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Khant planned to go ahead of the rest of the family to New York City and find work. It would be the first time he ever left Myanmar. Lwin was still working part-time as a travel consultant and ended up chatting one day with two clients from Montana. She joked that they might bump into each other in the U.S. someday. One of the clients, John Price Anderson, who owns a home in Missoula but spends much of his time in Indonesia, asked what her family's plan was for finding housing and work stateside.
"He said, 'Oh, well, it's not a good idea to go to New York,'" Lwin recalls. "They said, 'Do you have family or friends or any relatives in the United States?' I told them no, because the rest of my family, my two daughters and my husband, they'd never been out of the country. So they said, 'What? No, then, it's not a good idea to go to New York. Why don't you go to Missoula and stay at my place?'"
Lwin and Anderson continued to exchange emails for the next few months, making arrangements for her family to live in his house until they could get settled. In June 2006, Lwin, Khant and their two daughters arrived in Missoula thinking they'd move on to a different community with a Burmese population within a year. But they fell in love with western Montana.
Khant now owns and operates Bo Bo Electric, and works as the resident electrician and general technician for Missoula Children's Theater. Lwin works remotely as one of the Studer Trust's two directors, traveling back to Myanmar several times a year to oversee projects in person. During her time in Missoula, she's also managed to develop a pipeline of goodwill between her native country and her new home.
Last October, Kathi and Glenn Wood made a point of telling their Burmese guide that, regardless of what else he had planned, their trip to Myanmar had to include a stop at the Studer Trust's lake-top Pauk Par preschool. The couple wanted to visit their friend from Missoula, Lwin, who was conducting follow-up work in the country, and see one of the schools she'd talked so much about.
"People actually live on this lake," Glenn says. "They grow gardens, floating gardens, and they can harvest them. It's a very famous place because it's been inhabited for, I don't know, centuries. They scrape the bottom of the lake and use that for fertilizer, so they're self-sufficient."
Kathi met Lwin through a weekly Jeannette Rankin Peace Center knitting circle known as the Peaceknitters. One year before the Woods' trip, Lwin had asked the group to help her supply toys to some of the students at the Studer Trust schools. The group had already knitted a parcel of teddy bears for the relief effort in Haiti after Hurricane Sandy. For Pauk Par, a few in the group made plush fish for the 40 or so preschoolers who are shuttled to school across the lake by boat each morning.
"Some people would knit balls for them," Kathi says. "I had crocheted a bowling set for my grandson a few years back, with 10 pins and the ball and everything, so I said, 'Why don't I make a bowling set for these kids?'"
When the Woods arrived at Pauk Par, Lwin was waiting for them. The three of them passed out clothes made for the children by Missoula's Christ the King Church and watched as the kids played with the plush toys Lwin had delivered earlier. Kathi asked their teacher whether there was anything else the school needed.
"They want to increase the number of students, but they want to buy their own boat," Kathi says. "And the community where the school is located, the land part of it, there is the boat factory that makes these boats. Somehow, I want to raise money toward a boat for the school."
After learning about the specific type of boat the villagers desired, the Woods and Lwin figured the cost would come to roughly $1,500. Kathi is now raising the funds herself and intends to pass them to the Studer Trust to fund the new boat. The effort shows how Lwin's deep emotional investment in improving the situation in Myanmar has spread to others in Missoula.
"I would love to be able to give them money for that boat, because that means that more children are being educated, and that's their goal," Kathi says. "If you saw the size of the building they started in and the size of the building now, it's so wonderful that this foundation ... gave them the money."
The Woods aren't the only ones who have visited Myanmar in recent years. Tourism in the country has increased dramatically since the military junta was replaced with a parliamentary government in 2011. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, and the new government began drafting laws ensuring basic human rights. Freedom of the press was established, and the Associated Press last spring became the first international news agency to open a foreign bureau in the capital of Yangon. The Woods say they got a travel visa in no time, and most places accepted American currency. A long era of religious and ethnic oppression has ended. Now, Myanmar is struggling to rebuild—and fast.