Stories of Refugees, Part II: Out of Burma

The Burma-Karen conflict, one of the longest running civil wars in the world, started in 1949, soon after Burma gained independence from the British. The Karen people have been fighting for autonomy from Burma (Myanmar) since then. There are 140,000 Karen people living in refugee camps in Thailand, and close to 50,000 Karen people have been resettled in developed countries, including America. This is the story of one such Karen family who made it safely to the Bay Area.

Moe Win and Paw Eh Kue talked to me through an interpreter. The interview was organized and facilitated by International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps people from war-torn countries resettle — “survive, recover and gain control of their future.”

When he lived in Burma, Moe Win had to carry supplies for the military. He was forced to walk in front of the soldiers so that if they encountered any fire, he would be hurt first. Win decided that this was not the life he envisioned for him and his family.

Paw Eh Kue, now a grandmother, said that they all had to “make runs” for the war, women and children included, and they were required to carry “heavy stuff.” As a result, one of her daughters broke her back, and Kue had to carry her daughter, too, on these runs.

Kue and Win left Burma for a refugee camp in Thailand following the trail of other family members who had left before them.

They were fortunate to be selected by the United Nations Refugee Agency from the refugee camp for resettlement in the Bay Area. Win has been living in Oakland since December 2014, along with his wife and 8-year-old son, and Kue — Win’s mother-in-law — arrived in San Francisco close to six years ago.

According to the Pew Research Center, more refugees — 8,112 refugees — were admitted to the United States from Burma than any other country between Oct. 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016. A sizable number of Burmese refugees have settled in East Oakland.

Freedom and opportunities in America are what both Win and Kue marvel at. That, and the fact that they can walk into a grocery store, pick up vegetables and prepare a meal right away. Back in Burma, they had to grow their own food or go into the nearby forests to procure it. Planning ahead was essential. “To eat vegetables next year, we had to grow it this year,” Kue said.

Both Win and Kue, like many Karen people before them, arrived with a severe handicap: Both do not speak English.

A San Francisco State University report published in 2011 indicated that Burmese refugees were facing ongoing hardship because of their poor English language skills. Sixty-three percent were unemployed or poorly employed, 38 percent spoke no English at all and 47 percent indicated that English classes was the “most needed service in their community.”

In all my interviews of immigrants and refugees, knowing English has emerged as one of the most essential skills to acquire in order to thrive in America. English is the language of jobs. Without a working knowledge of English, refugees find themselves at a loss, dependent and limited to opportunities only within their own communities.

Granted, Win and Kue did not have much need for English thus far. Their experiences had much to do with coping with the conflict in their country and finding a meaningful way to live in makeshift camps in Thailand.

Karen refugees appear to be one of the most disempowered communities. The SFSU report indicated that 81 percent of Karen refugees are unemployed, and 90 percent do not have a high school education. The report is five years old now, but still provides a timestamp of the problems that refugees from Burma and Karen faced, and perhaps still face; and provides us with a sense of what may still need to be done to ensure the progress and self-sufficiency of refugees living among us.

The Federal Refugee Cash Assistance Program provides cash and medical assistance for the first eight months in the United States. After that refugees must manage on their own.

Win works at Burma Superstar restaurant in Alameda. He makes mostly salads for the patrons — “chili salad, ginger salad, chicken salad, mango salad, and vegetable noodles.”

I asked Win where he sees himself 10 years from now. He didn’t hesitate before responding that he hopes to run his own business. “I’m not sure yet what kind of business, but perhaps a restaurant,” he said, admitting that he didn’t have the “money or the education” to start something right away.

Both Win and Kue believe that even though they’ve arrived in this land of hope and choice, “it might be too late” for them. For their children, however, they know they made the right decision. Win made a particular point of mentioning the availability of “good education” for his son. Twice.

Win and Kue’s struggles and aspirations have given them a particular and uncommon resilience. Yes, to them it might seem like a strange new world in which they don’t have a lot of leverage, but their ability to focus on how best they can work with what they have is a heartening story in itself.

One after the other, Win and Kue smiled cheerfully as they nodded their heads and announced resolutely to me, “I am happy here.” And I believe them.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco. Over the next few weeks, this column will focus on stories of refugees who have resettled in and around San Francisco.

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