As a youngster growing up in Burma, Jessica Par Snyder ’15 knew all of the stories of the heroes of the Bible. "The Bible was the only book my grandfather ever read," she said.
So when he encouraged her to be like Abraham and go, she went. Then just 16 years old, she and her sister Monica, 14, fled in the middle of the night. Religious persecution was prevalent in her native country, and her grandparents (who raised the sisters) feared for their safety.
“I knew the story,” she said. “I kept remembering that when God tells you to go, you just go. Abraham didn’t know where he was going either.”
Their first destination was the Thai border, where they hoped they could find help. They crossed the Moei River, layered in a boat with other refugees under piles of garbage.
“Many of the agents at the Thai border are corrupt; they sell young girls into sex trafficking,” said Snyder. “We had God’s protection.”
They traveled by night, hiding in trees by day. After 25 days of running, they arrived in a Malaysian refugee camp and later transferred to a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camp, where they would spend the next 18 months awaiting resettlement.
There, Jessica worked in a coffee shop, working 16 to 18 hours a day. “It was difficult being just 16 and having to make decisions with no parents,” she said. “There were other ways to make more money, but I didn’t want to look back and regret it. And always, we had to worry about our safety. It was always dangerous to go to work.”
Since they were illegal, they could be arrested and sent back or worse, Snyder said. Bounty hunters were paid for turning in refugees like Snyder and her sister.
Always, she said, she relied on Proverbs 16:3: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”
Snyder says her resettlement in Holland, Michigan, started with a Calvin connection. Rebecca Deng ’08, a Sudanese refugee and Calvin alumna, traveled to Thailand while at Calvin. When she returned, she shared the stories of the Burmese refugees with her family, who were friends with Eric and Sonya Snyder.
“God’s calling all started with a Calvin interim class,” said Jessica Snyder, who now calls Eric and Sonya and their three children her family.
“They are awesome,” said Snyder. “Every night for the first year my mom did homework with me for four to five hours. I am very determined and wanted to get good grades. They both sacrificed a lot for us.”
Snyder graduated from Holland Christian High School and knew immediately that Calvin was the place for her.
“When I came to Calvin, I knew this was it for me,” she said. “It just clicked.”
She also knew from a young age that she wanted to study engineering. “Growing up we did not have electricity,” she said. “Well, maybe, like one hour a month—like a teaser. I wanted to know how electricity worked.
“I just appreciate that God can use anybody to tell his story.”Jessica Par Snyder '15
“My culture growing up was that I should stay at home and be a wife,” she said. “That was never my idea. My childhood friends told me that I was born in the wrong country.”
Snyder said the engineering department taught her how to problem solve, a skill she uses every day in her current job as a control engineer for JR Automation in Holland.
“We have a good life here,” she said of her and her sister, who also recently graduated from college. “There is no way this dream comes true in my country.”
Snyder hopes to return to Burma to visit her grandfather soon (her grandmother died four years ago), but he still worries about her safety there.
“When I tell people about my Abraham story, sometimes they tell me it sounds more similar to Joseph because of all the trouble I had to go through to get to where I am,” said Snyder. “I just appreciate that God can use anybody to tell his story.”