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Guest Post: My Journey to Becoming a Refugee


May, (4th from left) with her mother, 2 younger brothers and family friend

May, (2nd from right) with her mother, 2 younger brothers and family friend in Thailand

The following post was written by May, a former Burmese refugee, who has helped ISP out over the years in many ways.  She is someone we have turned to when we have questions about Burmese culture or need help with interpreting.  May spent a good part of her childhood on the run as she and her family made their way to the Thai/Burmese border to escape Burma’s brutal military regime and register to become refugees.  We asked May to write about some of those childhood memories, starting out with the night she left her home.  Here’s what she wrote:

Being a refugee is something I will remember for the rest of my life. When I was 7 years old, my family had to flee Burma in order to be safe.  On August 8, 1988, thousands of people were killed in Burma and many were put under house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi.  My father and other students were being targeted by the military and fled to the Thai/Burma borders.  At first, my mother, 4 brothers and I stayed behind in our village and were constantly forced by the military government officials to keep them informed about our whereabouts and what we knew about my father.   Eventually, we left our village in order to be with him.

Most of my childhood memories are associated with being a refugee.  In 1989, during the full moon festival, my mother took us to visit our grandfather. That night, she left with my youngest brother, leaving my other brother and me behind. My grandfather spent the evening telling us fable stories about Buddha. After sleeping a bit, he woke us up and said, “Go with this person and your mom will be waiting for you.” We had never met the man he was sending us with before.  This stranger then took us on a bicycle until we arrived at a hut. We rested a bit and then continued on foot. He carried my brother while holding my hand as we followed yet another route. I remember having to walk a very long time; I was very sleepy but had to keep walking.  It was dark and I remember we didn’t have a flashlight; instead the moon’s light guided us. We were eventually reunited with our mom at another stranger’s house. At that point, I had no idea why we were traveling at night. I also had no idea that that would be the last time I would see my grandfather.

After sleeping a short time, we were once again woken up during the night and this time we were taken to a fisherman’s motor boat.  I still remember that boat and how its engine stopped running in the middle of the sea.  There were other fishermen around us trying to catch hundreds of white jelly fish floating on the surface of the sea while our motor boat just floated around. The stranger tried to wave down help and finally we were moved to a new motor boat. We headed to a different village and reached there at night time and that’s when I finally heard my father’s voice as he talked to my mom in a separate hut from us as I woke up. I remember how relieved I felt to hear my father’s voice and how my younger brothers and I all giggled because this made us so happy.

May, (front row, 2nd from left) and her family after they fled Burma.

May, (front row, 2nd from left), after she, her mother and brothers are reunited with her father.

As a child, I didn’t think of leaving our home as hardship; I thought of it as an adventure for my family. As an adult, I now realize how terrifying and frightening it actually was.  But to a small girl, it was an adventure.  I attribute this to our family staying intact through this whole ordeal and the ability of my parents to shield us from the danger we were in.  As our journey continued, we spent time in the jungle as we moved from village to village.  I have memories of riding elephants through the jungle near the Thai/Burma border. I also have memories of spending two nights in the deep jungle near the river bank and hearing tigers and other wild animals nearby.  During that time we had to catch fish for food and try to catch rides from jeeps or trucks that were passing by.   Finally, we arrived at one of the student camps – a camp filled with pro-democracy freedom fighters, like my father.

At the camp, many people were getting sick with malaria and other viral infections. There was not much food; we had to live on rice soup with a little salt and sometimes fish, or wild animals we managed to catch. We also planted a lot of vegetables by a river bank. We got help from an NGO and they provided us with basic medicine and clothes. We would eventually leave this camp and spend 3 years moving from village to village and during that time I remember families losing their loved ones through malaria. Also, since the villages were under attack, many people suffered from gun shots or accidents.  My mother gave birth to my youngest brother during one of these attacks – I can still remember hearing bombing nearby. I also remember there was a full moon again.

By the time I was 10 years old we had made our way to Thailand.  We tried to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to be recognized as refugees which was located in its capital.  At that time, we lived in a Thai village and this is where I began to learn about Thai culture and how to speak its language. My family then moved so we could live in a missionary house – it was there I began to learn English and the practice of yoga.

Many years went by between the time I left my grandfather’s house until my family and I would be officially recognized as refugees.  But in 1996, we were successful in having the UNHCR register us to live in Maneloi Refugee Camp which began the process of us resettling to the United States.  Prior to moving there though, were still weren’t completely safe; our house in Thailand was raided by the police while my mother was out shopping for vegetables. There were a few other refugees at our house and I remember we were questioned for many hours. We even had to show the police a library card given to us by the refugee camp as identification. We finally moved to the Maneloi Camp though signifying the end of the journey I had to take between my home in Burma and ending in Thailand where I would become a refugee from Burma.  This is also where my next journey would begin as I would be headed to the US a year later.

Please note that this is Part 1 of May’s story; Part 2 will be posted later this summer.


Undocumented vs. Illegal: Why The Words Matter

Every now and then our staff has to field questions concerning immigrants and their legal status in the U.S.  We are sometimes challenged to define the difference between “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal alien” or asked point blank if we serve “illegals.” As part of Catholic Charities, we rely on the view of Catholic social teachings when it comes to addressing this topic.  According to the views of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “every person has basic human rights and is entitled to have basic human needs met – food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care.”  They further state, “No person is a criminal in the eyes of God merely for being undocumented.”

As a program that provides legal immigration services, we find terms such as undocumented immigrants,  non-citizens, or people here in violation of immigration law to be acceptable.  We view words such as illegal, illegals, or illegal alien to be terms that dehumanizes and tends to silence someone that may be in need of help or services.  We are trying to open doors for the immigrant community, not close them.  We found the following opinion piece, “Regarding Immigrants, Why Do We Have to Be Mean?”  which was published on to be an interesting read related to this topic.

Leave us a comment and let us know what you think – undocumented or illegal – do these words matter?

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep