“I was born among the bullets,” said Fr Saw Augustine Shwe.
A former child refugee from Myanmar, who recently visited Singapore for the first time, one of Fr Augustine’s earliest memories was hearing gunfire at the age of three in his native Karen state.
The Myanmar government and ethnic minority forces in Karen state, as well as other states, clashed for decades in what has been described as one of the world’s longest running civil wars.
According to news reports, it left hundreds of thousands dead or fleeing their homes as Internally Displaced Persons and refugees.
A ceasefire agreement between the government and armed groups, including fighters in Karen state, was signed in 2015.
Fr Augustine and his friend, Sr Yolandar, who uses one name and is also a former Karen refugee from Myanmar, grew up together in refugee settlements on the Thai side of Thailand’s border with Myanmar, where they had escaped to with their families.
As young adults, they discovered their vocations and eventually took their religious vows.
During their journey from refugees to becoming a priest and nun, grandparents Michael and Joan Chan, supported Fr Augustine and Sr Yolandar for about 20 years in a friendship that the younger pair describe as a family relationship.
From left to right: Sr Yolandar, Joan, Michael and Fr Saw Augustine Shwe. Michael and Joan have been friends with and benefactors for the priest and nun since they were refugee children.
It all started with visits by the elderly Singaporean couple to the Mae Khong Kha refugee camp within Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, which shares a border with Myanmar, where Fr Augustine and Sr Yolandar lived as children.
As veteran volunteers with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Singapore, Michael and Joan visited such refugee camps and settlements at least once a year every two years, on average, either together or individually.
Michael knew a priest from Myanmar, Fr Gregory Saw Doh Soe, who set up a boarding school for about 30 child refugees, including Fr Augustine and Sr Yolandar, who were adolescents then, in the Mae Khong Kha area.
The boarding school was later moved to the Mae Sot district in western Thailand, which has housed many migrants and refugees who left Myanmar.
Fr Augustine said he got an education under Fr Gregory’s guidance, including studying language and computer skills, as well as basic catechism.
A 2002 photo of JRS volunteers Michael (back row, second from left) and his wife Joan (back row, far right) in a refugee camp in Thailand, with a young Yolandar (front row, left) and Augustine (back row, second from right).
During their periodic visits over at least 17 years, usually with several other JRS Singapore volunteers, Michael and Joan brought items such as pencils, books, Catholic magazines, sardines and other tinned food, and even computers for the 30 or so children at the boarding school.
They also corresponded with Fr Augustine and Sr Yolandar through letters and email.
Michael, who visited them and the other refugee youths up to four times a year, said: “I’m very touched by them. I could relate to them with my own life. During the Japanese Occupation, I too experienced hunger, loneliness, poverty.”
“It brings back memories from when I was a young teen. I made sure I stayed with them, ate with them, and joined them in their prayers,” he added.
When he was a layperson, Fr Augustine was asked by Fr Gregory if he wanted to become a priest, which he eventually decided for. Returning to Myanmar for his clergy formation in his early 20s, he was ordained a diocesan priest in 2014, and Michael attended his ordination.
“When I went back to Myanmar, I felt I could not stand shoulder to shoulder with other people because I was a refugee. I felt I was not equal to others in having a place, a house [of my own],” recalled Fr Augustine.
“Michael and Joan always encouraged me, writing to me on email to go on with my vocation. Sometimes I felt disappointed and I told them about the difficulties I faced in my seminary life,” he said.
Sr Yolandar described her hardships in her former life as a refugee, where work was not allowed, and even finding firewood to cook food was difficult.
Once, having lost her father to illness at a young age, she even asked Michael to be her father.
In her late teens, she asked Fr Gregory: “How do I be a nun?”
“I only know that I wanted to serve the people. If I can be a Sister, I can teach young people and children about God, and help them in many ways,” she shared.
When she moved to the Mae Sot refugee settlement, she saw for the first time nuns from the Congregation of St Francis Xavier Sisters in Myanmar, who visited refugees at the Thai border where she lived.
“I saw them wearing this black habit. I liked it so much,” she recalled.
Sr Yolandar eventually returned to Myanmar to train for her profession as a member of this congregation.
Michael receives a blessing from Fr Augustine after his ordination in 2014.
Fr Augustine and Sr Yolandar visited Singapore for the first time for six days in late June, having undergone training in the Philippines for communications work.
Part of their work, in different parts of Myanmar, now includes working with Radio Veritas Asia, a Catholic radio station.
The priest and nun met with Michael and Joan and shared their formation and refugee journey with about 30 volunteers of JRS Singapore when they visited.
During a tea-time gathering with JRS Singapore, Fr Augustine, a refugee for 12 years, said: “I feel like I am part of the family of Michael and Joan. I am part of the work of JRS. You are part of me.”
For her part, Joan said: “We feel very blessed to have met such people and managed to journey with them.”