Karen family finds peace, happiness in southwest Minnesota
WORTHINGTON — If you drop in on the comfortable household of Ben Wah and Rody Thung in Worthington’s Sungold Heights neighborhood, expect a hospitable welcome.
Rody, gracious and smiling to guests even after a full day’s work at JBS, is quick to offer a refreshing beverage — roasted coconut juice, perhaps, or soy milk — and proffer snacks.
Her calm demeanor and kind, expressive face belie the difficult journey the Wahs, who are Karen, made from their native Burma to the Mae La refugee camp on the border between Burma and Thailand and, ultimately, all the way to Worthington.
“We came to St. Paul in 2007, then we moved to Worthington in 2008 because my dad got a job here at JBS,” said TrueDe Wah, Rody and Ben’s 18-year-old daughter. Mooday, 13, rounds out their immediate family unit.Though after six years in the United States Rody understands more English every day, she remains a little reluctant to practice speaking it, preferring to use her native Karen and allow TrueDe, a 2014 graduate of Worthington High School, to interpret.While today a conservative estimate puts the number of Karen families living in Worthington at over 35, the Wahs were among the very first Karen refugees to arrive in Worthington in 2008. They fled Burma in the late 1990s to escape that nation’s civil war and the mistreatment, including murder and torture, of the Karen people at the hands of the Burmese army.“My parents had to choose between life and death,” attested TrueDe, a gentle teenager with a winning smile and bubbly sense of humor. “If they stayed, they would have been killed.“The Burmese wanted to take over all the places where the Karen people lived.”So Ben, 49, and Rody, 45, both graduates of a missionary school in Burma and licensed preachers, gathered 1-year-old TrueDe and whatever supplies they could carry in their arms and walked for three and a half days to reach the relative safety of the Mae La camp.Mooday, a dimpled, bespectacled, soccer-crazy, rising eighth-grader at Worthington Middle School (WMS), was born at the Mae La camp in February 2001.Because Ben and Rody (whose last name is different than her spouse’s because she uses “Thung” to honor her grandfather, who was a pastor) were better educated than many of the refugees at Mae La, Ben became one of the camp’s leaders. Rody, who had previously taught elementary school in Burma, taught preschool there.“Things weren’t as bad for us at Mae La as they were for some people,” said TrueDe, noting their house was made of wood. “Dad knew when to get food and where to go to get clothes for the winter.“But food was expensive and not always easy to get,” she added. “We were among the first groups to leave the camp.”First flightWhen the Wahs were finally eligible to travel to the U.S., after having lived at Mae La camp for 10 years, TrueDe was 12 and Mooday was a busy 7-year-old.Despite all the trials they had already endured, Rody’s greatest fear about the major move was flying.“The scariest part for mom was worrying about crashing,” shared TrueDe of the first time any of the family had flown. “She was scared about that, and about not speaking English.”The family remembers that Mooday was very excited about going to the U.S., but TrueDe didn’t want to go and leave her friends.Mooday, an active ball of compact energy, made some aspects of the trip more challenging than they might have otherwise been, his mother recalled.“We had to stop in Bangkok and sign official cards, but Mooday threw a fit because he wanted to do it himself — but he doesn’t read or write Karen and could only write his name,” said TrueDe.Also, the escalators at the airports proved irresistible to the curious Mooday, who wanted to keep going up and down them.TrueDe’s name was one casualty of the Wahs’ immigration process.“My birth name is True Day, but they couldn’t figure out the spelling, so they put it down as Truede,” she recounted. “I sign it ‘TrueDe’ now.”Upon arrival in Worthington, TrueDe believes she was the first Karen student at WMS, which also presented some challenges for a somewhat shy girl whose knowledge of English was fairly limited.“We learned some basic English stuff at the refugee camp, some vocabulary and the alphabet,” TrueDe listed. “It’s challenging to learn English.“And people didn’t know where I was from — they thought I was Thai or Lao, but when other Karen students started coming, I helped translate for them and I got to know more people that way.”Assistance, acclimationIn school, both TrueDe and Mooday say math is a favorite subject.Mooday, who can’t get enough of playing or watching soccer, also enjoys physical education class — but neither he nor TrueDe love the school lunches.