By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Ben Ghung Awm’s Catholic faith has always sustained him — from escaping the turmoil of his home country, to being imprisoned and beaten, to resettling in the United States as a refugee, to surviving a tornado that severely damaged his house.
“I don’t know how people who do not believe in Christ” could manage such circumstances, said Ghung Awm at his home in Bowling Green, which he and his family have been repairing since a series of tornadoes devastated western Kentucky and surrounding regions during the night of Dec. 10.
“God protected us and saved us,” he said.
Ghung Awm was born in Myanmar. The Southeast Asian country, previously called Burma, has been beset with political turmoil for decades. Most recently, a February 2021 military coup overthrew the elected government and swept the country into deeper havoc as the military cracked down on citizen protests and resistance.
The years of humanitarian crisis resulting from power struggles between the military and democratic leaders have led to a mass exodus of Myanmar citizens to other countries. Ghung Awm is one of the thousands of Myanmar people who received refugee status to come to the U.S.
He arrived in the U.S. in 2011, but not before living without legal permission in Malaysia for a period of time after escaping from Myanmar.
His interval in Malaysia included being arrested, imprisoned and beaten due to his status. His father back in Myanmar even thought he was dead until Ghung Awm could send a message that stated otherwise.
After finally attaining refugee status, Ghung Awm arrived in Buffalo, N.Y., where he lived for a bit. A chance encounter with Father Timothy Khui Shing Ling, a priest from Myanmar who was at the time serving at Holy Spirit Church in Bowling Green introduced Ghung Awm to the large population of Myanmar Catholics residing in western Kentucky.
Ghung Awm moved there shortly thereafter, and has since settled in Bowling Green and gotten involved at Holy Spirit — even buying a plot of land in a local subdivision and building a house. He and his wife, Margaret Myu Mang, were married in 2017 and have two sons: Anthony, 2; and Nicholas, 1.
Then in December, the tornadoes came.
Ghung Awm had just gotten home from work and was aware of a tornado watch in the area. He said it was strange to hear of this in mid-December, since Kentucky tornadoes were supposedly more common in warmer months. Neither he nor his wife had experienced tornadoes when living in Myanmar.
A tornado warning came on Ghung Awm’s cellphone.
“I picked up Nicholas,” he said; his wife picked up Anthony and, frightened, asked Ghung Awm, “What’s going on?”
The family gathered in the master bedroom “covered in a blanket. Then we heard the sirens,” said Ghung Awm.
“Then 40 seconds later, it blocked my ears,” said Ghung Awm of the pressure change common in tornado conditions, “and I was holding my little boy close.”
The high winds tore off their roof and siding, and burst the windows with pressure. The makeshift coverage of blankets ended up protecting the family from glass shards flying across the room: “There was broken glass all over the blankets,” said Ghung Awm.
But “we got lucky,” he said. “I think God saved us.”
The three houses beside them were flattened, as was much of the subdivision. Ghung Awm described the scene as looking as though the tornado had come along a path leading to his home, but when it nearly reached his house, the tornado abruptly turned and went around it.
Ghung Awm’s sister, brother-in-law and their three children lived on the other side of Ghung Awm’s house. After the storm passed, he ran over to check on them and was thankful to find that while their house was damaged as well, all family members were fine.
Father Stephen Van Lal Than, associate pastor of Holy Spirit, drove out to the area the following day.
Father Van Lal Than also was born in Myanmar. In fact, he is the first Myanmar-born priest ordained in the United States. He is the leader of Myanmar Catholic ministry in Bowling Green and celebrates a monthly Mass in Burmese at Holy Spirit Church.
He told The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro, that his parish of 1,400 families includes approximately 761 parishioners from Myanmar.
Father Van Lal Than said this was “one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in Bowling Green” and multiple lives were lost.
The neighborhood happened to be home to many Myanmar families, as well as other immigrant groups who had come to the U.S. hoping to start their lives anew.
In “one family a few doors down” from Ghung Awm, the priest said, “the parents actually thought the kids were dead — and the kids thought the parents were.”
Ambulances had picked them up, he explained, and in the chaos different family members were taken to two different medical centers.
“They were reunited four or five days later,” said Father Van Lal Than.
The priest surveyed the strange path left from the tornado that avoided Ghung Awm’s house, and agreed that it seems miraculous: “As it came this way, it is like it turned (around).”
In the days after the tornadoes, Ghung Awm said they were flooded with kindness, support and financial assistance from the Catholic community in Bowling Green — and others who traveled to the area to help.
A team from nearby St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green sent a team to clean up the homes of people who had been impacted. Holy Spirit parishioners Mary Ellen and Chris Krohn volunteered their time and resources to help with repairs.
The school team brought over a generator and Shop-Vac, and a group came from out of state to purchase Christmas gifts for Ghung Awm’s family. Holy Spirit helped Ghung Awm pay the mortgage for a month, which he said “helped a lot.”
It is now more than three months since the tornadoes.
Today Ghung Awm and his family are back in their house, which has a new roof. He said their insurance has been good — even putting them up in a hotel immediately after the tornado — but the influx of claims has slowed the process of getting everything repaired.
Overall they are just grateful to have survived and to be rebuilding.
Ghung Awm observed that “we always receive blessings from God” but sometimes a person might “move away” from God.
“Then things like this happen,” he said, “and you turn back to God.”
Amid the suffering and aftermath of the tornadoes, Ghung Awm said “this was God trying to bring us closer to him.”
Seeing how God’s providence once again did not fail him, Ghung Awm looks forward to the future with hope.
“A lot of Burmese moved here because of the Burmese Mass and ministry of Father Stephen,” said Ghung Awm, using the colloquial term for people from Myanmar.
(Of Myanmar’s tribes, the ethnic Burmese account for only a small percentage of the many tribes in the country.)
Ghung Awm has been involved at Holy Spirit, helping “to keep our culture within our faith and to work on more unity and integration between different ethnic groups.”
In July, Deacon Martin Ma Na Ling will be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro and the second Myanmar-born priest ordained in the U.S. His ordination will be during a national conference of thousands of Myanmar American Catholics who will gather in Owensboro.
The diocese also plans to welcome two more Myanmar seminarians in the near future.
“We are very happy that the Diocese of Owensboro is willing to have priests and seminarians from our country,” said Ghung Awm. “It will make a strong faith for us for the future.”