Previously in Refuge #36 Land of the Chin people: A young girl, Nu Kip, asks Za Dim to help her friend Sung Sung in jail for theft. At the station, the police harass Za Dim, an illegal migrant. Undeterred, Za Dim demands to see Sung Sung, who insists she is innocent. The police instruct Za Dim to return at three p.m. to meet with Sung Sung’s boss, telling her, ‘If they ask you for the money, just give it to them so that it won’t become a bigger case.’
Three days earlier, at the bazaar, Nu Kip had asked Za Dim if she was Burmese on account of her accent. When Za Dim said yes, Nu Kip was overjoyed and immediately followed Za Dim to her home for a visit. Now, as Nu Kip and Za Dim walked to the police station for the second time that day, Nu Kip explained the circumstances leading up to Sung Sung’s jailing.
For eight months prior to her arrest, Sung Sung had not been allowed to leave her employer’s house unaccompanied. Her employer forbade her from speaking to outsiders because they feared that she would talk about her mistreatment. They wanted to protect their reputation because they were respectable people in the community and elders in their church.
Many churches dot the Aizawl hills: Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal and other denominations. In 1899, Reverend Arthur Carson and his wife Laura, carried the gospel to the Chin people, who were animists with no written script. The Carsons created a Chin system of writing, established schools and introduced modern medicine to the region. Laura is a name still recognized with affection by Chin people today, the majority of whom profess to be Christians.
One day, Sung Sung was with her employer’s daughter in the bazaar. The young girl was less vigilant than her parents. When they met Nu Kip by chance, Sung Sung told Nu Kip of her predicament. That night, Sung Sung escaped and sought refuge in the home where Nu Kip worked as a maid.
On discovering her escape, Sung Sung’s employers lodged a police report accusing her of stealing a watch. In the small community where people knew who had Burmese maids and where they lived, Sung Sung was easily tracked down and arrested. Nu Kip was returning from her first visit to Sung Sung in the lock up when she became acquainted with Za Dim.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Nu Kip and Za Dim hurried through the same bazaar. At three o’clock, they arrived at the Police Station with one thousand Rupees of Za Dim’s savings. The Police Chief was in and his presence stilled the ribald tongue of his junior officers. Za Dim gave the officers some cake and Maltova powder that she had bought for two hundred and eighty Rupees. Sung Sung’s employers were late. Za Dim and Nu Kip sat and waited.
At four o’clock, the Police Chief telephoned the employers’ home. No one answered. He tried again later and their son picked up the phone. The boy said that his mother had been out all day and had just returned home.
‘These people are not telling the truth. You can take Sung Sung home,’ said the Police Chief. This incident marked the beginning of Za Dim’s work, helping and rescuing young Chin girls in Mizoram.
Seeing Za Dim being called out at all hours, often returning home way past midnight, Pi Zai Khumi, her Mizo landlady, kept asking her, ‘What’s happening? Where did you go?’
Eventually, Za Dim told her that she was helping Burmese maids who had been abused. Pi Zai Khumi didn’t object when Za Dim brought a few girls home to recuperate. In fact, she became an ally, looking for good homes where they could continue working as maids, and in return, Za Dim charged Pi Zai Khumi no more than the cost of the materials for the clothes that Za Dim sewed for her.
Za Dim recorded details of each case in a diary. Perhaps she was copying the professional habits of her father, a police officer, or perhaps she felt the stories of these vulnerable girls should not be forgotten. For whatever reason, this became her practice and Sung Sung was the first entry in her diary.
Sung Sung lived with Za Dim for one month until a good boss was found through a Burmese church fellowship group. So many maids were being ill-treated and abused that in June 1994, Za Dim started teaching girls how to sew so that they wouldn’t have to work in private homes.
One day, Pi Zai Khumi discovered Za Dim’s diary. She read the list of Indian names, many of them Mizo, against a list of victims, all Burmese.
‘You can help them, but you don’t have to write down everything,’ said Pi Zai Khumi, furious. From that day, she distanced herself from Za Dim and the work she was doing.
Although illegal migrants tended to stay away from official church services for fear of arrest, a deep longing for corporate worship compelled a group of about forty Burmese Christians to meet on Sunday afternoons at the home of a Burmese doctor. Dr Sang Kung had fled to India from Myanmar and had since become an Indian citizen. The doctor would attend an official Indian church service in the morning, and open his home in the afternoon for a Burmese service attended mostly by illegal Chin people.
‘Is it easier for people who are professionals to become citizens?’ I ask.
Za Dim and Ling Ling laugh good-naturedly at my question and reply that Za Dim didn’t know if she could apply for citizenship because she had never tried.
‘Oh, your mum doesn’t know if she could have become a citizen of India?’ I persist.
Ling Ling replies that she never inquired because she didn’t want to become an Indian citizen. She wanted to return to Burma. Earlier, I had asked why she didn’t add an ‘i’ to the spelling of her name – Sung to Sungi – to blend in with Mizo people. With slight exasperation, Ling Ling reiterated that his mother was not Mizo, and therefore did not want to modify her name. They sounded offended, as if I had insulted them.
Believing that people were afraid to attend the fellowship because it was held in the home of an Indian citizen, the church moved their meetings to the Sang Ci Hotel instead. By 1995, the fellowship had around six hundred members. Two services were held on Sunday, one in the Lai dialect, and one in the Falam dialect.
Za Dim was elected to be a church elder in the Falam church. She was the only woman out of the twelve appointed elders. As a church elder, ever more people turned to her for help. When a fourteen-year-old housemaid was raped, her elder sister, who worked in a handloom factory, ran to Za Dim’s house for help. Za Dim was not in, so the girl went to another church elder, a man who came from the same village. When the elder heard about the rape, the he contacted Za Dim and said, ‘You go and help her. I can’t do it.’
Za Dim took the young girl to a private hospital because government hospitals did not treat illegal migrants.
Ling Ling interprets, ‘They have to clean and to stitch. She was sick for a week, but she didn’t get well.’ Because it had become known that the girl had been raped, Za Dim and the church elder decided it best for her to return to her village where her family could care for her. For the journey, they entrusted her into the care of a good man who was returning to Burma.
Word spread that Za Dim was willing to help people get medical treatment, confront Indian bosses for back pay and try to retrieve belongings from rogue employers. Eventually, overwhelmed by requests for help, she spoke to the rest of the church eldership, explaining that she was a tailor with her own family to feed. They replied that they could help those who needed medical attention, but couldn’t get involved in cases involving domestic maids.
‘Why do they exclude the maids?’ I ask.
‘My mum doesn’t know either,’ says Ling Ling.
‘It is not because the maids are illegal. The other people they helped were also illegal,’ I say, thinking out loud.
‘Don’t know why. But they are all male. My mum is the only woman,’ says Ling Ling.
‘So the men don’t want to help and get involved in the women’s problems. Is that it?’
‘Don’t know, maybe,’ shrug Ling Ling and Za Dim.
Then Ling Ling says, ‘In December 27, 1995, my mum got arrested at her house because the police officer said there is trouble – bombing and shooting in the city. So they started to arrest suspects.’
To be continued next week in Refuge #38 Alcohol and Deep-Fried Goat. This is part of the serial online release of the book Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugees who have resettled in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.