It’s no secret that efforts to resettle refugees in the U.S. have been stymied by the Trump Administration. Six months ago, President Trump drastically cut the number of refugees being allowed into the U.S. when he announced only 45,000 were going to be admitted during Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. March 31st is officially the half-way mark of FY 2018 and by then it is expected only 10,000 refugees will have been resettled into the U.S.; this is less than 25% of what was originally promised.
This Call to Action is to let our New York Senators and local Representative know that this number is unacceptable. Please take time on Wednesday, March 28, 2018 to voice your support for increasing the numbers of refugees being resettled into the U.S. Let them know this low number is unacceptable and that the Trump Administration should keep its word and admit the 45,000 it committed to. In addition, also urge them to call on the President to set the FY 2019 admissions goal to at least 75,000 persons.
Residents of Tompkins County can call:
- Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at (202) 224-4451
- Senator Charles Schumer at (202) 224-6524
- Rep. Thomas Reed at (202) 226-6599
I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and I urge you to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program. I strongly oppose President Trump’s all-time low cap on refugee admissions, as well as his continued Muslim and refugee bans. I urge you to do everything in your power to see that the administration resettle at least the 45,000 refugees they have promised to resettle in 2018 and urge the administration to commit to resettling at least 75,000 in 2019. Resettlement is a core American legacy that allows refugees to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. My community welcomes refugees, and I urge you to reflect the best of our nation by supporting the refugee resettlement program.
We interviewed two Karen brothers, Luay K. and Luay G. for this week’s Ithacan Immigrant. The brothers lived in a refugee camp from 1997 – 2015 on the Thai/Burmese border and were resettled in Ithaca where they had family ties. They came to ISP to access our legal services in order to adjust their status from refugees to legal permanent residents. Since this is our first Ithacan Immigrant post for 2018, we wanted to wish Luay K, Luay G, and our other immigrant clients, Happy New Year!
ISP: Why did you come to the US?
LK: We lived in a refugee camp and didn’t have freedom to go outside.
LG: I wanted to know about America and to have a better education. I wanted to make a new life. We lived in a refugee camp and we couldn’t go anywhere there. We were afraid to go outside.
ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?
LK: Because I have family here.
LG: (same answer)
ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?
LK: There was a lot of snow so I didn’t want to go outside.
LG: There was a lot of snow so I thought this place was no good. Now I love it here because I feel like it’s better than any other place.
ISP: What is your favorite American food?
LK: Pepperoni Pizza – I like to go to Pizza Aroma
LG: Pepperoni Pizza – I like Pizza Aroma, too.
ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?
LK: I only go to Walmart.
LG: Aldi’s because it’s a little bit cheaper.
ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?
LK: In the refugee camp when you want to buy something you don’t need a car. Here you need a car to buy something.
LG: The weather, the culture, everything is different. With Karen people, everybody is like family and everyone stay in one house. Here you go to your job, you have different houses. In the refugee camps if you want to communicate with people you don’t have to use the phone, you just yell and they hear you.
Here’s where we stand for now with the travel ban:
Nationals from six majority Muslim countries are barred for 90 days. Those countries include Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Libya.
Refugees from anywhere are barred from entering the US for 120 days, and absent special circumstances, the total number of refugees is capped at 50,000. That number is half of what it was last year, and has already been reached.
There is one exception, however: the ban does not apply to someone who has a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity” in the United States. Standard immigration rules and procedures apply in that situation.
Things did not always look this way. The underlying Executive Order issued on January 25 has gone through two White House revisions, multiple agency interpretations, and a constant volley of legal challenges played out in courts across the country. And we’re still not done. The Supreme Court addressed the ban twice already, but won’t decide whether it is constitutional until next term.
This uncertainty is holding an untold number of people hostage to the possibility they’ll forever be separated from their families in the US, or denied the new life they were promised, far from the deprivations of a refugee camp or the ravages of a war zone.
