Reflections on a Cross-Cultural Friendship

By Rebekah Hanson

On the morning of November 8, I woke up to find two text messages sent by friends with the same grave news. My friend and former co-worker, Paw Boh Htoo, had been killed the night before.

I couldn't believe it. Just two weeks before, I had seen Paw Boh Htoo at the annual fundraising event for the nonprofit we both worked at - The Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM). She stood behind a table of handwoven Karen clothes and bags, shining brightly in her Karen dress with a smile on her face. Everyone who walked past that table was greeted by her warm presence and kind words, "Hello! Ha luh a ghay!"

But now, those words are stilled and her presence is no more. On November 7, Paw Boh Htoo was killed in an apartment building while helping one of her clients fill out paperwork. The client’s husband had come into the apartment drunk, pulled out a knife, and stabbed Paw Boh Htoo. The ambulance came, but it was too late. Paw Boh Htoo was already dead.

In moments like these, I question God. “Why did my friend die?” I cry out. She did nothing wrong. In fact, she was more than innocent. She was a beacon of hope in the Karen community who helped anyone who came to her door. She advocated for herself and her community, persevered through trials, and never stopped working towards her goals.

Paw Boh Htoo came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2011. She is Karen and grew up in a small village in Burma before fleeing to a Thai refugee camp when she was 12 years old. When she arrived in the U.S., she studied English for three years and then worked several jobs before becoming the Weaving Coordinator at KOM.

I first met Paw Boh Htoo through a mutual friend in the summer of 2015. I remember her telling me about her goal to give back to her community someday, and how she had worked hard to get where she was that day. She shone so brightly that day, as if the sun over the lake we were walking around was gleaming out of her.

After that day, I saw her from time to time at events in the Karen community. When she started working at KOM, I was delighted. She quickly became one of my friends. Although we had very different backgrounds, she always was curious to learn more about me and freely shared about her culture with me. We ate lunch together and often times I would visit her and the women in the weaving group where she would sit weaving a bag or a shirt.

Weaving was one of her passions, and not just in the artistic sense. Yes, she wove because she wanted to preserve her Karen heritage. But she also wove together the many threads in her life -- she desired to weave together the threads of American life and her Karen culture. She did this by teaching Americans about her culture, helping her Karen community members adapt to American life, and grasping on to whatever life threw at her with strength and grace.

Paw Boh Htoo was also a firm believer in Christ and loved her family. She gave to the church, showed compassion to others, and always forgave others when wrong was done to her.

To lose such a beautiful and courageous soul is a tragedy that I will never understand. The past two months have been a time of mourning for me. During the times I stay occupied with work and other people in my life, the pain is numb. But in the moments of silence, my thoughts wander and the pain pours in.

I don’t believe that God is supposed to take away all of the pain we experience. I believe that suffering is apart of the Christian life. So, I’m not asking for God to remove this pain. But I’m asking for him to be present in this time of hurt and to surround me with others who can comfort.

Romans 12:15 says, “Mourn with those who mourn.” Christ calls us to be in close communion with those who are hurting and have empathy with them. Shortly after Paw Boh Htoo’s death, I was flooded with text messages from friends expressing their sympathy and prayers. It is comforting to have relationships with people who will not only have fun with you, but walk through the trials of life with you.

I also know that the Lord is with us during times of loss. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” God understands our pain and carries our burden with us.

It’s been over 2 months since Paw Boh Htoo died and I can still hear her laughter and sweet voice in my head. Whenever I think of her, I am motivated to be more like Christ. She lived a full life, always pursuing her dreams and showing compassion to everyone she met. I am grateful to have had a friendship with Paw Boh Htoo and am eager for the day we meet again in heaven.

Ya thay noe na (I miss you).