Hser Gay Paw: A Hero for Karen Hill Tribe Women

Most of us define a hero as someone who does extraordinary things on the front lines of life, yet many everyday heroes in the Karen Hill Tribe’s struggle for freedom are hidden and unsung. One of these is Hser Gay Paw.

When you first meet her, you instantly recognize that her most endearing attributes are her giggle and the way she tries to hide her smile with her hand. It is impossible to spend even five minutes with her and not experience this quality.

At an early age Hser Gay Paw learned about life’s fragility when tuberculosis took the lives of both her parents. She soon was sent to live with her grandmother (really her great aunt) in Mae Sot, Thailand. Her grandmother insisted that she not attend school, for fear that it would corrupt her and expose her to undesirable things.

During those early years, Hser Gay Paw was acutely exposed to the Karen’s struggle for freedom. It was also during this time, however, that she was exposed to something else that would later become her life’s passion: the art of Karen Hill Tribe weaving and sewing. Though her grandmother insisted that she not learn the skill, Hser Gay Paw couldn’t help but be enchanted with the colors, designs, and patterns that are evident in Karen weaving. Later, Hser Gay Paw moved to Chiang Mai and, though she did not have a formal education, she enrolled in a Karen Bible school and, soon after, learned how to weave from the women at the school.

Around 1997, Hser Gay Paw met Steve & Oddny Gumaer, who had started nonprofit Partners Relief & Development, and they asked her if she would help them start a weaving project to help Karen women supplement their family’s income.

“I was very shy about doing this,” says Hser Gay Paw. However, when Birte Sølversen, a friend of the Gumaer’s, arrived from Norway, Hser Gay Paw found an instant companion to help her put the idea into motion.

Now, after 10 years of tireless work, Hser Gay Paw’s weaving project is making a difference (click to watch Gaiam's video). for dozens of families who are desperate to make ends meet along the Thai-Burma border. The women lack education, food, money for their children’s education, and hope. Hser Gay Paw helps by facilitating the sale of their handwoven bags, scarves and other products.

“They need help,” she says. “This project helps them earn money for things they need, like school fees. And, they can make their own clothes. Part of my mission is to help keep this art (of Karen weaving) alive. But more than that, I want to help my people who are very poor and hungry.”

Indeed, the women Hser Gay Paw helps have become family to her. She travels extensively from village to village, encouraging the women, teaching them and helping them learn more about weaving and sewing.

“When I go, I get to encourage them, pray for them, love them and help them," she says. "They are like my family. They are very happy that I can help them. When they hear that I am sick, they pray for me all night long. Not only am I helping them, but they are helping me, too. I feel very good to help them, my people. I feel strong inside. This is my mission, my ministry … to help these women and their families have a better life.”

The next time you think of what a hero is, take a step back and consider someone like Hser Gay Paw, whose heart and spirit is invested in helping Karen women make a better life for themselves. Her work is seen by few—but I contend that her life, though not on the front lines, is a model of heroism.

Republished courtesy of Partners Relief & Development's  magazine, to which Craig Garrison is a contributor. Watch Gaiam's video on Partners' work, and help Partners continue its mission by donating or learning more at PartnersWorld.org. Photo by Bryan Monzo.


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