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From opium courier to Providence convent

 Da corriere dell’oppio al convento della Provvidenza  DCM-006
29 May 2021

Natalia saves girls from being trafficked in the Golden Triangle

Chaen Sean’s Thai market looks like an anthill. Here, vendors sell fish, meat, larvae and insects. In its midst, Natalia is moving swiftly between the vegetable stalls, haggling the price of her onions and ginseng, the money from which will be used to support the girls in the Providence House. There are 60 orphaned or abandoned girls there all of whom have been freed from trafficking, and who have found a roof and the love of a community. The orchard belonging to Sister Natalia Na Le’ is its main source of sustenance.

The orchard is located in what is referred to as the  Golden Triangle, which is the meeting point between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, a drug dealing, human trafficking, and money laundering crossroads. We are here to make a documentary on the liberation of trafficked girls, titled Tears&Dreams. At dawn on a very hot day, Sister Natalia goes to the “zoo”, a village where “giraffe women” are exhibited to unwary tourists. These are Akha girls, who are either refugees or who have been kidnapped in Myanmar. The rings -weighing several kilos each- around their necks, cause disarticulation of the vertebrae. The girls start wearing them from an early age. They stand there in the zoo, weaving and singing, having their pictures taken by tourists. The keepers collect the money and make sure the girls do not escape.

Sister Natalia, with other Akha sisters, has managed to get several girls out of that hellhole and take them to safety. It is not an easy thing to do; in fact, it is very dangerous. I wonder where that woman’s courage comes from. I cannot even film in the “zoo”, my stomach is clenched and my mind becomes foggy. During an exploratory canoe trip on the Mekong River, towards Laos, Sister Natalia told me her story.

Natalia is Chinese, from a region bordering Myanmar. Clashes and raids drove her father to flee China, taking her mother and especially their daughters with him. She was a child then, just three years old when she started to flee into the forest. The family took refuge in Myanmar, in the area of the Akha tribe. They managed to build a hut and cultivate a piece of land by planting rice, but this was not enough to feed everyone. So, they started to cultivate opium, which paid well. The Golden Triangle is one of the world’s capitals of opium production, which is then processed to produce mainly heroin and cocaine. In Chiang Saen, there is a museum which tells the whole story of opium and shows how it is processed. Natalia, then only 12 years old, used to transport it down river as a courier.

In the forest, among refugees, displaced people and desperate people, there are no doctors. A simple toothache, or pain from a wound, is sufficient for someone to take opium to help keep the pain at bay. Everyone does it. Sometimes they even use it to stave off hunger, including children.

The opium trade causes clashes between different gangs and tribes, and the various armies take turns to shoot. When Natalia found herself involved with the guerrillas, her life became harder and harder. She could not back out, and fought where she was needed, for survival.

One night she managed to get her family to safety during a heavy firefight between Akha, Shan and the army. After a long walk in the forest, the Lahu tribe, of Chinese origin, welcomed them. Things finally got better there and Natalia was able to attend a school run by the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) fathers. In order to be able to stay there and have an ID card, she declared she was a Lahu and changed her name. She was then invited to stay in a home run by the nuns and was finally able to change her life.

Her path was not an easy one, whether it was a life of guerrilla warfare and trafficking between the forest and the river, or the regulations at the shelter. The first year was very hard. In addition to the difficulties to adapt, Natalia was sad because she saw that all the girls could receive communion and she could not. Therefore, she asked to be baptised, but her request was not granted. Only after some years, thanks to a bishop’s concern, did she finally receive baptism and then could ask to become a nun. Here she recounts a particular episode, “I was praying in front of the statue of Our Lady and I heard a voice saying ‘my daughter, come here and become a nun’. After hearing the voice I went downstairs to ask the superior’s permission and she granted it”.

Before entering the convent, Natalia went to her father to ask his permission and he replied, “Daughter, you can become a nun, because among us Chinese only the male children must carry on the tradition and at least if you become a nun, no man will mistreat you”. This was December 25, 1981, but it would take a further seven years of waiting, while she located missing certificates, overcame obstacles and finished school before she could do so. Finally, Natalia became a nun in a local congregation dedicated to Providence, which was later united with the Sisters of Providence of St Cajetan of Thiene.

Natalia retained the courage of her early youth and interpreted it in the light of the Gospel. In addition to the vegetable garden to support the girls, she supervised the construction of the new common room-church financed by a concerning Buddhist monk. On weekends, she is a catechist in the villages where the Akha and Lahu refugees are. Natalia tells me these people have no legal recognition and live in extreme hardship, and “Most of them use drugs and alcohol and have many problems”.

The fathers in the households think only about themselves, and forget their wives and children. This is why the children cannot finish their education and are attracted to easy profit, through selling drugs, but end up in prison. In the villages, we explain the Gospel and the damage opium does.

Once a month Natalia and another Burmese nun dress up as managers, cross the Mekong and go to the casino in Laos. From there, they manage to sneak out through a back door to catechise in forbidden villages. Natalia speaks of this simply aboard the Mekong pirogue; for her this is not heroic, it is the normal commitment of a simple Christian nun.

By Lia Beltrami
Writer and film-director