It was just Marie Tu and her mom, surviving together in Yangoon, Myanmar. She worked harder than anyone I had ever met. I still remember the moment when Marie Tu casually mentioned she only got one day off per month.
How could someone so thorough, efficient and full of energy never rest? She’s one of those people that immediately put your life, your complaints, your annoyances in immediate perspective.
My husband and I were on our first of many trips to Myanmar for his dissertation research. We weren’t tourists - we wanted to go to the most rural areas, and be among the people. We needed someone to step in as translator and help with logistics - that person was Marie Tu.
We met her in Yangoon to talk over our travel plans. She went out of her way to make sure we were taken care of and after our trip we met again. Over time we quickly learned she had incredible social savvy. She was full of compassion, grace, grit, resilience, intelligence - and aspired to do more for this world.
But with an unforgiving work schedule, she could only do the best she could to help support herself and her mother. She traveled nearly 2 hours into the city everyday, on a hot, sweltering bus that often made her sick.
Day in, day out, she hustled. Full of energy, full of hope and full of talent. But she was stuck. Like a hamster on a wheel, she may have dreamed for an opportunity to set her free - but she couldn’t get off the wheel, and the wheel wasn’t moving forward.
One day I just asked her, plainly. “What would help you improve your situation?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said.
Well, the ability to answer my question was easy. But her answer? Not so easy.
Simple? Yes. Obvious? Yes. But easy?
Not so much.
“Education,” Marie Tu said. Resolute, no fluff.
That the one thing she was confident would elevate her from a life of hard, constant grind. It was the one thing that could bring security to her and her mom.
I often think Marie Tu is the face of Sapahn, certainly more than I am. Without her willingness to show me how to be brave and bold - without her example of never making excuses - I’m not sure I could have done it.
But she forced me to look soberly and honestly, at my own life.
I had the privilege to wake up and make excuses why I wasn’t going to study, why I deserved a day off to rejuvenate or treat myself. I had the resources to learn instead of work constantly. I could rest when I wanted.
Marie didn’t have that option. Stuck on that hamster wheel.
But with my privilege, maybe somehow I could find her an opportunity.
Afterall, I had traveled to her country to study poverty and power dynamics. Talk about privilege. What’s the point of having it if I can’t use it to empower someone else?
But this was daunting. I didn’t have the resources, or the connections. But I did have something - choice.
It was up to me to decide. I could do nothing. Or I could choose to do everything in my power to change the trajectory of her life.
That’s when I got an idea.
A scholarship! If I could just figure out how to generate money for a scholarship, Marie Tu would have in hand the very thing she needs - an education.
I knew I had to channel some Marie Tu to figure this out. I needed some of that grit, some of that resilience. I had to rally some of her boundless energy and come up with a plan.
Okay, it took me a while to get there. You don’t go from writing a dissertation on human trafficking to highend artisan bags and goods in an afternoon. I wasn’t a designer, or business woman. I wasn’t looking to be the next Kate Spade.
But I was looking for something that could help be the bridge between poverty and empowerment.
And this need to create a scholarship was yet another puzzle piece to the vision of Sapahn.
As we speak, Marie works as a liaison for Myanmar Parliament. The profits from the first 2.5 years of Sapahn paid for a large portion of her education.
In 2016 she opened her own therapeutic massage business in Yangoon to employ women in her neighborhood.
This is what you are a part of when you support Sapahn.
It’s not just another bag, this is a story that you are written into.
A story of opportunity, of humanity, of respect, and of dignity.
Together, we get this incredible opportunity to empower entire communities.
It’s pretty exciting when you think about it.
Thank you for being a part of our story. It won’t be ending any time soon.