at Bethel University, met Poe through living in Lissner Hall together. They are both taking pre-nursing classes and work on homework together.

“Whenever we are struggling with school, she makes sure I know we can do this and we can work hard to get where we need to be,” Vande Kamp said.

As soon as she earns her nursing degree, Poe wants to return to Myanmar and help tend to people affected by the civil war.

“Many people were injured in the war, and they need better healthcare. I have the education and background to go back and help,” Poe said.

Poe knows it may be several years before she can return to Myanmar as a nurse. There are legal issues she needs to get figured out before she can do so. As of now, Poe said that she’s working on her degree and praying for what can come next.

“Knowing God has a plan for you just causes this sense of relief,” Poe said.

Poe sits with a friend from Bethel and other Karen community members in her St. Paul apartment for her birthday party. Back in the villages of Burma, birthday parties were a great way for all of the villagers to come together, but there wasn’t always enough food. Now, Poe is able to invite her family and friends for numerous containers of rice, chicken and curry. “I thought it [moving to the United States] was a joke at first,” Poe said. | Photo by Emma Harville

(Additional reporting by Emma Harville and Jhenna Becker.)


Hyperlocal news about Bethel (Minn.) University by journalism students. To contact editors, email or Tweet to @Royal_Report.

Jhenna Becker

Written by


Hyperlocal news about Bethel (Minn.) University by journalism students. To contact editors, email or Tweet to @Royal_Report.

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