Htoo K’Bru Paw—”Bright Flower”—was born on March 19, 2000, at Mae Rama Luang refugee camp in western Thailand. Htoo, pronounced “Too,” was one of 13 children born to Say Ler Moo and Poe Gay, rice farmers from Burma’s persecuted Karen minority. Her parents had fled Burma just before Htoo’s birth. For years, the family had been on the run in the jungle, surviving on rice broth and bamboo shoots, never speaking above a whisper, hiding from the military, who’d razed their village, and slaughtered their relatives.
Although Mae Rama was a dirty, tightly packed refugee camp with no electricity or plumbing, it was paradise, says Poe Gay. The family was safe at last. They lived in a one-room bamboo hut, two metres above the ground. Sometimes, the bamboo would rot and you’d fall through the floor, Poe Wah, Htoo’s eldest brother, explains—far better, he adds with a smile, than falling into the outhouse. They ate rice, though there was never enough. Over time, Poe Gay acquired eight chickens, which she sold to supplement their rice rations; it was the first time she had ever seen money. The kids had no shoes, and were often sick. At any given time, 40 per cent of the camp’s children were ill with malaria, TB, or chronic diarrhea. Death was all around them.
Htoo’s world ended at the grey fence surrounding the camp. She didn’t have any toys: her prized possession was a collection of stones she’d amassed over the years. School, her great love, was an infrequent luxury. Once, she misplaced a textbook, and was inconsolable. Htoo, wise and funny and a whiz with her younger siblings, always kept the family laughing and happy. That was her role, her brother explains. She was their warm soul.
When Htoo was eight, Canada offered to take the family in. Each underwent medical testing. That’s when Htoo’s parents learned she had thalassemia, a genetic blood disease. She’d worked so hard caring for everyone, no one had realized she herself had been hurting. She immediately began blood transfusions. The camp hospital was grotesque. The sick were squeezed into one room, some screaming in pain. Drips were hooked to rotting thatched walls. Infections were constant. Once, Htoo awoke to find the woman lying next to her had died in her sleep. But soon, she would leave all this behind.
The journey to the Bangkok airport took five days. The only food Htoo’s parents could afford for the trip was a bag of chips. Inside, there were 12 chips: one for each child. On June 27, 2008, Htoo’s family landed in Langley, B.C., with no English, or any experience with the world outside of a refugee camp. Htoo entered Grade 4 at Nicomekl Elementary. Every afternoon, she and her sisters studied together, memorizing vocabulary lists, grammar rules and reciting Scripture. No one worked harder than Htoo, who always placed first at the Karen Heritage School, where she took weekend classes.
She learned to skate and play soccer, and flourished. Her health improved so much that doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant to cure her, thus ending monthly blood transfusions and visits to hospital. Poe Wah, it turned out, was a perfect match, and in June, Htoo underwent surgery.
By mid-July, she’d regained her strength, and doctors were set to release her when she caught an infection. By August, she was near death, but fought it and won. But constant infections meant her siblings couldn’t visit. Nurses hooked up a webcam; back in Langley, her family scrambled to borrow a matching set-up. The day the cameras went live, Htoo’s siblings rushed to take turns speaking to their favourite sister. As the novelty wore off, they resumed their routines. But no one turned off the camera. For hours, Htoo sat hugging the laptop to her chest, listening as her sisters recited their vocabulary lists and her brothers chattered away.
At Christmastime, she took a turn for the worse, and in January was admitted to the ICU. Htoo, wise beyond her years, understood how sick she really was. Only at the very end did she finally allow herself to cry. “I just want to see my brothers and sisters,” she told her dad, her voice barely a whisper. “I don’t want to die yet.” But she just didn’t have any fight left. Her family gathered round her bed; when Htoo could no longer open her eyes, she would squeeze her siblings’ hands. On Feb. 3, Htoo, who’d survived infection and disease in some of the ugliest hospitals in the world, died in Canada, of an infection, at one of the world’s best. She was 11 years old.