Paw Wah’s Journey: From the Thai/Burmese Border to the NY/PA Border

Paw Wah

Prior to coming to the US, Paw Wah lived in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border

For the past few months, Paw Wah has been dropping by the ONA Center with other ESL students from the TST BOCES Adult ESL class to learn the vocabulary needed to pass the driver’s permit test. Even though he didn’t pass the test on his last attempt, he only missed it by 1 point so is eager to take it again. It’s a good thing because he just accepted a job and commited to an hour commute (one way) because it is located near the NY/PA border.  Surely, at some point, he will have to drive. For now, his cousin, who was also hired by the same company, has taken on the sole responsibility of getting the two of them back and forth to their new job.

Although Paw Wah is relatively new to the Ithaca area – he’s only been here since August – he’s been in the US since 2006. At the age of 10, he and his family left Burma after his father died and moved to be with his sister who was living in a refugee camp near the Thai/Burmese border. They would then spend the next 3 years there before leaving to resettle as refugees in New Jersey.  Upon arrival in the US, he enrolled in public school which was his first introduction to formal education.  Prior to coming to the US, Paw Wah never had the opportunity to go to school. In Burma, attending school wasn’t free and his parents couldn’t afford the cost and when he moved to the refugee camp, he was expected to work.

Getting an education wasn’t easy for Paw Wah though; he particularly struggled to learn English.  He left school at the age of 18 and decided to find work instead. His initial entry into the US workforce was with a company that installs ceiling and blinds where he was hired to hang dry wall and drop ceilings. Even though he enjoyed his job, Paw Wah described how the dust exacerbated some existing health problems he had, leaving him feeling debilitated and sick at the end of the work day.  “I was sick all of the time.  My legs, my chest, everything hurt.  The dust made me always feel sick so it was hard to work there.”

This past August, he and his family relocated to Ithaca where they had family members. Once here, he pursued several opportunities that were all geared towards improving his English.  He began attending adult ESL classes at BOCES and citizenship prep classes offered through Tompkins Learning Partners.  He also started the driver’s permit classes mentioned above held at Catholic Charities. He recently decided it was time to start working again so he returned to Catholic Charities to get help with job development and brought his cousin with him. Both were interested in working at the CVS distribution Center in Chemung, NY so we provided them with help applying for positions as “Case Pickers.” After applying, they were prepped for the their interviews which were scheduled 2 weeks later. In the end, the job hunt was successful and both young men were hired.

cvs photo

Paw Wah’s new worksite is located near the NY/PA border

So in the middle of winter, Paw Wah and his cousin are now taking on the hour commute to get to their new jobs at the rather large distribution center that is pictured above. They have great attitudes despite the long commute and are eager and appreciative for the opportunity to work there. Many of the employers we develop jobs through often express how impressed they are with workers who moved to the US from Burma. We’ve been told by more than one employer how Burmese crews are dependable, rarely call-in, and can get the job done. One hiring manager recently told us how their company was making efforts to diversify their staff and he immediately thought of hiring refugees from Burma because they had proven to be some of his best employees at a facility he worked at in the past. Another local employer once commented on how she wished she could… “hire a whole staff of Burmese refugees. They are fast, they work until the job is finished and they sing while they’re working. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to have a happy productive team.”

When asked about his new job, Paw Wah expressed how excited, yet a bit nervous, he was to be working there. “When you start a new job, it can make you nervous because you aren’t exactly sure if you will be able to do it or not. But at the same time you feel so good because you have this job.” As a case picker, he will be responsible for filling and preparing orders for shipping. When asked to describe his new worksite he said… “It’s big – really big. I don’t think I have ever seen a warehouse that big.” During his job interview he was given a tour of the plant where he saw numerous workers but noted he “didn’t see any Asian people.” He also recalled how the interviewer asked him if he was scared of heights. Fortunately, the answer was “no.”

At this time, Paw Wah doesn’t seem to have any concerns about the long commute. Laughing, he said…. “My cousin will be doing the driving.” But he does have worries about the snow. “I’m scared because snow can make the road slippery” then quickly added “but my cousin is a very good driver.” For now, he’s happy to ride along and hopes he’ll pass the driver’s permit test so he, too, can get his license, buy a car, and help out with the driving. In the meantime, several of their friends (also from Burma) have come in to Catholic Charities to get help applying for similar jobs at the distribution center. Paw Wah is probably encouraging them because according to him, “it would be good to have 3-5 people working there so they can help pay for the gas.”

Sue Chaffee


Posted on January 22, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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