As Pokay Say looked into the face of her newborn baby, she was filled with joy. Ayla would be her 13th child. Pokay was 45 years old when she conceived, and the doctor was concerned there might be complications. Pokay was advised that the pregnancy should be terminated. But she vowed that she would have this child and raise it no matter what. Now looking into her baby’s sleeping face, she knew that everything she had endured was worth it. “There was never a question that I would give up on her,” said Pokay.
Pokay was born on a farm in Burma, one of six siblings who, with their parents raised chickens and grew rice. It was not a peaceful existence because the Karen people were undergoing tremendous persecution by the Burmese. The Karen are a large ethnic group who make up approximately seven percent of the total Burmese population. Soon after the second world war ended, civil war broke out between the Karen and the Burmese.
Pokay’s mother died when she was three years old and when she was 16, her beloved older brother was killed. The Burmese and the Karen armies had been fighting nearby and one day the Burmese came and carried off all the livestock, burned the rice crop and they killed Pokay’s 27-year-old brother, Pah Klah Htoo. “It was a terrible time,” she said.
Her sisters were growing sick and one by one, they died. This left Pokay and her oldest sister, Naw Reh, alone on the farm with their father. During the next two years, they would eke out a living. After the soldiers came back again, Pokay’s father sent his two daughters to a Htoo Wah Loo, a nearby town. There, Pokay and her sister would find jobs sewing garments in a factory. Shortly after, Pokay was hired as a household servant for a local official, Pu Age. It was there she met her husband, Saylermoo.
The couple had chaperoned visits as they got to know each other. When they got married, it was a very simple ceremony. “We were married in the government office. I had no wedding dress, no flowers, and no ring,” Pokay says.
The couple settled into married life. One day, Pokay woke up feeling sick and quickly vomited. “I wanted to retch at the thought of even my favourite dish,” she explains. Saylermoo was concerned but her mother-in-law knew what the symptoms meant. “She said that a doctor was not needed but in six months’ time, a midwife would be,” laughs Pokay. Six months later her first son, K’pawdoh was born.
While living in Htoo Wah Loo, Saylermoo and Pokay would have four more children and their life was relatively peaceful. But one moonless night, explosions erupted, and gunfire rang out. The family hid under their house and prayed not to be discovered. As soon as the sun was up, they fled for their lives. Their destination was Mae Ra Moe refugee camp located on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. They would spend the next twelve years and have seven more children in the camp.
In 2006, Canada opened the door for the Karen to come here as refugees. The entire application process took a year and a half and in 2008, Saylermoo and his family came to Canada.
When they arrived, they settled in Langley. They were helped by the local faith community and Sharon Kavanagh, a former settlement worker who worked with the family almost from the time they arrived. “It has been such a privilege to be part of this family’s journey. I have loved watching their family flourish. Amazing kids come from amazing parents – and what this mom lacked in education and resources she made up for in determination, a positive outlook on life and trust in God,” says Kavanagh.
While still in Thailand, their son K’naelay and daughter Paw Boe began showing signs of the same sickness that had killed Pokay’s siblings. Thalassemia (Major) is a blood disorder in which the hemoglobin produces an excess of iron leading to kidney, heart and liver issues. This disorder claimed the life of her little girl Htoo Htoo in 2011. After nine months in Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital, she succumbed to the disease. “I never thought that Htoo Htoo would pass away but I know that she is with Jesus in heaven and that I will see her again,” Pokay says.
In 2015, the family bought a house in Aldergrove. While there have been adjustments to accommodate the entire family, Pokay is very happy that everyone could be together. “I love it here,” she says. “The house is a bit small, but it’s manageable. I’m very thankful,” she adds.
As each child has turned 18, they applied for Canadian citizenship. In 2019, Pokay and Saylermoo and four of their youngest children applied as well. They were awarded citizenship and today the whole family are Canadian citizens.
From a refugee camp, to a country halfway across the world, it has been an amazing journey. Pokay has cherished and protected her family throughout. Today she is a Canadian mom raising a Canadian family. “We are all Canadian, it is such a huge blessing for all of us to be here and belong to a country,” says Pokay with a big smile.