The Prison Widow
By Rosemary Kane
One afternoon, a young 24-year-old Hmong mother with two small children, showed up at our door. We had never met her before and had no idea who she was. After inviting her in, she shared that she was the wife of a young man, Sayan, who, years earlier, had lived in our home for a few months.
When Sayan was young, he lost both of his legs, as well as his mother and a sister, in a house fire. Missionaries involved with Sayan at the time of the fire were able to help set up a trust fund for Sayan’s education. He had a rough road ahead of him, but eventually made it through school, left his village in Northern Thailand and had a good job working with computers in Bangkok. While working in Bangkok, Sayan met Phon, who had also left her village to look for work in Bangkok. They fell in love and married, against the advice of her family (even though Sayan had a well paying job, they considered him ineligible because of his missing legs). Even his own father had once said he was worthless because of his handicap.
A week before the birth of their second son, Phon received an unexpected and devastating call. Her husband had been arrested along with two others in Northern Thailand, caught with drugs in his specially equipped handicap car. While she thought he was at work, his family had phoned him from Northern Thailand and asked him to come. Family ties are inexplicably strong among the Hmong community in Asia. Sayan responded to their call, and somehow got caught up with relatives who were using his car to transport illegal drugs. It was a one-time incident with a lot of unexplained questions, but he received a 50-year prison sentence. Phon was left to give birth to their second son alone, and then figure out how to support her family.
Now a “prison widow,” Phon returned to her family in North Thailand. They didn’t want her. They asked her to divorce her husband and remarry, so as to not be a burden on them. For a Hmong woman, to divorce her husband is also to divorce her children; she must leave them behind with her husband’s clan.
They also didn’t want her because she said she was a Christian. She didn’t really know what that meant, but her husband had said he was a Christian and she had become interested in knowing more. The Lord had also spoken to her in dreams and visions that gave her a great hunger to know more about God.
When she showed up at our door, she was desperate. Rejected by both her own family and her husband’s family, how was she going to care for her two boys? Her husband had mentioned the missionary family he once stayed with. She came searching for us, asking if we knew of a Christian children’s orphanage or hostel that would take her children in so she could work and support herself. She didn’t know where else to turn.
Interestingly, I had been praying for a Hmong woman to mentor. Phon was the answer to those prayers. We invited her to come and work for us as live-in house help with her two sons.
Our 14-year-old daughter invited her and her two boys (2 and 3-years-old at the time) to share her bedroom. We began teaching her two boys (along with our 3-year-old son) flannel graph Bible stories. The boys were mostly interested in playing with the flannel graph pieces, but Phon was like a sponge soaking in all she could. She had a great hunger to know God. After all the abandonment and rejection she had experienced from family and relatives, the love of God that she experienced in our home had a tremendous impact on her heart.
After a few months with us, she was invited to study at a small Bible school run by another missionary. Again, she was like a sponge, soaking up all the Word of God that she could. They studied two months on, one month off, for a year. She and her boys alternated staying with us or at the Bible school. During one of her months off, we cared for her boys while she was away, caring for her father,who was dying of lung cancer in the hospital. The rejected Christian daughter was the only one of his many children to care for him through his illness. Thankfully, she was able to see her hardhearted, anti-Christian father come to the Lord shortly before he died.
In the 23 years we have been in Thailand, we have never seen anyone who grew spiritually in the Lord as much as Phon did in the 18 months she was with our family before we left for furlough. After we left, she was able to work for another missionary for a few months. Now, she has returned to her village and the Lord has enabled her to build her own small home to live in. From the reports we have heard, she has remained strong in her faith and is actively sharing the Lord with everyone around her.
However, in her culture, without her husband present, she is an unprotected female and in a very vulnerable position. She is also facing continued pressure from her family to divorce her husband and remarry, so that her family can gain the bride price for her. After all, a 50-year sentence seems like a life sentence, though she – and we – continue to pray for her husband’s early release and restoration to his family.