When you talk to Franklin and Martha Golden about one of their pivotal moments with Mawi, their adopted daughter, both recount the same conversation.
Martha and Mawi were sitting on the front porch of their Durham home, about a month after Mawi had moved in with them. It was an emotional time. Mawi, then a 14-year-old refugee from Myanmar, had just said goodbye to her sister and her sister’s family as they relocated to Texas.
After years of moving from a tiny village in the mountains of Myanmar to cleaning houses in Malaysia to the United States, Mawi made a bold decision to stay put. Within a week, she had brought her few belongings to the Goldens, a family she only had known for months and with whom she could barely communicate.
Martha tentatively told Mawi, “I know you have your mom back in Burma, but if you want to call me ‘Mom’ and call Franklin ‘Dad,’ you can call us Mom and Dad.”
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“And Mawi just started the ugly cry,” Martha tells me on a recent Sunday afternoon on that same front porch.
Franklin and Martha tried to decipher the tears. Were they of joy or heartache?
As Martha shares the story, Mawi, now 21, starts tearing up. She presses her fingers to her eyes, as if to futilely stop the tears from emerging. Martha explains that the tears then, and now, were those of happiness.
“Am I reading your mind?” Martha leans in to Mawi, detecting her emotions as only a mother can.
Mawi, whose name rhymes with “joy,” nods and summons the words: “Happy. Just how lucky I am. This is my home now.”
A life of change
Mawi’s journey started in Myanmar, formerly Burma, a country filled with political strife. She was born Thein Nei Mawi, the youngest of 17 children, in a village of 30-some homes that she says is “in the middle of nowhere.” There was no running water and no electricity.
“We survived,” Mawi said with a smile. “It’s a poor country. That’s the way it is.”
When she was 10 years old, she and Khim, one of her sisters, made their way to Malaysia with Khim’s husband. They stopped there as they sought refugee status, in the hopes of relocating to Norway, where they had family. But because of the tedious process of refugee resettlement, they ended up in limbo. They couldn’t return to Myanmar, and more than four years passed before they learned that Norway would be closed to refugees. During that time, Mawi and her sister cleaned houses. Mawi’s education stalled at the second-grade level. At least once, Mawi was told she could go to Norway, but she’d need to splinter her family even further and leave her sister behind. She wouldn’t do it.
Finally, the family was given a choice of going to the United States or Australia. The United States presented a quicker resettlement option for the family, plus, Mawi’s vision of our country – portrayed in films with shiny skyscrapers – seemed like a new adventure.
They arrived in New York with suitcases and thin jackets in early December 2009.
Franklin, the pastor of Durham Presbyterian Church, and Martha, a self-employed psychologist, were gearing up to welcome a family of Myanmarese refugees through World Relief, whose Durham branch helps resettle 250 refugees a year. They, along with friends from church, had outfitted a place with furniture, linens, cleaning supplies and pantry items. They had been expecting a different family, but at the last minute, it was Mawi’s family that arrived at the airport.
Franklin found them jobs on a farm in Orange County while Mawi enrolled at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough. They communicated with hand gestures and charades.
After a few months, Franklin learned that Mawi’s sister wanted to relocate to Midland, Texas, where their brother and a sizable Myanmarese population lived. He also sensed that Mawi didn’t want to leave her new home, though she struggled to adjust to a world of English speakers at school.
Franklin and Martha, who have known each other since their high school days in Charlotte but didn’t marry until 2003, already had two young children. Lily was 3 then, and Davis was 18 months old. While they had considered adopting a third child at some point, a quick email exchange was the first time they had discussed having Mawi enter their lives in a more substantial way.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Martha tells me.
As for Mawi, she said, “Honestly, I was terrified,” about both staying and going.
But the Goldens already were drawn to Mawi, and she seemed to trust them, with Franklin’s outgoing personality and Martha’s warm smile and comforting hug.
In just a few days, they talked to Mawi’s sister, who originally resisted the idea, but eventually received permission from Mawi’s older brother in Texas for Mawi to stay.
“We said we’d treat her like a daughter,” Martha said.
And that’s what they did.
Franklin and I attended UNC together. He was a year behind me, and we became friendly through one of my best friends in college. I thought he was smart and funny; he was involved in theater and was elected his senior class president. But when you’re 20, you have no concept of where life will take you and the potential that one has to make a difference in the world. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve been moved by how Mawi joined Franklin’s family. I’m sure I expected Franklin would go on to have success. But I couldn’t have guessed how his story would unfold.
Enter Facebook. I’ve watched Franklin, now 40, from afar as he posts beautiful photos he’s taken of his family’s milestones. When they went back to Myanmar to meet Mawi’s family in 2013, I teared up watching an emotional video as she reunited with the family she hadn’t seen in almost a decade. In the video, Mawi’s mother shakes Franklin’s and Martha’s hands – hugging is not common in their culture – as if to acknowledge that her daughter has another set of parents who love her, too. I smiled at a photo of Franklin and Mawi – one of the few that Franklin is in – as Mawi beamed on her graduation day from Durham’s Riverside High School.
What I didn’t know, until Franklin and I recently met for the first time in at least 18 years, was the hard work the family and Mawi had put in to get her to where she is today. Mawi, a competitive young woman, pushed herself to learn, even when she got frustrated and acted out like her younger siblings. Lily, for her part, helped Mawi figure out words while they read books together. Mawi had to repeat the ninth grade and later spent an intense year being home-schooled by a tutor. She learned English and guitar, not to mention all sorts of cultural and linguistic nuances we take for granted.
“It was totally hard,” said Mawi, letting out one of her trademark laughs before adding, “I wasn’t very nice sometimes.”
The efforts paid off when she graduated from Riverside as a member of the National Honor Society. She spent a year at the English Language Training Institute at UNC Charlotte, a one-year program that prepares international students for college in the United States. She now is a nanny to two young children in Chapel Hill, lives in an apartment with friends and is active at a Burmese church. She’s taking classes at Durham Tech and hopes to become an early childhood teacher, maybe at a day care.
She cautiously says she’s proud of how far she’s come. “Sometimes I’m like, what I’m doing? Still questioning, still learning,” she said. “And living the life.”
Making it official
The connection between Mawi and her adoptive parents is evident, as is their pride. Mawi said it was God’s plan to bring her to the Goldens. Franklin said leading a diverse Durham congregation made him more open to such possibilities. Family comes in all forms, he firmly believes.
But above all, he and Martha, and their children, now 7 and 9 years old, fell in love with Mawi, a girl with a big heart who fell in love with them right back.
“I’d always heard people talk about their adopted children,” Franklin said. “I always thought it was this beautiful mystery how a child could come into your life some other way. You love the child like your other children, and they’re every bit your child. Experiencing that has been profound. It’s crazy.”
The Goldens decided to align the formalities with their feelings and started the process to adopt Mawi. It became official in March. They gave her the option of keeping her name, or changing it. She decided to change it.
Her new name – Mawi Annie Jane Golden – reflects her new life. Mawi is what she has told people to call her, the easiest of her given names to pronounce. Annie is Franklin’s mother’s name. Jane is the name of Martha’s mother. Mawi said she never knew her grandmothers, and these grandmothers adore her. Plus the names are pretty.
And then Golden. Because she has been a Golden for years, ever since she stepped foot on their porch.