“The mashed potatoes, meat and bread at school were okay,” said TrueDe, with Mooday adding that he also likes the school’s mashed potatoes.Like many other U.S. children, Mooday has a weakness for donuts and McDonald’s, citing French fries, Big Macs and chicken McNuggets as his favorites. Pizza, however, is a food the Wah kids tolerate but don’t necessarily love.Given the option, the family prefers to eat foods from their cultural tradition — rice, meat and vegetables. Rice remains a staple, and a rice cooker at the Wah home works almost as hard as the Wah parents do; rice, and sometimes a chili made with peppers, shrimp and vegetables, is what Rody and Ben most often take to eat during their work shifts.“We shop at Top Asian Foods and at the Karen store on Oxford Street near the laundry mat,” said TrueDe.When the family was new to town, aid came their way in the form of the Rev. Ron Lammers of the Asian American Christian Reformed Church of Bigelow.“Pastor Lammers was the first person to come to our house,” reported Rody via TrueDe during an interview that took place while Ben was at work. “He helped us with rides before we had a car.“Otherwise, we walked everywhere in town, and took backpacks with us to the stores to carry our food.”Lammers, who has worked with Asian immigrants to the area since the late 1980s, confirms that the Wahs were among the first Karen families to come to Worthington.“Ben, a licensed preacher, speaks every Sunday at church — except when they go to St. Paul to visit other family,” said Lammers.Rody contributes, too, as a church music director.“She sings and plays guitar, and leads music at our church,” said Lammers.Rody loves too many Gospel songs to select a favorite, but “Living for Jesus” is one number she singled out.“Most Karen are Christian,” shared Lammers, who said his primary role in aiding the immigrants is making sure they comply with immigration laws.“I help them fill out the necessary forms, send in money — I’d say that takes up about one-third of my time,” said Lammers.Lammers says most of the local Karen were driven to leave Burma to escape from the political and religious persecution they were enduring.“For the Karen, it was maybe more political than religious, but the two are closely tied, and in many countries, like Burma, there is very little separation between church and state,” he detailed.Aside from worship, family and work, soccer is a unifying force for many Karen — including the Wahs.Soccer,and the futureBen Wah began playing soccer in Burma as an adolescent; he has passed his love for it on to Mooday, with Rody and TrueDe being faithful fans.Mooday, though physically smaller than some of his peers, has been an enthusiastic and skilled player on the Worthington Futbol Club’s soccer teams for the past few years.This weekend, he joins the U14 competitive team during state qualifying competition in the Twin Cities.“Soccer is football, baseball and basketball all rolled into one for them,” laughed Lammers. “There’s only one season, and that’s soccer season.”Mooday leverages his speed and smaller stature, initially duping the opposition who, in sizing him up, tend to dismiss him as a non-factor.Later, after they’ve been out-dribbled, out-kicked and often out-scored by Mooday, opposing players attempt to stop him but are usually outdone by his speed and slick moves.“Soccer is my favorite sport,” Mooday confirms with an appealing grin. “I like playing forward. Some of the other players can’t really catch up to me.”With Rody and Ben working different shifts at JBS, weekend soccer games and tournaments are times for the family to reunite and relax. But the time and expense in traveling to soccer matches means that Ben requires something of Mooday in return.“Dad has a rule that Mooday must get As or Bs in order to play soccer,” said TrueDe.Mooday, flashing his dimples, said he made the silver Renaissance level at WMS for the third quarter.Now that TrueDe has a high school diploma, she plans to attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College this fall, intending to become a nurse practitioner.“I would like to graduate and get my nursing degree, and then become a medical missionary and go back to help people in Thailand and Burma,” said TrueDe.“Kids die there because they don’t have medical care, and during the war, people were really hurting because they needed medical help.”As noble as TrueDe’s goal sounds, TrueDe’s words cause her mother to shake her head.“She wants us to graduate and then stay here to help the other Karen people in Worthington,” TrueDe interpreted. “Things aren’t good for the Karen people in Thailand, and she’s worried about what would happen to me if I went back there.”Rody says that if she could work at a job of her choice, she would sew. She and Ben value life in Worthington for the opportunities it has given their children, and because they feel secure and at peace here.As for Mooday, he’s just hoping to get through eighth grade at WMS for the moment, and later, he’d like to play professional soccer — for Real Madrid, his favorite team.Laughed TrueDe, “That’s his real dream.”Fortunately, the real dream of Mooday’s parents — to find a safe place to raise their family and worship God — has already come true.