Myanmar + 1 more

A Burmese refugee family looks forward to freedom

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By Peter Biro

Tham Hin refugee camp Thailand 21 May 2007 - Kaw Keh carefully folds clothing and slides the pile into a plastic bag. Htoo Htoo, his wife, gathers up worn books and papers. Their lives are about to change forever. With the help of the International Rescue Committee, the couple will soon leave their home, a small bamboo house in an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand, for an apartment in Seattle, Washington.

"We will need this," Kaw Keh says, holding up a woolen sweater. "I have heard that it is very cold where we are going."

The couple's belongings and those of their three children fit into two bags.

"The last time I saw my village in Burma was in 1997," Kaw Keh says with a sigh. "We were rice farmers and led a quiet life until the fighting started."

Htoo Htoo begins to prepare dinner. On the balcony of the simple bamboo structure, coals smolder in a hearth. Soon the air is hazy with the smoke from hundreds of cooking fires across the camp, which is surrounded by jungle-clad mountains in an isolated area only a few miles from the Thailand-Burma border. Narrow passageways and severe overcrowding gives the camp a claustrophobic feel.

Like the vast majority of people in the Tham Hin refugee camp, the Kaw Keh family are Karen, a minority ethnic group that has suffered severe persecution in Burma. On that fateful day a decade ago, their village of Taw Ma Maung was overrun in a major offensive by the Burmese army against the Karen National Union (KNU), which is seeking independence from the Burmese dictatorship.

"We ran for our lives," Kaw Keh recalls. "We only had time to grab some clothes. We crossed the border the same evening. Many villagers were shot dead in the fighting. And later cholera killed many more."

Today, there are some 148,000 refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border. In addition, an estimated two million Burmese migrant workers, forced to take menial jobs, are living in constant fear of arrest and deportation in Thailand. On the Burmese side of the border, an estimated 540,000 internally displaced people live under terrible conditions without health care or education.

"The Karen are particularly vulnerable," says Robert Carey, IRC vice president for resettlement, as he walks around the narrow pathways of Tham Hin. "They have been forced from their homes. Their villages have been burned, and many of them have been killed. And there is no sign that these practices will change anytime soon."

The IRC provides health care, water, sanitation, schools and teachers to the refugee camps. IRC field workers also interview every refugee and help many to apply for resettlement in the United States. Kaw Keh is among the lucky ones: his family's application for resettlement has been accepted.

"We miss our village but I don't think we will be able to return for a very long time," Kaw Keh says. "I am happy to leave this camp and start a new life. And I am looking forward to being able to work and earn my own money in freedom."

A few days later, the plane carrying Kaw Keh, Htoo Htoo and their family touches down in Seattle. Also on board are Kaw Keh's friends from the refugee camp, Pee Dee Hswe, and his family. They are met at the gate by IRC staff and soon settle into an apartment complex in the small community of Tukwila, south of the city. Their new neighbors are also refugees, from Eastern Europe and Africa.

"It is very different here," Kaw Keh says, as the family gathers at a table before a window that overlooks a swimming pool, groomed flower beds and trimmed hedges. The children will soon begin classes at an elementary school just blocks away.

A thin layer of snow sparkles in the sunlight. Kaw Keh and his wife wear wool sweaters.

"I am hopeful and happy because I feel surrounded by love," Kaw Keh says, adding that they are in touch daily with IRC caseworkers. "But it is cold."