The group of young men and women who sat in the chapel at Fruitland Baptist Bible College in Edneyville one recent hot July day appeared to be typical college students taking summer classes.
Hendersonville Times-News photo by Patrick Sullivan
Fruitland Baptist Bible College students from Myanmar include (front, left to right) Eh Ta Moo, Yushe Ya, Shamo Ayela, (back, left to right) Shar Tway, Ro Day, Theh Mar Htoo and Mary Win. Some of the students plan to return to their native country to spread the message of Christianity.
Some held school books in their laps, some carried backpacks on their shoulders and some had that groggy look that only comes from staying up too late finishing a term paper due the next day.
But after meeting these students, it quickly became clear they were anything but typical.
These students came to the United States with their parents five to seven years ago after their families fled political unrest in their homeland of Myanmar, a country in Southeastern Asia also known as Burma.
“When I first came, I felt overwhelmed and shy because of the language,” 20-year-old student Theh Mar Htoo said. “God helped me. I believe we will get through to the end no matter what. We hope and pray.”
Htoo is one of seven students studying at Fruitland who are from Myanmar’s Karenni culture. A long civil war in the Myanmar led hundreds of thousands of people in the country’s ethnic groups, including the Karenni, to flee the country. The students attending Fruitland made their way from Myanmar to refugee camps in neighboring countries before finding their way to the United States.
School officials affectionately call them their Karenni students.
Some of the young men and women were born in Myanmar, some were born in refugee camps outside the country, and one student simply said he was born in the jungle.
Five of the students enrolled at Fruitland almost one year ago after living for a time with their parents in Winston-Salem, while two others came to the school from Minnesota only a few months ago.
The students, who learned the Karenni language as children, speak English as a second language. They admit writing and completing verbal assignments in English at the college level has been a challenge.
But like Mar Htoo, 19-year-old Shar Tway said she keeps faith that God will guide their studies.
“If God carried me this far, he can carry us all to the end,” she said.
Fruitland President David Horton described the students as hardworking and excellent learners.
“They are not only passing classes, they are doing so with good grades,” he said. “Seeing their hard work and diligence, they are just an inspiration. It’s a tremendous experience having them in the classroom.”
Horton said one of the students in a class he taught delivered a sermon that excelled in both content and his use of English.
“I was amazed at how well he did,” Horton said.
Eh Ta Moo, a 23-year-old Karenni student at the school, said he wants to return to Myanmar as a preacher one day.
“I want to go back and fellowship with people who don’t believe in Jesus,” he said. “I want to preach. I want to give my testimony of Jesus.”
While Fruitland is best known as a college that trains Baptist preachers, the school also provides instruction to students in other areas of ministry, including missionary work.
Some of the Karenni students said they intend to return to Myanmar as missionaries after they finish their studies.
Htoo and Tway said they want to pursue medical training, possibly as physician assistants, after they leave Fruitland. They said they too want to one day return to Myanmar to help the people in their homeland.
“Many have limited access to medical care,” Tway said. “Many have passed away because of simple illnesses.”
In addition to spending their summer studying at Fruitland and working part-time jobs in the community, some of the students also traveled to Asheboro this summer to help with a summer camp for Karenni teenagers from across the country.
The “Karenni Summer Camp” at Camp Caraway drew 122 Karenni teens from as far away as Colorado and Arizona. The students from Fruitland helped camp leaders by working with small groups of students and by participating in worship each day.
In an email message to Horton after the camp ended, Tim Cross, an organizer of the camp, praised the work of the Fruitland students.
“By the end of the week, it was like a revival had broken out,” Cross wrote. “On our last morning, we had 14 young people who had accepted Christ and followed the Lord in baptism in the lake. We are so proud of these kids. God is using them in a big way and we know He has huge plans for them in the future.”
For now, Fruitland’s Karenni students said they are happy to be where they are and learning all they can.
“To get an education is a blessing to us,” Tway said. “Our parents did not have an opportunity to get an education as they pleased.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Amy B. McCraw is a correspondent for the Hendersonville Times-News. This story is used with permission.)