Myanmar + 1 more

Myanmar: Building a new life

Originally published
Seattle, Washington 19 Jun 2007 - For 10 years, Pee Dee Hswe languished in cramped quarters in a refugee camp, longing for the day when he could return to his small plot of land in his native country. But since the military seized power in Burma in 1962, he and other ethnic minorities have experienced intense repression. Over 100,000 people have fled into exile in Thailand.

Then workers from the IRC visited the camp to help refugees apply for possible resettlement in the United States. Hswe jumped at the chance. Now, he and his family of seven are among the first wave of Karen refugees to arrive in America. They landed in Seattle on a blustery day in November, one week after Thanksgiving, full of hope ... and anxiety.

Bob Johnson, regional resettlement director for the IRC in Seattle, has long experience helping strangers adjust to their surroundings. His work with refugees dates back to the first wave of Vietnamese in 1974.

Still, with only two weeks notice, IRC staffers had to scramble to gather warm clothing and locate apartments in the Tukwila neighborhood, near the IRC offices. As is customary, IRC staffers also arranged for the refugees' long-term needs, such as English classes and job placement.

"One of our biggest challenges is that there are few Karen speakers in the Seattle area," Johnson says. "Without translators, communicating can be extremely difficult, especially when it comes to addressing complicated needs such as transportation and health issues."

For Hswe, 51, learning English has been the most challenging part of his journey. Though he speaks some Burmese, he is illiterate in his own language and never went to school. Now he attends IRC-run English classes three nights a week.

"Learning English is very difficult," Hswe says, speaking with the aid of a translator, a 72-year-old volunteer from the local Burmese community. "It's hard to understand, it's hard to speak. Everything about it is difficult." Nevertheless, he has made progress and started work at truck repair shop, a job arranged by the IRC.

The family has encountered plenty of other challenges as they cope with life in a new country, some of them unexpected. Hswe's wife, Paw, 42, was used to wearing flip flops in Burma and Thailand, but she has adjusted to wearing socks because they keep her feet warm. Shoes, however, are still "too heavy" and "hard to move in."

With all the dramatic changes in their life, the Hswes agree that the IRC has been an invaluable help. But even as they settle into their new home, they are eager to welcome to Seattle a new group of 11 ethnic Karen refugees, adding to the 1,612 admitted to the U.S. in 2006.

With a few months of living in America under their belt, the Hswes are ready to help others make a new life, too.