Cruise to Freedom
I begin every new class I teach in the Access program in the same way. I ask students to tell me about themselves: who they are, what they currently do and what they hope to do when they graduate. Usually the answers are much as you would expect: “I am So and So. I am a mom/dad and have 2.5 children. I work at Thus and Such, and when I graduate I hope to do XYZ.”
So imagine my surprise when I began a class with the same question and heard this: “Hi, my name is Saw Htoka. I am from Myanmar and came to this country when I walked off the cruise ship on which I worked and into the city of Miami.”
I sputtered: “You did what?!”
He said, “I jumped ship in Miami so I could seek political asylum in America!”
The story of Htoka, a Christian ministries major in Point’s Access program, began in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and includes stop-offs in France, Miami, New Orleans, California, Memphis, New York and Atlanta. Here it is, in his own words:
I had been married for six months when my opportunity to leave Myanmar arrived. I left because I was tired of the tension. I am from the Karen tribe, one of 104 tribes in my country. This tribe has been fighting the government for many years. When the English came in and colonized the country, the Karen joined them. The English promised us a country. We fought along with them.
When the English pulled out their troops, many Karen people were murdered because they had worked with the British. That was about 100 years ago, but there has been a war going on ever since between the Burmese people and the Karen, although they are now working on a treaty. Also, there was no financial opportunity for me. Being the oldest son meant that I had to support my family, including my father and my grandfather. I could not keep that up with what I could make in Myanmar. I had bill collectors standing at my door at 4 a.m. just waiting for me to come out.
Then there was the problem of religious persecution. Christians make up only four percent of the population. Most people are Buddhist. You are free to be a Christian, but you are not free to speak of being a Christian or to share the Gospel. You can get into a lot of trouble. When I was 19, I was moved by the Holy Spirit, born again, and I went with some other boys to a remote village to preach the Gospel. The head of the village welcomed us into his house. We didn’t know that there were troops in the area, as well as Karen rebels. We were not there long before an officer in the military sent word for us to leave or we would be shot. It was midnight and we had to leave before dawn.They don’t oppress you unless you preach the Gospel. You can’t preach in public. You will get nailed.
If you get caught preaching, say in a market place, you will get thrown in jail. They treat Christians who preach in public like trash. You may be in jail with murderers and rapists, but you will be treated worse than anyone. They will starve you. Back then, they would add lead to your food without your knowledge to make you sick. Many Christians who came out of prison died of cancer because of their food being poisoned. I had wanted to come to America for a long time. I liked the lifestyle that I saw in American movies. Everyone had a car in America! Hardly anyone had a car in Myanmar. I was in love with America!
In America you were free to say what you wanted to say. In Myanmar, which was under the control of the military, you had to be very careful about what you said. People would report you and the military placed intelligence agents everywhere. You never knew who you could trust. In 1999, when I was 27, I got a job on a cruise ship. I had heard this ship was going to America. I thought that I would work on that ship and leave for America. Many people discouraged me, but my father encouraged me since it might be my only chance. He told me the name and the phone number of a relative of his in California. I caught a plane from Myanmar to France and from there the ship sailed to Miami.
I cut vegetables for days on that ship. The work was very hard and very long. We slept only four hours and then cut vegetables for eight, then we slept for four and cut for eight. Every day. Twelve days altogether on the sea. When we arrived in Miami, I put on two pairs of jeans and two shirts and walked off the ship. I had a suitcase, but I left it on the ship because I didn’t want anyone to suspect anything. I had my two weeks’ pay, about $400, in my pocket. I could only speak enough English to say a few words and could understand less. I called a cab and went to the airport. They told me the ticket would be $900! I said I only had $400. So, I went to the railroad station. They told me the ticket would cost $230 and it would take three days.
When I got on the train in Miami, I was very nervous. I didn’t have any identification. I didn’t have a passport. I was an illegal immigrant! I didn’t want to get caught and get sent back to Myanmar. When I got to California, I found the woman my father knew. I worked for her. I owe her a lot. She saved me. But, on the other hand, her mind was a little messed up. She began to accuse me of many things. She was very insecure and thought I was doing things. I knew I had to get away from there. I knew that she would report me and have me sent back to my country. I was very vulnerable. I was helped by a preacher who worked with me. I went to his house and she came there looking for me. I could hear her from another room.
I had to run for it. I went to Memphis and worked as a sushi chef. While I was there, I applied for political asylum and, after about a year, I received that. During that time I worked in Memphis, Miami and New York. I was here after the money. I worked every day, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. I began to make good money. I came to Atlanta, where I ended up working in a Publix. I ran two sushi bars and did that for eight or nine years. I was enjoying that life. I was also getting up every morning at 4 a.m. Every morning I worshipped for one hour. I was reading the Bible and praying. But after a time, it got to where when I was driving to work I would start crying like a baby . . . every day. Finally, once, in the middle of the night, I got down on my knees and asked God what he was trying to tell me.
I didn’t receive an answer at first. But then, later, I heard an ad for Point University on the radio. I wanted to come to school here. I resigned from Publix and applied. From that point on, money has been gone from my mind. I don’t even think about it. I want to serve God. I had to struggle to get my GED for two years. When I got to this school, I was amazed. I know that this is the best school for me. The teachers are so gifted. I learn a lot from them. I see how they live. I believe this school is driven by the Holy Spirit.
I love being in school. This school has opened my eyes wide . . . the teachers are so rich in Scripture and thought. It is a great opportunity to be here. I want to serve God. I don’t know where God is going to use me. I’m open and up for it. God can send me back to Burma to share the gospel or keep me here to share his work. I want to come along with Jesus wherever he leads me. I want to serve people in the name of Jesus. Right now, I help people who have trouble with their cars. I work for free. That is how I am serving God right now.
There are seven billion people in the world. I would say that three-and-a-half billion of them want to be in America. That’s how big America is in their dreams. I thank God for letting me come here and having the life I want. But above all else, I thank God that he let me be in this school!
Htoka’s wife joined him in the United States after he received political asylum. He has two daughters, ages 7 and 5, whom he hopes will become missionaries. His oldest daughter is named Teresa, after Mother Teresa. His youngest is named Tabitha, after the disciple in Joppa who “was always doing good and helping the poor.” (Acts 9: 36)
-Saw Htoka '13, as told by Jim Street '74