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In one of Burma’s Rangoon suburbs, Sainu is a mother to an unusual family of 32 children, 30 of whom are adopted.
Sainu likes to describe herself as the mother of an unusual family with 32 children. Then she specifies mischievously that 30 of them are adopted.
Sainu’s large house might be thought of like an orphanage, but it doesn’t have the atmosphere of one. Sainu and her husband aren’t teachers – they are parents. The smooth running of the household doesn’t rely on a strict schedule of handing out chores, it comes from a sincere desire to help each family member out. « They aren’t brothers and sisters, but they never argue with one another. My children are fantastic, aren’t they! » Sainu – a mother unlike any other – says with pride.
Sainu is gentle, even-tempered, deeply content, and compassionate, and never appears overwhelmed in spite of her fragile health. « My knees are very painful, but as long as I walk slowly, I’m ok ! » she says. She never raises her voice. Her natural charisma, coupled with the helpful and dutiful background of the Burmese people, is enough to order all these people around without raising her voice.
Every morning, the children wash, dress, and put away their sleeping mats and blankets and the bedroom become a living room. The older children help the younger ones, some cook for and shower the youngest ones, each child washes and hangs out his or her own clothes to dry, some help their father feed the chickens and pigs, chop wood for the kitchen, fetch water, or work in the garden of the large house in Shwepyitar, in the Rangoon suburbs.
They aren’t brothers and sisters, but they never argue with one another. My children are fantastic, aren’t they!
Sainu grew up in a family that raised animals for their living, like most of the villagers in northern Shin State. It’s a mountainous area with a largely undeveloped road system. The only way to reach the majority of the villages is to walk many miles on foot. Sainu’s village is no exception: Her secondary school was a 24-hour walk away and she only went home for the summer holidays. Her parents are animists; they believe in the spiritual essence of all living things.
One day however Sainu meets a priest who speaks with her about God and this conversation makes an impression on her. She feels a calling, not just to heed his message but to pursue a mission, without knowing what the mission would be. « My parents didn’t want me to be baptised. I asked them many times, but in the end, I had to forego their permission despite my love and respect for them. »
Once she finishes secondary school, Sainu tells her parents of her desire to study the Bible in India. They would have preferred to keep her with them at the farm, however, they say yes. « I’d spent all my money on a ticket to India and had nothing left for food for the 3-day journey,» she says. Sainu finally arrives in Bangalore and finds an Indian family who will house and feed her in exchange for housework. She’ll live in India for 8 years but can never afford to visit home.
Juggling the work she does in exchange for her accommodation and her studies requires a lot of courage. Every morning she gets up at 4 am to prepare the family’s breakfast and packed lunch for each family member, cleans up the kitchen and the house and leaves for the university around 8 am, after a quick bowl of rice. Evenings are the same and remain so for all her years of study.
Sainu works for a Korean family during the holidays to save a little money for the upcoming year. But it’s not enough to pay for her studies. The head of the school knows of Sainu’s difficult situation and, touched by her courage and determination grants a loan to the delicate young woman who is doing so well in her studies in spite of the circumstances.
At last, a Korean priest, who is friends with Sainu’s employers, sees her at work in the summer and takes pity on her. He offers to pay for her first year of studies. The following year, a Burmese Christian who has lived in the US for several years decides to pay the tuition fees of Bible class students who can’t afford them. Another time, the lady Sainu works for who attends the same university supports her studies financially. « The miracle repeated itself every year so that I was able to continue my studies ! » she says.
During her time in India, she becomes fluent in English and makes many friends who will write to her and support her financially once she leaves India. But this is only the first of the battles she will have to fight.
After her return to Myanmar, Sainu settled in Yangon close to a Baptist community, Assembly of God, to which she belongs. It is there she met her future husband, a young minister who, like her, realised he wanted to foster orphans without really knowing how to go about it. The pair married and then worked for the community for a decade before having their eldest child, a beautiful girl who is now twelve years old.
Their project is only able to exist thanks to unexpected donations that appear in extremis to help them overcome desperate situations.
One day, when their daughter had just turned one, two children came to Sainu and knelt down, crying at her feet, to ask her to take them home with her. This was the beginning of their project to foster children. A Buddhist monk had already told her about the awful treatment these two boys were subjected to. Sainu was overcome with pity and took them in and fed them but didn’t know what to do. Eventually, with her husband, they made the decision to have a meeting with the Buddhist monk as well as the family for whom these two young Wa children worked.
They discovered they were treated like slaves: “Every day they had to carry the paralysed and incontinent grandmother between them up and downstairs as well as wash her sheets every single day”.
That is how Sainu and her husband began their charitable work. She took in these first two children nine years ago, and now she looks after thirty in addition to her own two children, as they were blessed with a son who is now seven.
During this decade they had to find a way to feed this huge family, and the 60 euros her husband earned as a minister, plus the 30 euros they receive each month from an NGO, only just covered the house rent. In addition, her husband went to work as a minister in Korea for three years without coming back to visit. He then went for another two years before coming home for good as his visa couldn’t be renewed.
It’s during this period, two years ago, that Sainu met an overseas volunteer in Rangoon. Since then, Children of the Mekong has sponsored fifteen of the children. It is a huge relief for them: now her husband can stay with his wife. He is the most selfless man anyone could find, with unlimited kindness. “My husband knows how to do everything! It is he who mends the clothes when the children make holes in them, or fixes the house. I praise to heaven to have him by my side.”
At the moment it is their house which takes all their attention. After 5 years of searching for a plot to build on, eventually, the owner of their house has now agreed to sell them the house and the land. They can finally start their project of building new bedrooms to improve the children’s living conditions. Until now, some of them have been sleeping in the hallway due to a lack of space.
Among the elder children, three now study in Yangon and only come back occasionally to catch up with their adoptive family. The space left by their departure was filled quickly. In April 2019, Sainu took in two more children from the Wa people who are brother and sister.
The Wa are warrior people and Sainu sometimes experiences the costs of this: “They spend their lives fighting each other!” she lets slip a little wearily but compassionately.
She and her husband have to constantly find solutions to feed all the children. Their project is only able to exist thanks to unexpected private donations which always appear in extremis to help them overcome desperate situations: “One day when we had run out of rice, our neighbour arrived with a gift of rice. It was the same thing with the children’s workbooks. We pray constantly and God hears us.” But the first miracle is perhaps that the paths of these children crossed that of this solid and inspirational couple who devote every day to their dream: to take in and raise these children by giving them back their dignity and providing them with the love of a father, mother and siblings.
Now Sainu is planning to enlarge her home in order to house more comfortably the 32 children who live with her.
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