The Thang family’s long journey to their first Christmas in Chicago started in the summer of 2004.
That’s when government soldiers took the father, Khup Hau Thang, into the countryside against his will to cut bamboo for use in building a military camp.
The family lived near the remote town of Kalaymyo in western Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Forced labor was common in Burma under the military regime ruling the country, and Thang, a farmer, had suffered through it previously.
As a member of the Chin ethnic group, a mostly Christian minority in the Buddhist-dominated nation, Thang was accustomed to such persecution.
But this time, after three days of being forced to work in the sun without food or water, Thang fled.
He couldn’t go home to his wife and four children. The soldiers had his documents and would know to find him there.
So he made his way east on foot to Thailand. The dangerous trip took two weeks.
When he finally got across the border, Thang caught a bus and a train to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where thousands of other Chin refugees had fled to only slightly better circumstances.
Thang found a job and worked seven days a week in hopes of raising enough money to smuggle his family out of Burma.
Meanwhile, back in Kalaymyo, the soldiers had returned to the Thang home within days to look for him. Often in such situations, the military would take another family member to replace him in the work camp but, luckily, not this time.
Still, as a precaution, mother Luan Hau Thang took her children into hiding.
Thang was able to communicate with his wife by calling a friend who relayed messages. On occasion, they arranged for her to go to the friend’s home at a predetermined time to speak directly with each other.
Years passed. The children grew. But as hard as Thang worked, he couldn’t raise enough money to bring his family to Malaysia.
Finally, someone agreed to help him pay smugglers so they could be reunited.
In 2012, his wife and children slipped out of Burma. Traveling by foot and by car, they made it to Kuala Lumpur in nine days.
Around that time, Thang decided to seek permanent refugee status in the United States.
All six of them, along with an adopted nephew, arrived here in January, assisted by resettlement agency RefugeeOne and the congregation at St. Paul and the Redeemer Church in Kenwood.
The Thangs welcomed me recently to their Northwest Side apartment, where we sat around an undecorated artificial Christmas tree.
The language barrier made it difficult, and surely much was lost in translation, but I understood enough to know the journey has not been easy for them.
The father and oldest daughter Theresa (four of the children have taken American names) both got janitorial jobs at O’Hare Airport to support the family. He recently found a better-paying job at a food-processing plant.
The rest of the children are in school. I’m told they are quite smart, although language makes keeping up a challenge.
They told me they are very happy here, and, if some of their faces didn’t reflect it, perhaps that was lost in translation as well.
The Thangs were raised Baptist and therefore are quite familiar with Christmas, though not as it’s celebrated in the U.S.
For them, Christmas was strictly a religious holiday observed in church, nothing to do with Santa and such.
The mother, Luan Hau, smiles and rolls her eyes at what she’s seen of commercial Christmas on television here, the first television they’ve ever owned.
But Khup Hau said the tradition of making each other happy through gift-giving is a “very good way to celebrate Christmas.”
The possibility that refugees like the Thangs might be blocked from coming here under the new administration in Washington is appalling.
Other Burmese refugees are Muslim but still subject to the same religious discrimination in their homeland. The idea that we would discriminate against them here is equally shameful.
The Thangs are not caught up in such politics. They are caught up in surviving in a new country. I wish them a future filled with merry Christmases.Tweets by @MarkBrownCST