When James Bawi was only six, his mother gave him away. Widowed and penniless, his mother believed the only way she could help her three sons was to give them education. The only way was by giving them up to orphanages. It was a decision which not only helped their future, but saved their lives.
In the years that followed her decision to break up their family, the Chin state in Myanmar, where they live, would grow increasingly unstable and become the frontline of conflict.
Mostly Christian in a Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the Chin community are the subjects of decades of attempts at forced assimilation, leading to armed conflict.
In this conflict, boys as young as 11 would be snatched from their villages and forced to become child soldiers.
Those in the orphanages were spared, but at 15, James was ageing out and would soon have to leave. With dreams of being a pastor, the teenager feared returning home would mean having to pick up arms.
One day, while playing football, he received an unexpected phone call. It would set him on a journey by land and water across three countries, on his own.
This is his story as told to Aidila Razak:
I was born in Paletwa, a town in the Chin State of Myanmar, on the border with Bangladesh. When I was five months old, my father died. My mother was left on her own to care for three young boys.
She was uneducated, she couldn’t even write her own name. But she wanted us to be educated, and the only way to give us free education was to give us away.
So she made the decision to send us to orphanages - all three of us, separated. I was sent to Yangon, more than 600kms away from our village of Khuahrang.
I was six years old. I remember at the time, I was angry with her for sending me away. I remember, all three of us, we would pray. That our dream is to live together as a family under one roof.
I stayed in that orphanage until I was 15. When I was growing up, there were no mobile phones or Internet in Myanmar, so we didn’t stay in touch.
In my nine years there, I became less angry with my mother because I realised she put me there so I could study. And I enjoyed studying. I wanted to be a pastor.
In 2010, I was in my last year of high school. I hoped to be able to further my studies, but in the orphanage after you finish school, you have to leave. This means I had to return to my village in the Chin state.
There was a lot of conflict in the Chin state. We were on the frontlines of the conflict. Young boys - my friends - would be taken away and forced to become child soldiers. If I went back to my village, that could happen to me.
Then one day, when I was playing football with some friends, I was told to go to the orphanage’s office. They said I had a phone call from overseas. It was totally unexpected. I didn’t know anyone living overseas. Who would call me?
Imagine my surprise when I heard my mother on the line. I had not spoken to her since I was six. She told me she was in Malaysia, and that she is arranging for someone to bring me to her.
I was just completely shocked. I couldn’t talk. I remember just going straight to my room after that.
I didn’t know anything about Malaysia at the time. In my mind it was like Europe. My priority at the time was studying, so I thought, if I make it to Malaysia, I would be able to go to college and be very educated. This was impossible if I stayed in the Chin State. There, I would have to carry arms.
I snuck out of the orphanage in the middle of the night - it was maybe 2 or 3 am - to head to this location, where my mother said a man would wait for me. I had never even been to that place.
I thought he would take me to the airport and I would get on a plane to Malaysia, where my mother would wait for me. So in my bag was a couple of pants and shirts, hair wax and some cream for my face. I thought it would be a fun journey.
When I left the orphanage at the time, there was no one on the street. There was just this sort of truck which we use as public transport and I asked the driver to take me to the place where I was supposed to meet the man.
When I think about it now, I think it’s crazy and dangerous. He could have taken me anywhere, kidnapped me or sold me. But at the time I just slept and told him to tell me when we would arrive.
When we arrived there, I met the man who was supposed to take me to Malaysia. I didn’t recognise him, but he knew who I was. I’m not sure how. Maybe he had a picture?
He bought me breakfast and told me that whatever happens, I should just do what I am told. ‘If I don’t ask you to come out, you stay where you are,’ he said. And then we left.
At that point I figured out that I wasn’t getting on a plane. But I still thought, maybe it would be a bus, the ones with nice seats. Then I saw a truck. He told me: ‘Get in.’
It was a truck which carried goods. I was kind of shocked at this idea of traveling so far in such a truck. They put me in the truck underneath all the goods. There were already people crouching in that space.
Because I was young, the agent always stayed near me. In a way, I felt safer than the others in the truck. There were no other children. Everyone was quiet, no one asked questions. We weren’t allowed to talk.
It was two days like that in the truck. Later I would learn that some people would die on such a journey from lack of oxygen, packed under all those things.
