On April 1995, a fire broke out in a small refugee camp in Thailand–sending Larry Aye and his family fleeing into the jungle. The fire was started by Burmese soldiers, and the houses–made of bamboo and leaves–burned quickly.
The conflict between the Burmese government, the Karen, and other ethnic groups such as the Karenni, Mon, and Shan, is considered by many analysts to be the longest-running civil war in the world.
After the fire, Larry and his family, who are Karen, relocated to the Mae La refugee camp, the largest refugee camp for Burmese in Thailand. Mae La houses approximately 50,000 refugees in about 1.5 square miles.
“Life was really hard in the refugee camp,” Larry said. “We were given rice, yellow beans, fish paste, and cooking oil twice a month. Summers were hot and water was limited. You would wait in line a whole day for three gallons of water for your family.”
Barbed wire surrounded the camp to keep people inside, and the threat of attacks by Burmese soldiers loomed large. “You always had to be ready to run,” Larry said.
Although life was hard, the refugee camp laid a foundation for Christianity in Larry’s life. His family was Anglican, he went to a Baptist church every week, and he attended a Seventh-day Adventist high school. However, it wasn’t until he came to the U.S. that he understood the Gospel and came to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Larry came to America in 2007 at age 21. His family joined him nine months later. He now lives with his parents and three siblings in a house on Des Moines’ Southside.
About two years ago, Larry began volunteering with Central City Soccer, an inner-city soccer ministry sponsored by Walnut Creek Church. He met Lisa Scott of Walnut Creek Downtown, who gave him a couple books to read and also connected him with Pastor Jon Schreiner.
“Schreiner asked me what Christianity means. I was not sure, and he explained it to me,” Larry said. “I thought I was a Christian, but I really wasn’t.” Larry started attending church at Walnut Creek. He joined a Community Group and began meeting with Pastor Schreiner weekly to read the Bible together.
Today, Larry attends Walnut Creek South, where he continues to be involved in a Community Group and serve in many ways. “The thing that stands out most to me about Larry is his generosity,” Pastor Schreiner said. “Here’s someone who had nothing, and now all he wants to do with what he does have is give it back.”
Larry attributes his desire to give back to his relationship with Christ and with other believers. “Studying the Bible and hanging out with Christians has helped me fall in love with God and want to help others,” he said. “And there’s not as much temptation when you hang out with people who love God.”
Larry works for Des Moines Public Schools, where he helps Karen children and families by serving as a translator and ensuring their needs are met. Larry collects donations such as furniture and clothes and takes them to Karen people living in Des Moines. He also gives Karen children rides to church on Sunday mornings.
There are approximately 2,000 Karen people in Des Moines. “As we continue reaching out to the Karen community as a church, Larry will be a big part of that,” Pastor Schreiner said. “People in that community respect him, and he works with their kids.”
Larry has a similar vision for his ministry in Des Moines: “God sent me here, so I will use my Karen language to reach out to people,” he said. Larry also has a heart for the Karen people still living in refugee camps in Thailand. “God put me there to know the hardship. One day, I will go back to do God’s work there, and I’ll know what to expect.”
“God sent me here, so I will use my Karen language to reach out to people."
About five months ago, Larry applied for American citizenship. He is currently waiting to take a citizenship test. The entire process takes about a year, so he hopes to be a citizen by the end of 2015. Having citizenship will make it easier for him to travel back to Thailand.
“In life, you might not understand God’s plan,” Larry said. “But you have to trust in Him and believe that His plan is the best for you.”