Moe Win Tunkin went from a refugee camp on the Mynamar-Thai border to becoming a priest, and his journey was based on a promise to God.
Born in Karen state, Myanmar, the Revd Moe Win Tunkin clearly remembers when his family fled persecution and walked over the border into Thailand.
‘I was so sick my father had to carry me on his shoulders,’ Moe Win recalls. ‘The journey took us three and a half days because we had to hide from the enemy.’
After crossing the border, Mae La refugee camp – the largest on the Myanmar-Thai border – became Moe Win’s family home for the next 14 years.
It was also where an accident led to him making a promise to God.
‘I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t know how to train my voice. People told me to practise, but in a refugee camp everyone can hear you because it’s so crowded.’
Searching for a solution, one day Moe Win and his cousin found the perfect spot – a cave.
‘I was a bit scared because it was dark, but we lit a candle. I sung very loudly and after a while I got dizzy.’ What Moe Win didn’t realise was he was standing close to a deep hole. ‘I took a step and felt myself falling.’
While he waited for help, he prayed.
‘I made a promise that if God kept me alive, I would do whatever he wanted me to do.’
Moe Win’s accident happened in the same year his family’s application to come to Australia was accepted. ‘We’d waited three years. It was 2005 and I was 21.’
Settling with his parents and siblings in the Wyndham area in Victoria, Moe Win found it difficult to find work.
‘I didn’t have much English, so I studied at a language school and worked in a few places,’ he says.
Moe Win then followed one of his dreams to become a film director by completing a Diploma of Screen and Media and making two documentaries based on the Karen people. During this time, he was also involved in the Karen community churches. ‘I started ministry work as one of the youth leaders.’
By 2014, Moe Win was offered a permanent job as a machinist in a school furniture factory.
‘I’d been working there as a casual, but this was different. I’d never had a permanent job before and the pay was good,’ he reflects.
However, Moe Win was torn.
‘At the time, my church leaders were encouraging me to study theology to help lead the future of our people. I was worried I couldn’t do it – I feared I wasn’t worthy.’ But then he remembered his promise. ‘This was my true calling. I said yes to God.’
Studying at Trinity College Theological School then shaped Moe Win’s future.
‘I have wonderful memories of Trinity. There were people from all different countries – from everywhere. It was open, friendly and we were able to express and share our culture with each other. The lecturers did their best to support us and they were very caring.’
And Moe Win definitely needed a little extra empathy.
‘I met my future wife in 2015 when I was doing a leadership program on the Thai border. We married in 2016, but her visa kept being rejected,’ he explains. So, while juggling his four-year degree at Trinity, Moe Win returned to Thailand to visit his wife twice a year. ‘Everyone at Trinity was understanding and supportive.’
Still without his wife (and by then, son), in Australia, Moe Win was ordained in February 2018, but started to question if the reason the visa kept being rejected was because God wanted him to return to Thailand.
‘I said to God – it’s up to you. If you call me back to the Thai border, I’ll go.’
And then in 2019 a miracle happened. The visa was granted.
‘We had tried so many ways to get the visa – my congregation supported me and Trinity especially supported me. They loved and cared so I could be with my family.’
Moe Win is now a priest at St Stephen’s Anglican Church – a Karen authorised congregation in Werribee.
‘Our church is three years old and has a new congregation. I work as the youth minister and also run an outreach program for young people.’
Living with his wife, four-year old son, two-month old daughter and extended family, Moe Win dreams of further theological studies and making another documentary to help maintain the Karen culture and faith in Australia.
‘I’m very grateful for everything that led me here.’
By Jocelyn Pride