While walking home one evening, following a practice for a Thanksgiving concert at a local church in his hometown of Putao, located in the Kachin State of Myanmar, Zaudanawng “Jay-Dan” Maran and his friends encountered a woman being sexually assaulted by two soldiers.
“We told them to stop and asked them to let her go home. The soldiers told us to get out of here, that it’s not our problem or business. Otherwise, you’ll get in trouble — go to jail or get killed,” said Maran.
The three refused to obey the soldiers’ orders and acted quickly to get the woman to safety.
“My friends and I, we tried to separate the girl from them. The soldiers started to fight us,” said Maran. “We were young — only 20, 21.”
Maran grabbed the woman and managed to get her home, while his friends stayed behind and fended off the soldiers. That was the last time he had seen or heard from them.
When Maran returned home, his frightened mother alerted him that soldiers had already come by and were looking for him.
“She told me that I made a problem with soldiers, that I can’t live here anymore. They were already looking for me,” he said. “My mom prepared some clothes for me and some food. At midnight, I left my hometown. Just like that.”
That was in October 2007, after Maran had just completed his bachelor’s degree in statistics earlier in the year at the University of Myitkyina, which is located in the Kachin State’s capital city of Myitkyina.
With nowhere to go, he decided to go back to Myitkyina to hide out at a friend’s place in the meantime.
“It took me eight days to walk there. It was difficult — it was just jungle,” he said.
When he finally got to Myitkyina, one of Maran’s friends agreed to shelter him for two weeks.
“I still had contact with my mom and I wanted to go home. But my mom said no, the soldiers are still looking for me,” he said. “They told her that they want me. They were coming often, so my mom said don’t come back, or else they’ll keep looking for me.”
As Maran put it, he had no idea what he was going to do next. Luckily, the mother of one of his friends connected him with someone in the Myanmar city of Yangon, who said that they could help him seek refugee status if was willing to relocate to Malaysia.
“They told me to go there because they help people like me. Otherwise, if I stay in Myanmar, they’re going to keep looking for me,” said Maran.
After borrowing some money from a friend, Maran spent four days travelling by train to meet with the connection in Yangon. They then travelled by bus to Kawthoung — a town located in the southernmost part of Myanmar. They would need to cross through Thailand if they wished to get to Malaysia.
“We had to cross the ocean with a paddleboat. It took about 45 minutes to get to (the town of) Ranong,” said Maran.
It took them five days to get to Malaysia via Thailand, where Maran would find work in the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. In November 2007, Maran spent seven months working at a chicken egg stand at a local market to pay off the agent who helped bring him to Malaysia.
“I worked because I had no money. I left overnight,” he said. “My connection in Yangon — the agent who brought me to Malaysia — needed to be paid.”
As he worked to pay off his dues, Maran would line up every morning — alongside 50 to 100 people — at the United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur to register for a refugee card.
Priority was given to families with children, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2009 when Maran would finally receive his card.
It was around this time when Maran entered a relationship with his future wife, Ah Nin, after running into her at a Kuala Lumpur church. This wasn’t the first time that the two had met, however.
“We met in Malaysia. She is from Myitkyina. I met her at school, when I was 18 or 19,” he said. “She used to sell food and snacks from a wagon. She had a problem with a soldier also, that’s why she left the country.”
Ah Nin got her refugee card a few months after Maran got his, and the two married in Malaysia in 2010.
But back at home in Putao, Myanmar soldiers continued their search for Maran. Growing frustrated with their lack of success in locating him, the soldiers turned their attention to Maran’s younger brother, Naw Naw.
“They came to my house, they couldn’t find me, so they said they will take my brother to jail. He was 14 or 15,” said Maran. “He didn’t want to go to jail. He did nothing wrong.”
Maran helped his younger brother flee injustice, and by 2010, Naw Naw reunited with his brother in Kuala Lumpur, where he too would end up receiving his refugee card from the UNHCR.
While waiting for their new home, Maran and Ah Nin had their first child in 2012. They had their second child a year later. According to Maran, having children as refugees in Malaysia was not legal, so Ah Nin and the children stayed indoors until it was time to leave.
In 2014, the Creston Refugee Committee sponsored Maran and his family to come to town. In December of that year, he, his wife and children, and his brother left Malaysia for Canada — a 36-hour-long flight to Creston via Malaysia, Germany, Vancouver and Cranbrook.
“In Malaysia, the temperature is over 30 C. We came here in December, and in our first winter, we never went outside,” said Maran. “We always stayed inside because we were cold. People would say it isn’t that cool, but for us, it’s really cold.”
In addition to the climate, Maran noted that the other significant challenges upon arriving in Canada were language, culture and racism.
“Sometimes, we don’t understand work culture. Some people don’t understand what we are. We face racism sometimes,” he said.
But despite this, Maran said that he and his family are very happy and grateful to be here.
“When I grew up, my dad was a farmer. It feels like more the same here. The Creston Refugee Committee feels like our family,” he said. “If we need something, they help us. Still, they help us a lot.”
When reflecting on his experience as a refugee, he said that he never wants to experience such a journey again.
“It was so difficult,” he said. “When I talk about this, I get very emotional. Big time. Very hard for sure.”
In 2019, Maran became a Canadian citizen. He described Creston as his Canadian hometown.
“In Canada, Creston is our hometown,” he said.
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