Thursday, September 30, 2010

Together for Adoption

2010 National Conference OCTOBER 1-2 | Austin, TX

The Hill Country Hill Tribers team will be at the Together for Adoption conference tomorrow and we're so excited. I expect this to generate a lot of ideas for us in our ministry and in our personal lives as adoptive and pre-adoptive parents. Coming soon--more about how and why we do what we do.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Daw Gay and Saw Meh

A few weeks ago, we had two new weavers who came to our weekly Monday meeting. Daw Gay is a single mother with two teenage boys. Saw Meh is her 81-year-old mother (pictured above). Both of the women are weavers. We don't know much yet about their back story. One of the things I can tell you on meeting them is that Saw Meh is strong and sassy. She's not afraid to say what she thinks, a quality that is often rare among our weavers, and is especially amazing considering all that her family has been through.

These two weigh heavily on my heart. With no breadwinner in the family, I'm not sure how they're going to make it. Thankfully, they've been supported since the beginning by a fabulous Presbyterian church in Austin who has committed to being deeply involved in their lives; they're the ones that connected them to us in the first place. But still, I wonder, with very little possibility for employment, what will happen to them in a few months when their refugee support fund runs out. I do know that, when we handed them a loom two weeks ago, Saw Meh's eyes lit up and she was almost giddy for a moment. I can only imagine how nice it is to see something familiar in a strange land.

A few weeks ago, Daw Gay and Saw Meh took a bus to go to an ESL class. They took the wrong number bus on their way home and passed the night wandering around Austin. Daw Gay can write her name, painfully, but I'm not sure how literate they are. They didn't have a phone with them, nor their address to ask for directions. They ended up spending the night tucked under a bridge in Austin, two small Karen women alone in an unknown city.

The next morning, they were reunited with their worried sons because of some amazing people in the Karen community. They now have a phone and friends watching out for them. There is no one to blame--these kinds of things just happen. But I cannot help feeling like somehow, this should not be.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Meh Mo and Koe Meh

One of the reasons we'd like to start blogging is that it gives us a chance to tell the stories of our weavers. We love these women and really enjoy getting to know them. If you've ever met us or seen us interact with the weavers, you know that getting to know them is not always an easy thing for us. We'll tell you more soon about our regular meetings. But recently, we've been sitting down with the women one-on-one or in families to get to know them better. We began with the Mehs, a nickname we've given a group of Karenni sisters who are fabulous weavers and some of our favorite people.

This is Meh Mo. Meh Mo is a Burmese refugee living in Austin, a member of the Karenni hill tribe. In 1996, the Burmese Army launched a massive village relocation plan aimed at bringing the population under military control and eliminating ethnic resistance. At least 3,000 ethnic villages, including Meh Mo’s, have been destroyed since 1996, displacing or killing over one million people. When the Burmese Army came to her village, Meh Mo’s extended family fled across the border into Thailand, across 25 miles thick with jungle. Meh Mo had already lost her husband and her oldest daughter, and was fleeing with her five small children. But Meh Mo’s sister, Koe Meh was in a much worse condition.

At eight months pregnant, Koe Meh went into labor in the middle of the jungle. While the rest of the family raced on, Koe Meh, her husband and sister Meh Mo, found a refuge of sorts, a village that had already been destroyed by the Burmese army. Meh Mo remembers their frantic search for anything to boil water in so she could clean the newborn baby since the Burmese army busted out the bottoms of the cooking pots. In an abandoned hut in the ransacked village, Koe Meh gave birth to a tiny girl named Shay Meh, now a fourteen-year-old high school student. Two days later, Koe Meh was up running through the jungle again. The family was reunited in a make-shift refugee camp in Thailand, a no-man’s-land they waited in for fourteen years. Unable to work because of their refugee status in Thailand, Meh Mo pushed her family to apply to come to the States. Most of their family moved to Austin in 2009. Two of their brothers are living in Thailand and, through legal issues, will never be reunited with the rest of their family. Their father is dying in a hospital in Austin; they will not see each other again in this life. 

Growing up in their tiny village in Burma, Meh Mo stayed on their rice farm while her 8 younger sisters and brothers all went to a larger city to be educated. She learned to weave the traditional cloth, clothes and bags that women in her village had been making for generations. Meh Mo perfected her craft; her weaving is exquisite and intricate. All of the sisters weave well. But Meh Mo cannot speak English and is not literate in her own language; her employment options are limited. The agencies who brought Meh Mo and the other refugees to Austin are fierce and amazing. Their creative and continuous support of the refugee community has literally saved lives. Refugees come to Austin to give their children a future. Meh Mo is blessed to have a family that supports each other, so she is not as destitute as some of the other women we know, but she and other women like her are struggling to make it in their new lives.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hill Country Hill Tribers Background (part 1)

One day, in the fall of 2007, a group of Karen hill tribers walked into a fall festival our church was having in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Austin. Seeing a group of hill tribers in a sea of Spanish-speakers was surreal; I had spent two summers in Thailand and visited Karen villages there. These hill tribers wore the same hand-woven clothes, spat the same beteljuice, squatted on the hill in the same way as the villagers I'd visited in Thailand. It took us a few minutes of talking to figure out that they were political refugees living in the apartment complex next door and that they were in need of friendship and support. Over the next few months, our two families and some other people from our church got to know the hill tribers. Caren and I each had an almost-one-year-old. The refugee women had young children as well. We noticed their children didn’t have shoes, though it was a cold winter in Austin. We started by buying shoes. Then we asked the women if they could speak English. When we found out they had a hard time getting to their classes, we started an ESL class for them in their neighborhood. But the more we spent time with them, the more we realized they desperately wanted more than charity. They needed a way to support themselves.

Many of the women stayed at home with small children, but they could weave. So we found a yarn distributor in Maine. And we created a fair trade festival at our church in November to sell their bags. The first year, we made $3000 in four hours. And that’s how our non-profit was born; slowly, over many months, Hill Country Hill Tribers became a way to provide supplemental income to Burmese women who stay home with their children. We began with weavers, but we’ve extended it to women who can or want to learn how to sew. Our sewn products are made from up-cycled rice bags and burlap sacks, keeping our supply cost low and our environmental impact high. We provide our artisans with English and sewing lessons so they can learn employable skills that can translate into jobs in the future. Caren is our Marketing Director; I’m the Educational Development Director. Since we do this as volunteer work on the side, we both do a little bit of everything else, along with our amazing husbands and kids, our fantastic board and the amazing friends who work with us from a variety of churches in Austin. You can find out many of the details on our website,, as well as buy some of our beautiful bags. Some of our artisans have moved on to other jobs; others may never be able to work because of language or other difficulties. New refugees come every few months. We will work as long as we can to help these women support their families.