Seven months have passed since the original Executive Order went into effect, and a final ruling on its constitutionality might come as late as next May. In the meantime, background checks will expire. Travel windows will close. Indeed, many already have. In the end, many people will have their right to enter the US affirmed, but will have lost the opportunity to do so.
Here’s a quick snapshot of how we got from A to B.
The original Executive Order temporarily barred entry for all refugees, and nationals of seven Muslim countries – the six countries mentioned above, plus Iraq. It banned refugees from Syria indefinitely. The ban applied equally to US Permanent Residents, visa holders, and visa applicants. “Religious minorities” were exempt though, which in practice meant that Christians could come in, but Muslims could not. The ban went into effect immediately, without customary advance notice to consulates abroad or customs and immigration officials at US ports of entry. Upon receiving word for the Order, the State Department immediately cancelled tens of thousands of visas.
Overnight, US airports became a holding ground for foreign travelers who learned upon landing that the law had changed mid-flight. Among them were Iraq and Afghan nationals admitted under a special visa program aiding people who worked for the US military during the wars in their home country. A grandmother from Iran was detained at LAX, even though she held a travel visa to visit her children, who happen to be US citizens. Two brothers, US permanent residents originally from Yemen, hoped to reunite with their father, a US citizen living in Michigan. Instead, they were handcuffed at Dulles, and forced to surrender their immigration documents before being put on a plane to Ethiopia.
Lawyers were initially prevented from even speaking to people who needed their help, but eventually secured relief in some of these cases. The fate of other travelers who were turned back remains unknown.
Those first days were marked by chaos and uncertainty, because who stayed and who went back turned for the most part on where and when the plane landed. Emergency orders in Massachusetts and New York stayed parts of the Executive Order, but only in their respective jurisdictions. Plus, each case produced different outcomes, depending on exactly what happened and who was involved. Courts would eventually have to address whether the Constitution’s executive authority allowed the President to target Muslims at the border, but the question until then was simply whether people being detained or turned back experienced an “immediate and irreparable harm.”
On February 3, a judge in Seattle, Washington halted the entire Executive Order nationwide. US gateways resumed normal operations, and Consulates abroad continued processing visa applications from affected countries. Refugee agencies authorized by the Department of State to resettle new arrivals reaffirmed their readiness and commitment. It was an unquestionable victory, yet anyone hoping to enter the US was advised to board a plane and get through the gate fast. The ruling re-set the status quo, but everyone feared it would be reversed on appeal.
Ultimately, though, that decision was upheld, and nationwide, the number of strikes against the Executive Order piled up. As doubts about the constitutionality of the ban came into focus, the Trump Administration announced that it would work on a revision instead of appeal to the Supreme Court. This meant more uncertainty for travelers and family members while they waited for fate to unfold.
The second Executive Order did provide some relief. Iraq was removed from the list of targeted countries, as were restrictions on Permanent Residents and current visa holders. But the Administration insisted on barring nationals from the remaining six Muslim countries, despite thin objective support for the “national security” rationale it offered.
Moreover, Syrian refugees wound not be singled out permanently, but would now face the same 120 day ban as refugees from other countries. But that didn’t answer the question of why refugees were even targeted in the name of national security when they are the most vetted category of travelers in the world. Finally, the exception for “minority religions” that favored Christians was removed, but that just broadened the scope of an already overly-expansive ban, and looked like a pre-text for answering claims that anti-Muslim bias poisoned the over-arching scheme.
The modified Executive Order was blocked before it even went into effect, but the Supreme Court revived it three months later subject to the “bona fide” US relationship exception the Court itself invented. A later decision clarified that extended family members (such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) were exempt, contrary to the Administration’s narrower take, but declined to clarify where Resettlement Agencies fit. Whether their work on behalf of refugees is enough to establish a “bona fide relationship” is now before a lower court. In the meantime, however, the answer is no.
This legal back and forth is emotionally devastating to people trying to figure out if they are affected by the ban or not. One day they’re admissible, the next day they are not.
