A Conversation with Resettled Refugees (Alternate Title: ‘Yes, You Can Make a Difference’)

I did another interview this Saturday afternoon, this time of a family of Burmese refugees. The kids were beyond cute, and I wanted to squeeze and nom the littlest one, with her chubby cheeks and gap-toothed grin. (Good grief, I was not always like this. Cursed biological clock!)

R, a genial man in his early forties, took part in the 1988 student uprising against the Burmese junta. When the uprising was bloodily put down by the regime,  R was forced to flee to Thailand to avoid being hunted down and killed by the Burmese Government, the fate that met thousands of other young pro-democracy activists.

In Thailand, R met M, a fellow Burmese refugee and live-in domestic worker who had been living in Thailand since adolescence. The two fell in love and married. In close succession, they had three daughters on whom they doted. But life was hard without legal status, and corrupt Thai police extorted from them much of what little money they made selling jewelry and knickknacks in a major tourist city. If they didn’t hand over their meager earnings, they were threatened with violence and deportation.  “I could not walk outside without thinking, ‘will the police catch me today? I am not safe’,” R told me.

Finally, R and M decided their family’s best and perhaps only hope was to start over in another country, so they went to the nearest UNHCR office and registered as refugees. For the next two years, they lived in a single-room house in the Nu Po refugee camp, unable to work, their children out of school, and reliant on UN rations for food. Dependency took a psychological toll on R and M, who had always worked, M from childhood. Both parents fretted over their children’s education. For the UNHCR, however, they offered unqualified praise, which honestly surprised me (and I’m a UNHCR supporter).*

Last June, R, M and their three daughters were resettled in the United States, in a sparsely furnished apartment in a neighborhood already home to many other refugees from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the DRC.

Over the nine months following their initial resettlement, M and R set to work turning their apartment into a home. When I visited them, their children’s drawings and school art projects were prominently displayed, and the living room was filled with a hodgepodge of sofas and chairs, a 70’s-style coffee table, and a donated computer. A Hindu altar stood in one corner, surrounded by Buddhist wall hangings and photographs of monks.  (Like many Burmese, M and R don’t see a conflict in practicing and self-identifying with multiple religions. They are Buddhist and Hindu, and own a Christian Bible, translated into Nepalese, which is mutually intelligible with their dialect.)

“Now life is good,” M told me, “I have a good job at the hospital, and it is just a seven-minute walk. My children go to school and study English. We do better every day.” R doesn’t have a job yet, but hopes he’ll find one soon, even though jobs are scarce in this city, and R’s English isn’t fluent yet.

H, the youngest of R and M’s daughters, hammed it up for the camera with a range of adorable facial expressions as I interviewed her parents. When I gave her a bag of candy, she thanked me in American-accented English, bowed Thai-style, and ran off giggling.  M and R’s oldest daughter, N, told me her favourite subject in school is math. “If she learns math, she can do many good things,” he father chimed in, beaming. “She can be an engineer, a doctor, anything.”

For a while, we chatted about higher education in the United States, the availability of financial aid (I told R and M their kids will be eligible for scholarships and need-based aid when it comes time for them to fill out college applications), and the process of obtaining a Green Card.

Before I left, I saw a small Afghan face peek around the doorframe. R and M’s girls are friends with the little Afghan girls from down the street, refugees resettled around the same time. Together, the kids ran through the house and into the back yard and the bright sunshine of the first real day of spring.

*I’ve come across this attitude in a few interviews, with one refugee interviewee even going as far as to offer an unprompted on-camera “thank you” to the UNHCR.  Not kidding. I guess that’s…uh…good? Yes, that’s good.

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