But, the primary purpose of our trip to Fairbanks was to help raise money and awareness to the Friends of Partners cause. If you have followed my blog at all, you will know that I recently went to Thailand and Burma with Partners, an organization whose mission is "free, full lives for the children of Burma." If you are interested, here is my talk from Friday night's yummy banquet. (I was the brief "opening act" for the impressively well-spoken, motivational, and lovely Oddny Gumaer!)
My name is Kris Ryan and I thought I would take a few minutes to explain to you how it is that I came to be here, in front of you, in Fairbanks, Alaska and how it is that I came to take those images you saw displayed so beautifully as you came through here today.
I am a photographer and I live in Pocatello, Idaho. Several years ago, when both of my beautiful daughters were in high school, I went back to school, to Idaho State University, to study the very lucrative subject of Philosophy! I took a class entitled the Anthropology of SE Asia from a professor who has been doing research in Burma over the last decade and a half and has close connections to the Burmese people. It was an eye-opening, compelling class that made me aware of a country I was not aware of, a culture I had not ever studied before, and a decades long conflict I couldn’t possibly begin to understand. I began searching out news on Burma, of which there is very little. I read books about the Burmese people, of which there are very few.
A few semesters later, my daughter, Ashley, was in college and I recommended the class to her…and she loved it as well. We began to care about people we had no immediate knowledge of, save that they were oppressed, abused and that it was heartbreaking.
And then one day my daughter, Allison, starting dating this guy, Stephen Wall. I noticed on Stephen's Facebook page that he "liked" an organization called "Free Burma Rangers." So one day he told me about Fairbanks' connection to the Burmese people and their struggle. He told me about Partners, and Steve (his namesake) and Oddny Gumaer and their dedication to helping the people of Burma. For my birthday, a few months later, Stephen sent me the most wonderful, thoughtful gift…a book that Oddny had written about the people she had been working with and meeting and helping. (The book is entitled "Displaced Reflections" and can be purchased through Partners' website.)
I loved the book, both the imagery and the stories. And now I had this pulling connection to get involved. I contacted Maureen, the U.S. Director for Partners, interested in hearing more about the art program that Partners had been doing with refugee children. I wasn't able to make the trip that Maureen was planning, but I became fully invested in becoming involved…and through a series of phone calls and Skype conversations, to Terry & Jocelyn, here in Fairbanks, to Jeff Wall, to my agreeable and gracious husband who rarely says no to any of my crazy ideas, and lastly to Steve Gumaer…my daughter Ashley and I found ourselves, just a couple of months later, exhausted from a long trip, standing in the Chiang Mai, Thailand airport, at midnight, meeting Oddny Gumaer.
We didn't know for sure what we had gotten ourselves into, it just felt like we had to go, that we needed to be a witness ourselves to the lives of these people we had come to care about. So we went on an adventure, and the images in the foyer reflect some of the people we met along the way.
I'd like to share with you just a couple of stories from our trip, and I am hoping that you will be able to find yourself there with us…as one of the most profound moments, for each of us, on our trip, was when we found "ourselves" there, in the hills of Burma, in a hide site or a refugee camp…
For Ashley, it was meeting and talking with one of the Karen soldiers who was with us on our trip… We were all sitting together in one of the huts one evening; two American women, a Norwegian woman, Karen women and their children, and a few Karen soldiers…and we were talking about our home in Idaho when Ashley realized she had, in her backpack, her iPod, with a few images stored on it and enough of a battery left to turn it on and share them. One of the soldiers, who had been silent our whole trip, was really curious and he came and sat next to her as she swiped through them…a couple of her wedding pictures, pictures of her friends being silly, pictures of her family…and he sat, mesmerized, and smiling… He asked her, in English, "those your friends? that your husband? that your sister? this your mom?" and smiled, as we all do when we look at a new friends pictures, or discover a new friends Facebook album! "That America?" he asked. And that is when it really struck her…he could be my friend if he lived in the states. He was just one year older than she… He could be my neighbor, my co-worker, my brother…she thought. But here he is instead…this handsome, courteous, sweet young man, living his life running from an enemy…and it is all he has ever known.
For me, similarly, while sitting in a very surreal setting, still trying to grasp that I was actually in Burma, sitting in a bamboo hut, we listened as two women recounted their lives to us…running, fleeing death, starving, trying to create a life for their families, trying to survive… And, oddly, unexpectedly, I began to recognize "myself" in one of the women… She was close to my age (okay, I am a few years older, but who's counting!)…she had children whom she obviously adored, as do I…she liked to sew, she made the beautiful and intricate top she was wearing, and she liked to make things for her family. She laughed when she admitted, through a translator, that she had never been this close to a white woman! I laughed in return and said well, I've never been this close to a Karen woman! She looked to me like a movie star, the incredibly strong, beautiful heroine in a great epic adventure…and she had similar thoughts, saying she had only seen a white woman on a movie screen when she was little. Her name is Naw Mu Wah, her picture is featured in the front of the foyer with her little girl…and though I saw myself in her that day, it was clear to me that she was so much stronger than I, so much braver than I could ever be…and she is in my thoughts every single day.
I asked one of our guides why these women had trekked alone through the jungle for so many days, at such great risk, just to come and talk with us…and she replied…"they just want to be heard"…they just want to know that someone cares about them…that "they haven't been forgotten." So, I am grateful for the experiences of our trip to meet the Karen people of Burma…and grateful that I can be a voice for them, so that they can be heard, cared about, and not forgotten.
I thank Oddny, for sharing this amazing experience with my daughter, Ashley, and I. I thank Stephen, my new son-in-law, who linked my heart with these amazing people I was fortunate enough to meet. Thank you to the Wall family, my daughter Allison's new second family, for their hearts and their hospitality. And I thank you all for your hearts tonight…thank you for coming to hear their stories.