A pen, a journal, a shiny hair clip, a comb, socks and an assortment of other pink and pretty things are what Buelah is packing in a shoe box. But this isn't an ordinary shoe box and Buelah isn't an ordinary 15 year old girl. Almost ten years ago, Buelah Paw Say was living in Mae Ra Moe, a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. She was one of the wave of Karen refugees that arrived in Langley in 2008. Because of religious persecution the Karen people fled across the jungles of Burma to Thailand.
Over 140,000 refugees made it to Thailand, where nine refugee camps were set up. The refugees were legally confined to these camps, and not permitted to find work or travel outside its perimeters. It's hard to imagine being able to buy and sell merchandise and food because technically no one is allowed to have money but where there's a will, there's a way and practically anything can be had on the black market. Life in the camp was hard and for Buelah and her brothers and sisters it was the only life they knew.
But one year at Christmas time when Buelah was six something magical happened. At a special assembly in the camp all the children received a small brightly coloured box filled with toys, school supplies and personal hygiene items.
Because of the generosity of people in the developed world, hundreds of thousands of special shoe boxes are filled and sent to children in poor and war-torn countries. Operation Christmas Child is project developed by Samaritans' Purse, a Christian organization run by Franklin Graham. Its shoe boxes have travelled around the world using every imaginable form of transportation, trucks, boats and even camels. To date, Operation Christmas Child has collected and distributed over 94 million shoe box gifts worldwide. They are given to children regardless of gender, race, religion, or age.
For many, this is the first gift they have ever received and such was the case for Buelah. It was a gift, she told me, that she will never forget. This is her story.
Buelah is from a very large family. There are eight girls and four boys. When the family arrived in 2008, they began attending Home Church Langley. One Sunday in November to Beulah's surprise and delight there was a stack of bright red and green boxes on display. She remembered these boxes! She had received one and now she knew where they came from. The box also contained a photograph of a young girl and a hand printed note in a foreign language wishing her a Merry Christmas. At ten years old, Buelah didn't understand the concept of an international program so she looked around the church to see if the girl was there.
The Karen people are incredibly generous. With their meager resources they are eager to give back. Packing an Operation Christmas Child box has become one of their Christmas traditions. Many families take home at least one box, pack it and then promptly return it the following Sunday. Buelah and her family also participate and they have been doing so for 4 years.
When Buelah arrived in Langley she had no English skills and no idea of Canadian culture. Since she has been here she has had to learn English and adjust to life in Canada while at the same time keeping up her studies. This year she is in grade 9 at Langley Senior Secondary.
In past years, Beulah's parents have helped her to buy the items to put in the box. Last year she worked in a greenhouse and was able to pack a box herself. This year Buelah worked very hard and landed a job at McDonald’s. She wants to go to school to become a nurse and this job is a way of saving money. But she understands the concept of 'giving back' so this year she is again packing a box using her own earnings.
Her English skills are improving daily but when she was asked how receiving such a gift made her feel, she struggled a bit to articulate. "The idea of giving a present to someone you don't know is strange to me but I was very surprised and happy to receive a gift. It was so nice of the little girl from far away to give me a present. I think she must have been very kind."
I asked her what she would say to someone who has never packed an Operation Christmas Child box and she said. "When I was in Thailand, I was so amazed that someone thought of me. You can do the very same thing to make another child's Christmas very special and they will remember it all of their life. I know I do."
It may be a bit late this year to participate, but watch for the boxes next year in November. If that seems too far off and you want to do something this year, you can still pack a box 'online'. Go to www.samaritanspurse.ca for details.
You never know who you may be helping. Someday that person may help someone else in return. It's like 'paying it forward' and that is the greatest gift of all. Just ask Buelah.