Breathing free at last at age 99

Mi Nar.  © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Mi Nar. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Imagine fleeing a brutal military regime. Now imagine doing it as a senior citizen. I recently interviewed a Burmese woman who is breathing free at last after arriving this year in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is 99 years old. That’s a long time to wait to breathe free(ly). The English interpretation of my interview with Mi Nar (Me Nah) can be heard by pressing the triangle play button under her portrait above. The text also appears below. I will be visiting Mi Nar and her family again, so please use the comment section to tell me what else you would like to know about Mi Nar’s life. Remember, you are helping me shape this documentary exhibition, and I am grateful to you. Thank you for all of the helpful and encouraging comments left thus far.

My name is Mi Nar. I was born in Burma on January 1st, 1910. I am 99 years old, and I came from Thailand to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in March of 2009.

I had lived in Thailand in a refugee camp for twelve years. Before that, I lived inside Burma where I was born. When I was very young — around 7 years old — both of my parents died, so I am a one and only child. Other relatives took me as their adoptive girl and I was raised by my stepmother. When I was 18 years old, I married my husband and I gave birth to eight children, but four of them died when they were young. So I now have three daughters and one son. My husband died a long time ago; I am a widow.

Mi Nar. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Mi Nar. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

The area where I lived in Burma was controlled by insurgents. The military men came repeatedly to my village and I saw them killing, raping, and burning down buildings. I actually saw with my own eyes military men raping girls and looting property. I saw them beat and kill people in my village. When the military men would come to the village, we would all try to flee to the jungle to hide out.

I didn’t dare live there anymore, so in 1997 my children and I fled Burma and went to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. We lived there 12 years before coming to Indiana.

I am from a tropical climate and so far the seasons in Indiana have been warm for me. I haven’t been here long enough to experience winter yet. Living in the United States is making me happy because I see that everything is okay for me. This is a very safe place for me.

Mi Nar and daughters. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Mi Nar and daughters. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

I stay with my three daughters and one grandchild. My son will come, too, one day I hope. I had to leave behind in Thailand not just my son but also his son — my grandson — and his wife and children. Those are my three great grandchildren. I really miss them. It’s torture not seeing them and I cry and cry over not seeing them. My daughters tell me that I should not cry so much because I am old, but I can’t help it; I miss them so much.* They want to come here to live with me but they can’t. During their interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, I think my great grandson made a mistake in answering a question, so his and his family’s request was rejected. He and the rest of my family weren’t given the right to come here.

Before I left Thailand, a lot of people told me, “Oh, America is the best place to live for everybody.” And I thought, “Maybe it is. Maybe.” And now that I’m here, I see that all things really are the best for me now. So now I believe that America is the best place to live for people like me. I thank the American people and the United States’ government for accepting me and my family as refugees. You have helped us get started here with shelter, food, and medical care, and I thank you very much.

Mi Nar and daughters. © 2009 John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Mi Nar and daughters. © 2009 John Gevers. All rights reserved.

* Mi Nar uses a phone card to call her son, grandson, and great grandchildren who are still in the camps on the Thai-Burma border. Thirty minutes of call time costs $5.00. They talk at least every 2-3 days, but some days when she is missing them more than others, Mi Nar has been known to call them 2-3 times a day just to hear their voices.

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6 Responses to “Breathing free at last at age 99”

  1. Elaine Haydock Says:

    John, I am astounded by and impressed with the scope of your project. These ‘initial phases’ (if that phrase can be applied to something so polished and beautiful) are thought-provoking and melancholy-inducing: thought-provoking for obvious reasons, but melancholy-inducing because there wasn’t the technology (or an artist such as you) to produce a similar work at the turn of the last century when my Polish ancestors arrived in Michigan. I beieve it’s so important for the Burmese settling in Fort Wayne to have this historical piece and for the rest of us to continue to evolve in empathy and compassion for our new Americans. What can I do to help insure that this is required viewing by…. everyone???

  2. John,

    Not to restate Elaine’s words, but the historical importance of even these first revelation’s of your project are immense. This document will allow our new citizens to bridge their Burmese and American cultures. I will do whatever I can to help you get the word out about this project and these populations living quietly right beside us in Fort Wayne. I knew I would be moved by this when we discussed it, but this is truly beautiful.

  3. This is a beautiful story! I am so grateful to be part of this project, and I can’t wait to see who else we meet who has finally been able to breathe free. The images you’ve made of Mi Nar are stunning, and I can sincerely see the compassion and respect you have for the elders of the world. The b/w is my personal fave 🙂

  4. I am at once astounded by the horrible things this woman has endured and overcome by her courage and strength of heart. I look forward to this story and this project as it unfolds. Thank you.

  5. Jessica Henry Says:

    I loved this interview. Since you are open to questions for Mi Nar when you return to interview her and her daughters again, I am interested to know how she feels about spending what will be her final years in the U.S. I know that she finally feels safe here with her daughters, and that is wonderful, but surely it will be difficult to be in a new country at the sunset of one’s life. I wonder if she thinks about what will happen to her if and when she passes away here in Indiana. Is being with her family worth not being back in Burma at the very end? I hope you don’t find this question too morbid or offensive in any way.

  6. castrostranger Says:

    The magnanimity of her expression of gratitude to a government that denied entrance to a portion of her family reveals a farsightedness that is a good example for all of us.

    This is very interesting work, John. You are forming one community while documenting another.

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