It’s also difficult for community organizations and lawyers to advocate on their behalf when the rules are constantly changing, or written in a way that is nearly impossible to understand.
Take refugees, for example. We know from the latest round of judicial decisions that a formal assurance of assistance from an authorized Resettlement Agency does not exempt refugees from the travel ban. Prior to that, however, here’s how the State Department explained the “bona fide relationship” exception:
A refugee who has a relationship with an entity in the United States that is formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course will be considered to have a credible claim to a bona fide relationship with that entity upon presentation of sufficient documentation or other verifiable information supporting that claim. The fact that a resettlement agency in the United States has provided a formal assurance for a refugee seeking admission, however, it not sufficient in and of itself to establish a qualifying relationship for that refugee with an entity in the United States.
By way of background, I am a lawyer, with decades of experience making sense of arcane legal jargon. I know what certain words and expressions mean in context, and can figure out the law’s reach based on how it evolves over time. But I was stumped.
What’s the difference, I thought, between a relationship that is “‘formal, documented and formed in the ordinary course,” and one based on a “‘formal assurance?” Refugees signed plenty of paperwork, so maybe that’s what exempted them from the ban – something they signed for the Resettlement Agency.
But the forms are typically signed well after a refugee enters the US and settles into a new home – sometimes days later, during a process called “orientation.” But to sidestep the ban, the “bona fide relationship” had to be established before arriving, so straining to figure out exactly when the paperwork was signed after arriving didn’t make sense. Nothing is signed between the refugee and Resettlement agency before the plane lands.
On the other hand, maybe the regulations meant to distinguish, not the nature of a Resettlement Agency’s relationship to a refugee, but whether some other entity besides the Resettlement Agency was involved – an entity that offered more than “formal assurances,” when the refugee was still being processed abroad. None of this was clear from a plain reading of the guidance, and if I couldn’t make sense of it as an American lawyer, how could a refugee from another country understand.
As of today, we know that a refugee will not be granted admission to the US based on the assurance of an authorized Refugee Resettlement agency. But the State Department faces continuing pressure to revise its guidelines, and more litigation is expected until they do. Nothing is certain until the Supreme Court decides the case next term. It’s all as stable as quicksand.
On World Refugee Day, held every year on June 20th, the perseverance of millions of refugees is celebrated. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has a digital toolkit available online where the pubic can show their support for families forced to flee. We recently received the following correspondence and were asked to share it. Please consider taking a moment to sign UNHCR’s petition to show solidarity and empathy for people forced to flee.
With World Refugee Day approaching, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, would like to share our #WithRefugees digital toolkit, which contains stories and content that we hope you will consider sharing with your networks.
With more people fleeing war and persecution than ever before, we are asking supporters to stand #WithRefugees and help create concrete solutions for the global refugee crisis. This year, we continue the #WithRefugees campaign and petition as a way for the public to show their solidarity with and empathy for people forced to flee. The petition calls on governments to make sure all refugee children get an education, all refugee families have somewhere safe to live, and every refugee can work or learn new skills to support their families.
In the toolkit you will find the story of Ekhlas, a resettled refugee originally from Sudan. Despite missing two years of school while living in exile, Ekhlas is a grad student who gives back to her new community in Portland, Maine, as a volunteer English teacher. At the end of the toolkit, you will find additional stories about refugees around the world, ways to share them on social media, and ways to engage with UNHCR.
The World Refugee Day website is www.withrefugees.org.
The toolkit contains:
- Social media macros and video featuring Ekhlas, a resettled refugee originally from Sudan
- Information about the Twitter hashtag emoji for World Refugee Day
- Links to stories featuring refugees from various global refugee situations
- Information on the #WithRefugees petition
Many thanks in advance for your help in amplifying World Refugee Day and the #WithRefugees campaign. If your agency has created materials for World Refugee Day, we would like to learn more about your outreach and how we might be able to promote your work.