But it is hard for me to remember exact details of what happened on that journey. Sometimes now it feels like it was a dream and not something I had actually experienced. I don’t remember if we stopped and if we got out at any point.
Sometimes when I’m alone, I try to look at the map and figure out how I got here. It feels unlikely, but I am here.
I don’t even know when we crossed the border out of Myanmar, but I know at some point we were told we would be crossing the border to Thailand. It was by water.
I remember getting onto a type of paddle boat, like a sampan. And sometimes the agent would say that I am his son. I know all in all, it took us three days, by land and by water, to get into Thailand.
In Thailand I remember being put inside a room, before we continued our journey. The man who took me from Myanmar to Thailand was gone, I was passed to someone else. I didn’t question it, or ask where we were or how much further we needed to travel. I just trusted. I was very trusting. I called the agent ‘uncle’.
In Thailand, sometimes we would walk, and then there was a car, then we would get into a boat again. To this day, I cannot figure out where we crossed the border to enter Malaysia, but I remember the last part of the journey was by car.
I remember this because the car sent me to the roadside, in front of Berjaya Times Square and the monorail station. And then I was left there, in the dark. The car ride was about 12 hours long.
It was maybe 3 or 4 am at the time. No one was on the streets. Five of us were dropped off there. There was a woman, who had a baby with her. One by one, they would leave that place. Someone would pick them up. I would just wait. No one asked me if I needed help.
Eventually, a man came. He said he was from my village and he would take me to my mother, at Jalan Alor.
Meeting my mother for the first time in nine years felt like heaven. It was my happiest moment. I hugged her and cried and told her how much I missed her. I told her how much I wanted to be with her again.
Besides my mother, my older brother was also in Malaysia, and he was married, so I had a sister-in-law. Suddenly, I had a family again.
Life wasn’t very easy. We lived in a small room, all five of us, including my baby nephew. I remember the room was so small that when I lay down on the floor, I could reach opposite walls with my hands and feet.
I remember being devastated - even angry at my mother again - when I found out there was no way I could go to school in Malaysia. I remember asking her, “So why did you bring me here?”
But the truth is, if I stayed in Myanmar, I would be carrying arms, marching to war.
Once I got over my heartbreak of not being able to go to school, I found a job in the kitchen of an Arabic restaurant. I told my mother not to work anymore, we would take care of her.
In the years to come, I managed to save up to rent a bigger apartment for my family, study part time, find work as an interpreter at the Institute of Migration, and now, I lead the Association of Chin Refugees.
In my work, I meet many young refugees, those who were the same age or younger than I was when I first came to Malaysia. Some of them are on their own.
Looking back, I was lucky. I was not sold, not kidnapped, and as a boy child, my experience is very different from young girls and women who made the same journey.
I know of incidents of women or girls raped or molested by the agents while in transit, but this is a taboo subject, something kept hidden in the community. The survivors are ashamed to share this. I do not pry if they don’t want to share.
I have been in Malaysia for 10 years. Today, my family lives in the United States. They were successfully resettled in 2018. My resettlement is still pending, but if I could, I would want to return to Myanmar.
A few years ago, I saw my mother arrested by police in Malaysia, and it was a terrible experience. That was when I decided I no longer want to be a pastor.
I remember thinking, ‘If our country was in a good state, my people, my mum would not have to struggle in other countries like this. Even though she was an uneducated single mother, she would have been able to survive if our country was better.’
This is why my hope is to one day return to Myanmar and join politics - for my mother and people like her. I want to stop refugee life in Malaysia, and the only way to end this refugee life is to change our country so no one would have to flee like I did.
In our family, we rarely talk about our difficult path. Before, when I spoke of the past, I would cry, so my mother said we shouldn’t talk about it anymore.
One day it will be safe to return to my home state. Until then, I am trying to gain experience, build networks and knowledge, because we really need to change our country.
Being a refugee is not by choice. We are just temporary guests. We will leave when it is possible. We just have to wait, but please, in the meantime, educate us, and help build us up so we can go back and rebuild our country.
Now 25, James Bawi Thang Bik was elected president of the Alliance of Chin Refugees after successfully campaigning for the UNHCR to retain refugee status for the Chin community in 2019. UNHCR had ceased refugee protection for the Chin community based on the assessment that their homeland was safe for return, but reversed this decision following new reports showing otherwise. ACR provides education, medical and other services to the Chin community in Malaysia.