UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL OKLAHOMA GRADUATE SANG REM WEEPS as she recounts her story. Rem recalls the moment she first imagined the future she is living today.
The year was 2007. Rem was 14 and her family had just taken the first steps in escaping an increasingly oppressive military regime in her home country of Burma, also referred to as Myanmar.
Tired and car sick, Rem and her family had just made it to Rangoon, Burma, to learn their next steps.
“I remember sitting on the veranda, watching the blackbirds fly and imagining different things,” Rem said.
That moment would sustain Rem through a journey that would take her through two countries and a brief stint in a prison camp before finally arriving in the United States.
Burma to Thailand
Rem grew up in a rural village in Burma, living a simple life until political instability and military attacks infiltrated their home.
“Military troops would attack our villages in Burma. They would invade our living quarters, eat our food, kill our animals, take our items and steal our money. It happened quite a lot when I was little. That was the main reason we left our village,” Rem said.
It would be a dangerous journey, but the possibility of a better life was worth it – a life where opportunities were abundant, education was accessible and the freedom to think and speak out loud without the fear of oppression weren’t just novelties.
The nation of Burma, nestled between China and the Indian Ocean, has experienced decades of political and social upheaval. In 1988, an illegitimate military group seized power in Burma. After a year of ruling and brutally suppressing a pro-democracy revolution, the military group changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. The upheaval persisted – with the military group decreasing civil freedoms and economic opportunities. The voice of democracy was silenced by the authoritative demands of the military group and Burmese citizens paid the price.
To escape this oppression, Rem’s family decided to move to a city in Burma in hopes of getting away from the severity of the attacks, but uprooting the only life she knew was a culture shock.
“We started a new life in the city. My father built a little house with six children living there. It was difficult adjusting because we were farmers back in the village. The living style in the city was completely different. My parents didn’t speak Burmese because we spoke our village language. To survive, we needed to learn Burmese. My siblings and I were able to continue our education and learn the language and the culture, but it was not easy.”
The military attacks persisted, even in the city. Rem’s parents realized there was no hope for a better future if they continued to live in Burma, and they began making plans to leave.
It was in the early 2000s when Rem’s father left for Malaysia to work and establish a way out of Burma for his family. Rem was only seven years old.
“When my dad first got to Malaysia, there wasn’t a United Nations office, but Malaysia opened an office not too long after that. My dad had the opportunity to become a refugee, so he applied and got accepted,” Rem said.
This meant the entire family had a good chance of eventually achieving refugee status in Malaysia, giving them a renewed sense of hope. The family started their journey to freedom in 2007, when Rem was 14, leaving Burma through Thailand and entering Malaysia illegally as undocumented immigrants. Their first trek was to Rangoon, Burma, where they had to stay for three months as political protests and unrest intensified, making it dangerous for anyone to leave the country.
“We didn’t know anything about the process to cross the border to Thailand. We were told we needed to cut our hair and couldn’t cross the border with long hair. We ended up cutting it,” Rem said.
During their time in Rangoon, a series of economic and political protests emerged known as the Saffron Revolution. The military regime raised the prices of fuel, leading to an economic downfall. The domino effect caused panic and protests among the citizens. Activists were beaten, detained and murdered. The military group was all too powerful.
“Not only was it dangerous because of the protests, but because we were leaving Burma illegally. At nighttime, we crossed the Thailand border by a little boat. We couldn’t make any noise. I remember a baby on the boat who wouldn’t stop crying,” Rem said.
“It [the boat ride] was terrifying. They put water-resistant material on top of us and bamboo to hold it down so we couldn’t be seen.”
Thailand To Malaysia
Rem and her family finally arrived in Thailand. They were able to eat and reenergize for the night’s journey to the Malaysian border. This time the mode of transportation was by car, and Rem and her family were not the only ones joining.
“Two people were sitting on top of me. They put as many people as they could in that car. After getting out of the car, I remember I couldn’t move my legs. I was the numbest I had ever been.”
Finally arriving in Malaysia, Rem and her father were reunited. It was a victorious moment, but her journey for a better life and future was far from over. Just four months later, Rem, at the age of 14, her sister and cousin were arrested near their home in Malaysia and sent to a prison camp.
“We always heard about this military troop arresting people near our home. We were told to be careful. It was a Saturday night and there was a night market. We were running out of soap, and I was begging my sister to get soap with me. When we stepped outside, we were arrested immediately.”
Despite her fear, Rem had to remain calm.
“My sister was crying, and I kept telling myself I’m not going to cry. I’m strong. They put us in a military truck with many other people and took us to the downtown area of Kuala Lumpur. If we had documentation, we could call our boss, parents or whomever to claim us, but my parents were afraid they would get arrested as well. We borrowed someone’s phone and told our parents that we got arrested.”
After spending half a night in jail, the military troop transported Rem, her sister and cousin to a prison camp. As soon as they arrived
at the camp, their identities were stripped down to nothing more than an assigned number.
“They assigned me a number, and that’s what I went by, 0-2-7-1-0, and my sister had the number after mine. After that, they handcuffed us and stripped us of our clothes.”
The military also took their belongings, and the only food available was rice and salty fish. There was no such thing as privacy in the prison camp, to Rem, a day felt like a lifetime.
“We were lucky. We were only at the prison camp in Malaysia for a month. They sent us to the Thailand border by bus and put us in what felt like a cage. I don’t remember how we got through those days or nights, but I remember we would have to run at night to get to the border,” Rem said.
“We were finally at the Thailand border, and some guys could take us back to Malaysia. We were in this unfinished house, and I remember sleeping there. We were able to call our father and place a deal for us to go back to Malaysia.”
Her father agreed to pay 3,000 ringgits for Rem, her sister and cousin, equivalent to $715 each. The community in Malaysia came together to raise enough money for them to go home.
“We were thankful we were able to connect with our father. We crossed farm fields, rivers and jungles to get back home. We were almost arrested again, but we were very quiet and hid. We couldn’t wear any shoes because it would make too much noise.”
Eventually, through the sleepless nights running, they made it back to Malaysia to reunite with their family for the second time. It wasn’t long after that the United Nations office called and approved their status to come to the United States.
On U.S. Soil
Her parents’ dream of providing their children with a better life was within reach. Though they were faced with another round of culture shock, Rem’s hard-earned resiliency and strength borne through the harrowing journey to freedom helped her acclimate to her new home. The vision she had of continuing her education while watching blackbirds fly on that veranda many years ago was becoming a reality.
When arriving in the U.S. at age 15, Rem did not speak any English. She took English classes and was able to complete high school at the age of 21. Rem enrolled at UCO and earned her bachelor’s degree in family life education – child development.
This spring, Rem received her master’s degree, with honors, in family and child studies at UCO. She works full time at Spero Project, a nonprofit organization that welcomes refugees by connecting them to people, resources and learning opportunities in Oklahoma City.
“UCO helped me reach my goals. I’ve been able to work with families and children through the program and get support from other students. I want to create a space for refugees and bridge the education and experiences they missed out on.”
When asked what she hoped for the future of Burma, she smiled and thought for a second, tears glazing over her eyes.
“I feel like Burma is in this little box right now. I hope we will one day get out of that box and explore what the world has to offer in the future. Improve our living and technology. I want Burma to develop and be a country with resources for its people. I’m proud of who I am, my culture and my background. I just want what is best for my country.”