Poe Say’s incredible story begins in the small village of Lebadam in Myanmar, where she grew up with her grandmother on a farm. She recalls chasing frogs in the surrounding paddy fields as a child. This is where she met her husband, many years after running within the maze of the tiny footpaths separating crop parcels.

Like many young men in their region, Poe’s husband got involved in politics. A university student at the time, he distributed brochures about democracy in Myanmar,  which was against the regime of the time. The police eventually found the couple, interrogating them for long hours. Poe’s husband was sent to jail and Poe, who was then pregnant with their second child, had to flee to another state with their eldest son.

“It became too unsafe for me to stay in Myanmar – I saw pregnant women being arrested and jailed because of their husbands who were activists, just like mine. I couldn’t stay,” says Poe. 

Poe Say, holding old photographs taken in Myanmar of her sons.

The hardest decision

In 1995, at the age of 20, Poe made an incredibly difficult decision – one which would stay with her for 25 years. She fled to Thailand to seek safety, leaving her two sons behind – Aung Thu Rein who was two and a half and Min Wai Yan who was only three months. Leaving them under the care of her aunt, Poe’s intention was to find work and safety, before bringing her sons over to join her. She had no idea she would be separated from them for 25 years.

“When I said goodbye to my two babies that day, I wanted to find somewhere safe for them before bringing them over. I had no idea I wouldn’t see them for such a long time” explains Poe, while grabbing a tissue to wipe a few tears.

No one leaves their children behind, unless they think is it safer for them to stay where they are. Poe’s refugee journey started on rubber tires floating down the river to reach Thailand – a journey unsafe for her two babies.

When she reached Thailand, Poe lost all contact with her family. Back in 1995, telecommunications in Thailand were very different from what they are today, and Poe had no way of reaching them. She went on to live in Thailand illegally for almost eight years. She had no rights, no freedom and lived with the risk of being arrested every time she went outside. Being away from her children was a pain she also carried with her every single day.

“It was very hard to be away from my children, mainly not knowing if they were well and safe, or whether I’d ever be able to see them again. I tried to send money back to them through Burmese workers who regularly crossed the border, but I never knew if it made it to my sons,” recalls Poe.

Aung Thu Rein, holding a photograph taken before he left Myanmar for New Zealand.

A phone call

After eight long and difficult years in Thailand, Poe was recognized as a refugee by the United Nations and was offered the opportunity to settle in New Zealand. She arrived in the country in 2013 to take on the chance of starting a new life in Hamilton.

“I didn’t know anything about New Zealand. I had never even heard of it before arriving here, but I was very happy to move,” says Poe.

“I love New Zealand now. It’s peaceful, I like the people, and it’s good, because there are no snakes here.”

Having a mobile phone with internet connection was the most important thing for Poe in her newfound home. She created a Facebook account and started reconnecting with people from Myanmar. Poe never lost hope of getting back in touch with her sons.

One day, she saw that a Facebook friend would be travelling to her hometown. She messaged him to ask if he could go to her ancestral home. She described to him where it was, hoping he would finally find some answers for her.

Then, one day, the phone rang. On the other end of the line were Aung and Min, her two sons who were calling from Myanmar. After 23 years, Poe finally heard the voice of her two children again.

“I was so emotional – I couldn’t control my tears and my smile at the same time,” Poe recalls the first phone call she received from her kids after over two decades of having no contact with them.

“I felt both happy and sad as well, because I wanted to see them, but it was impossible.”

Their first chat was 23-years-worth of catch up about schooling, family, health and life. Poe wanted to know everything.

For Aung and Min, the visit of the stranger who introduced himself as Poe’s friend was almost unreal. They had been living with their grandparents and had no idea their mother was still alive.

“I was very happy, so happy – I didn’t know she was alive! When we heard she was well, we felt so relieved,” says Aung.

From that day on, Poe communicated with her sons regularly. She paid for a phone with internet connection and a camera so they would be able to see each other.

Making up for lost time

Bringing their reunion full circle, Poe began the process of a family reunification visa; and in 2015, Aung and Min were finally able to rejoin their Mum.

“I was so happy and surprised at the same time, because my sons were so big compared to when I last saw them,” says Poe. “It was perfect,” she adds with a smile on her face.

“Our mother was waiting at the Mangere Refugee Settlement Centre when we arrived. We could see a woman who looked Burmese waiting in the visitor’s area, but we were not sure whether it was her, because she looked a lot smaller than we thought from talking over the phone,” says Aung, laughing.

Poe, Aung and Mai are now happily living together in Hamilton, making up for lost time, getting to know each other a bit more day by day.

“I can now sleep at night because I know they are safe,” says Poe.

Reunited at last - Poe and her two sons, Aung and Mai, along with their Red Cross refugee support volunteer, Lakshman.

When Poe arrived in Hamilton, she was supported by New Zealand Red Cross refugee support volunteer, Lakshman. When Lakshman heard Aung and Mai were arriving to New Zealand, he reached out to Red Cross to support the two newcomers. You can read Laskhman's story here.

How you can help

There are many ways you can help newly arrived former refugees like Poe, Aung and Min in your community: