At a military checkpoint guarded by the Royal Thai Army, Dr. Saw Wado waits as his credentials are scrutinized. Dr. Wado grew up on the other side of this very gate, within the barbed wire of the Mae La refugee camp—home to over 50,000 Karen people, evacuated from Myanmar beginning in 1984. Wado was 14 when he arrived with his family in 1990, fleeing armed conflict and ethnic persecution. After a few minutes with the security guard, Wado is cleared, and he rumbles into camp past a sign installed over 40 years ago: “Temporary Settlement.”
Dr. Saw Wado heads to the refugee camp he lived in as a child.
The Mae La camp in western Thailand is nestled within dense forest beneath a lush mountain range, a picturesque backdrop for a community of people who often feel like prisoners. Not only have they lost their country, but they are continually viewed as interim residents of Thailand. The Karen are without a home.
A children’s choir performs.
Despite these limitations, Wado wants to ensure the qualities of home for his people. He comes through these gates looking to secure the children’s education and the good prospect of everyone’s future, carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. “I’m not happy with the status quo, not happy with past achievements, but always looking forward to something better in the future,” he said. “I always think the best is yet to come.”
Inside the camp, Wado arrives at the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School and College, the very facility where he completed his schooling. Here children from kindergarten to high school—and four-year college students—are instilled with the gospel hope he received when he was young.
Seminary students worship during a daily chapel service.
As he teaches at Kawthoolei, he uses the In Touch Messenger to promote Christian discipleship and personal empowerment not only for the students, but for those within the camp and surrounding villages. A physical copy of the Bible can be a difficult item for a refugee to acquire, but the Messenger makes Scripture accessible and portable, particularly for oral learners. Dr. Charles Stanley’s messages have proved “incredibly useful” in a place where traditional Bible study resources can be scarce. And the tools of the Messenger Lab give the most serious Bible student an opportunity to dig deeper into the text and make lifelong applications to their life.
Wado was as ambitious a young man as he is in middle age. He took his education in the Mae La camp as far as it could go, then left to pursue a Master’s of Divinity, and eventually a doctorate from Asia Baptist Theological Seminary based in Manila, Philippines. But Wado was compelled to return to the restrictive life of Mae La to serve his Karen brothers and sisters. Today he’s the president and a professor of theology at Kawthoolei Hope Theological Seminary, a school he founded in 2017. Housed just outside the camp, the seminary engages not only with ministry leaders but with the citizens of Mae La, offering retreats for children and programs for all. Earlier this year when a fire swept through Mae La, destroying 50 homes, Wado and the seminary provided lumber and hardware to assist families as they began to rebuild.
Dr. Wado has always been aware of the grim realities of the Karen people. But he remains committed to what he terms “a philosophy of hope.” For in the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to transform lives, and even nations. Until the Mae La camp is transformed, he will continue to pursue the One who is able to love and empower those around him. “My work will [always] be with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the marginalized,” said Wado. “Where people are really in the margin, that's where I will be.”
Through your partnership, the good news of Jesus Christ is going where it’s needed most. Through the tools of the Messenger Lab, we’re reaching the lost, making disciples, and equipping pastors and Christian leaders as they obey the Great Commission.
Photography by Adam Dean and Panudet Krualee