Columbia church gives Myanmar family a home makeover

Saturday, July 26, 2014 | 2:32 p.m. CDT
The Fairview Road Church of Christ gave a refugee family from Myanmar a home makeover.

COLUMBIA — The smell of sweat, sunscreen and freshly sawed wood hung in the air as volunteers walked in and out of the house with their hammers and paintbrushes in hand.

Buckets of paint lined the side of the home while wheelbarrows, debris and wood scattered the yard. A makeshift workbench was out on the driveway where volunteers used an electric saw to cut wood.

Klo Paw worked right alongside the volunteers, and his wife, Set Lar, who is six months pregnant, helped in any way she could while also keeping an eye on their daughter, Moo Kree. The 5-year-old ran around the yard eagerly talking with volunteers.

The Paw family home is getting an extreme makeover, courtesy of the Fairview Road Church of Christ.

Six years ago, the church began an outreach program called Extreme Home Makeover: Fairview Road Edition that brings the congregation together to remodel the home of a person in the community. Last year, the church remodeled the home of Almeta Crayton, the city's first black councilwoman known for her loving care for Columbia.   

This year, church members knew they wanted to help a family, construction coordinator Dean Bossert said.

That’s when Love INC., a program that has previously helped the church with its makeovers, referred the Rev. Brian Hajicek to speak with Lori Stoll, the director at the City of Refuge in Columbia. The nonprofit organization serves refugees in mid-Missouri.

When Stoll was approached by the church, the Paw family came to her mind first, she said. 

"I knew they had needs," Stoll said. "They always housed their tribe, and this is a great way to bless the community of the Karen people."

The Karen tribe consists of many families, such as the Paws and the other refugees living in Columbia, who fled from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The Paws attend Midway Heights Baptist Church — morning services in English and afternoon services in Karen — so they were surprised when members of the Fairview Road church came knocking, Set Lar said.

Although the church does projects for its own congregation, the makeover program focuses on Columbia residents outside its church community.

"We will think about it and pray about how we can serve the community," Hajicek said. "We wanted to be where a large number of people in our congregation could help."

After the decision was made, the church and the City of Refuge worked closely with the Paw family. The volunteers listened to the family's needs and made suggestions that would best benefit the family and their home.

The south-facing side of the home had brick walls in front of every window, Hajicek said. The intention was that the bricks would absorb the heat from the sun and then warm the house. But that was one of the first things to go when the volunteers arrived Wednesday because the brick walls did not heat the home and were an eyesore.

Volunteers also ripped up the carpet in every room in the house except the bedrooms because the hard floors will better accommodate the Paws' cultural practices. In their culture, people sit on the ground and eat their meals off a table a few inches high. There were also practical reasons.

"The little ones spill things," Stoll said. With the Paws' 5-year-old daughter and another child on the way, not to mention the number of children from their tribe and neighborhood who come and go, the hardwood floors will be easier to clean.

The family also picked out the paint colors for their home. They chose a medium gray with a white trim for the exterior of the house and a light gray for the interior, though if Moo Kree had it her way, the entire house would be purple, she said.

On Thursday, blue electrical tape lined the borders of the walls while two volunteers, with faces speckled in white paint drops, slowly rolled the first coat of white paint onto the ceiling. Outside, laughter rang out; inside, it was quieter, punctuated from time to time with the knock-knock-knock of a hammer hitting a nail.

Volunteers as young as 3 and as old as 77 offered any time they had to the remodeling of the Paws' home. Volunteers worked in two shifts of about 40 people each, with a morning shift from 8 a.m. to noon and an evening shift from 4 to 8 p.m.

Before both shifts, the volunteers came together for prayer. Keeping God at the center of the project was important for the church volunteers, since their faith is what united them with the Paw family.

"We really feel like God led us here," Hajicek said. "All roads led here."

Together, the volunteers shared two meals a day on-site and included devotionals, where a message from the Bible was read aloud for the volunteers to reflect on while they work.

Most of the work was done over four days; it started Wednesday and is scheduled to end Saturday. Two of the larger construction projects that required professionals were done a week earlier, Hajicek said. This included building a back door in the kitchen for the family to easily access their garden.

Set Lar grows cucumbers and tomatoes in the garden, but she hopes to one day grow vegetables native to her homeland. But Set Lar doesn’t want to ask for help to expand her garden because she’s aware of the volunteers' generosity and kindness and doesn’t want to ask for anything more, Stoll said.

On Thursday, the volunteers, with the help of Central Concrete Co. and Rost Landscaping in Columbia, poured concrete to make a patio that will make the garden more accessible.

The other large-scale construction was transforming the Paws' garage into a living room area where the family can hold their meetings. Every two weeks, refugees from the Karen tribe gather for dinner, prayer and celebration at the Paws. With their one-story home designated as one of the gathering places for all the refugees, the Paws quickly ran out of room.

"Twenty-five to 30 people would sit in circles two to three circles deep," Stoll said.

Klo Paw and Set Lar met for the first time when they were children, but their families lived in separate towns. It wasn't until both of their families fled from the government that they met again in a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border. They spent 12 years of their life in the camp, which is where Set Lar gave birth to Moo Kree.

Moo Kree is a miracle child, Stoll said. She was born two months premature in the camp, where her chances of survival were slim.

Shortly after her birth, the Paws applied and were accepted for refugee status, so the three immigrated to United States. They lived in an apartment in South Carolina for only three weeks when Klo Paw’s mother had a stroke at her home in Columbia. The three once again moved.

Their story of struggle and hope encouraged both the City of Refuge and the Fairview Road church to give the Paws their time and love.

"I feel like they’ve been through so much," Stoll said, "and this is just a small gesture to show them that 'We see you.'"

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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