While Catholic Charities awaits final confirmation from the State Department on our status to be a site that offers refugee resettlement services, we were pleased to participate in an interview with the Ithaca Week to discuss the steps we are taking to implement services in order to launch this program. We’d like to acknowledge IC students Aiden Quigley (’18) and Kyle Stewart (’18) for their part in helping us get the word out to the community about the refugees we will be serving and the services they will receive as we help them start new lives in Ithaca. We are also pleased to see the passion that is portrayed by Salma Shitia (’18 Cornell) in the video and appreciate that that she and other volunteers from Ithaca Welcomes Refugees are truly committed to ensure Ithaca is indeed a welcoming place.
The above video was originally published in conjunction with this article.
I recently met with Hser Blut (pictured left) and Bailtal (pictured right), who came to the US in 2011 and are now applying to be US citizens. Both young men have a lot in common. Not only are they cousins, but both are pursuing accounting degrees in college, both came to the US as refugees from Burma and both are applying for citizenship with their mothers. This last similarity – applying for citizenship with their mothers – really resonated with me. As someone who recently celebrated Mother’s Day with a son who is similar to their ages, I was touched by how both of them were taking the lead role in helping their mothers navigate their way through the citizenship process.
I was hoping to post this on or near May 8th – the day Mother’s Day was celebrated this year in the US, Burma, and many other countries around the world. But I’m a bit late. Still, I want to take the opportunity to pay a tribute to the mothers who have resettled in the US as refugees and to acknowledge the hard journey they had to take to get their families to where they are today. It is a well-known fact how painful going through the refugee experience can be on refugee women and their children and the high incidences of trauma, grief and loss that is often associated with the process. So when I saw these two young men accompanying their mothers to their appointments with me, it moved me and made me think how fortunate all of them were to be going through the citizenship process together.
During our appointments, it was clear both sons had better English speaking skills and therefore often answered questions I directed to their mothers. However, they both expressed they had confidence in their mothers’ ability to be successful through the citizenship process. Bailtal stated he hoped to give his mother confidence as she learns the English necessary to take the civics test. He said he can’t wait for them both to have the “right to talk, to express [their] ideas, and to vote.” Hser Blut described how even though he spent most of his childhood in Mae La Oon refugee camp in Thailand he came away with pretty good memories of his time spent there. He realizes how his mother and the other adults shielded him and the other children from worrying about the uncertainty of what was happening with their lives since they lived there for close to a decade.
It was gratifying to see these two mother and son duos and to reflect on how their life experiences are about to include becoming US citizens together. This not only shows a lot of resiliency and determination on their part, but also reflects on how connected and interdependent they are on each other. Even though Mother’s Day 2016 is behind us, I still wanted to acknowledge those refugee women who are mothers and how admirable it is they managed to get their families resettled in a safe environment. And at the same time I want to say how heartening it was to have Hser Blut and Bailtal come to my office so I got a chance to see first-hand how caring and protective they were of their mothers.
This quote by Pope Francis properly and thoroughly introduces where American stands currently within the global Syrian refugee crisis. The chance to prevent or halt the problem has passed; what we must now turn to is how we will interpret and react to the situation and the decisions we will make. Will we stand idly by while millions are displaced, under-clothed, and starving as they are left in the elements to winters’ cold? It should remain forefront in our minds that these are the victims of the atrocities being committed in their native countries. Left with no recourse beyond violent subjugation or the dangerous trek to the safety of Europe these families risk their lives and all they hold dear for the smallest chance of safety. That is the level to which conditions have developed, where it is preferred to risk your children’s lives upon freezing black sea’s in rafts rather than stay another day in abject fear. When faced with that mentality it is appalling that some would react aggressively to bar their entry into a safe haven when it can be so easily provided. To do so is to in a very real sense turn a destitute mother with an infant away from your door in the middle of winter. We have the capability and resources available to help and it’s critical not only for the victims, but to be able to hold any semblance of a national morality or ethics.
Now, however, this should by no means be a blanket welcome granted to any and all who claim refugee status. With the rise of twisted groups such as ISIS and their grotesque use of terrorist attacks targeting citizens, together with its capability of operating with small cells, presents real and pressing danger to the US. After seeing the aftermath of atrocities such as in Paris and Beirut, a small part of the anti-immigrant sentiment can be understood and the illogical fear it stems from. Americans want to be safe, to do all they can to protect their families; just as the refugees do. What needs to be disseminated more effectively is that no one is proposing to bring all of the refugees without security checks. The refugees are first subjected to interviews by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). After being referred by UNHCR, they undergo a barrage of checks ranging from a 1 on 1 interview with homeland security operatives to a number of other intelligence agency screenings. Many of them are coming from refugee camps and areas and have been monitored for years by UN personnel. Finally, another point is the importance of demographics; only 2% of the Syrian refugees arriving in the US are “military-aged men” according to the state department, and those are just as thoroughly vetted and processed. The rest are mothers, small children, the elderly: essentially the helpless searching for any kind of sanctuary.
We are a nation of immigrants, built upon them and strengthened by them. Each and every refugee or migrant influx through history has been met with suspicion by those already established, yet each time they in turn did great things for our nation. We cannot turn from that reality; the prey of violent extremists are begging for help, and the United States and world should answer.
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.
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.”
In the US, when a teen passes the driver’s permit test and then gets a license, it often signifies a rite of passage that is associated with a clear path toward adulthood. It is also a sign that a level of independence and freedom are on the horizon and within reach. Passing the permit test and getting a license for adult immigrants or refugees who are actively resettling their lives in the US can also be seen as a rite of passage, although in a different way. While they too are gaining more independence and freedom, this rite of passage has nothing to do with adulthood – instead it is often associated with immigrant integration and advancement towards a successful resettlement. Learning to drive can be a rite of passage because it is a major step toward both.
For Ithacan immigrants, taking on the challenging task of learning to drive is often a necessity because of the rural, remote area we live in. In Tompkins County and the surrounding area, public transportation options are limited and sometimes not even a viable option. For an early English learner, starting the process of becoming a driver can be quite daunting because of the vocabulary needed to pass the driver’s permit test. Therefore, when Joe Schill contacted ISP and said he was a retired social studies teacher who had some limited Russian language skills and wanted to volunteer for us, asking him to take on the challenge of teaching the terms and concepts to early English learners who needed to pass the DMV permit test seemed like a perfect fit.
Thanks to Joe, a small, determined group of students now gather weekly at Catholic Charities on Thursday mornings so they can learn the English needed to pass the permit test. The current group of students attending Joe’s class (pictured above) mainly consists of refugees from either Burma or Cambodia who are in the early stages of learning English. For most of them, especially those who are coming from countries in Southeast Asia, driving a motor vehicle was something they never did in their home countries, unless it was some sort of scooter or motor bike. As I was taking their pictures, I asked the group if any of them had ever driven a car and there was a resounding “No!” When asked if they were nervous about it, there was a mixture of yeses, noes and laughter. And when I mentioned driving in snow, there was only laughter.
According to Joe the more tricky aspects of tutoring this particular group is trying to figure out what the students know and don’t know, as well as teaching a group that has various levels of English language skills. He also related how teaching about questions related to DWI is difficult, as well as questions about speed limit or distance, since many students are used to the metric system. Words such as “blood alcohol content,” “revocation,” “influence,” “impaired,” “shoulder,” “route,” “lane,” “carpool,” and “fine” (paying a fine) are particularly hard words to teach. However, despite the language barrier and the difficult material Joe said most students are ready for the permit test after 6 classes.
Getting a driver’s license, especially for those with a language barrier can be a rite of passage for many and for immigrants/refugees it is a significant step towards immigrant integration. We’re thankful to have Joe who patiently guides his students through the material they will need to master before taking the next step towards getting their license. It’s a process, and there are still other hurdles to overcome (getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, not to mention the roads will soon be covered with snow and ice) but we’re fortunate to have someone like Joe in our community, who can help Ithacan immigrants through the very early stages of this process.
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.
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.