100 Stateless Burmese refugees are relocated in Burlington

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 *This is the article I wrote for my college newspaper, the Mountaineer.

Kay Hae belongs to one of the ethnic hill tribes, Karen, of Burma. He and his wife did rotational farming and grew paddy rice and vegetables on the hillsides of his village, Si Khwe in Karen State, before the fights between the Burmese government’s army and armies of Karen insurgent groups spread to their village.

The consecutive Burmese governments have been engaging the war campaign against different ethnic insurgent groups of the country, since soon after the country gained its independence from British in January, 1948. The battles often destroyed villages and farms of local farmers. People in Karen state often have to run and go to hiding into nearby jungles.

However, it was thirteen years ago that the wars forced Kay Hae and his family decide to flee the land and run to the Thailand side of the border with Burma. Since then, their lives had been changed.

“We had to leave our house and our paddy fields behind. We packed some of our belongings, took our (five) children and left to Thailand through the jungle,” Kay Hae, 50, said through his eldest daughter, Byu Na Moo, who interpreted from Karen into Burmese language for the Mountaineer.

Byu Na Moo, 24, added, “When we had to run away from our village, I was 12 years old and my youngest sister was just two months old. We miss our home but we were not happy either there. We had to go to hiding all the time, whenever soldiers came. Soldiers from both sides were cruel.”

The family reached to the border of Thailand, where they joined thousands of Karen and other ethnic refugees who run from the wars. Becoming the stateless citizen, thousands of refugees including Kay Hae families were relocated at No Bo refugee camp, where the family stayed for 11 years.

“My parents have never received any education. So, they wanted us to go to school. At No Bo camp, my siblings and I could go to school run by the camp for refugee children.”

However, at refugee camps, their activities were restricted and limited only to what was offered at the camp areas. Having neither citizenship nor any legal documents of Thailand, refugees were not allowed to travel, study or employ outside the camps and most of the elder people face boredom and financial difficulties at the camps.

“Foods and clothes were provided at the camps but since my parents did not have the jobs at the camps and they were not allowed to work outside the camp, we faced another challenge, financial difficulties,” Byu Na Moo explained.

Byu Na Moo and all of her siblings were grown up at the refugee camp. A new generation was born. She met her husband there and got two children at the camp before her whole family finally moved to Burlington, Vermont in 2008.

Byu Na Moo’s family was among the first 100 Burmese refugees, resettled in Burlington, through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Byu Na Moo and her family shared the two bed-room apartment with her parents and her younger siblings.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program helped refugees from different countries including Burmese refugees to adjust their lives at the new environment during their first months in the United States, by providing different services including food stamps, allowances for housing, medical care, contacts for jobs, language trainings and interpreters.

However, like refugees from different countries, life in the United States did not come easy for the Burmese refugees. They have been going through a whole set of new challenges in the United States: finding jobs, paying monthly household bills and apartment rental fees, and working at different environment, lacking prior vocational trainings and English language trainings.

“The biggest challenge we face in the United States is the language barrier. We are a bit slow and we are not used to the demanding job nature of the United States, which requires getting things done so quickly, but we are gradually coping with the differences,” Saw Htee, another Karen refugee resettled in Burlington said. Burmese refugees employs at farms, restaurants, and hotel businesses in Burlington as general workers.

Everyone expressed that they were pleased their children getting a better education in the United States. After moving with her parents from Burma, Cho Thet Aye, who is now in grade 5, goes to school in Burlington, She expressed that she enjoyed classes and school activities, “I like drawing and playing soccer. I wanted to be a firefigher oneday because I like helping people who are in need of help. ”

Yet, children also have to struggle to cope with the different education system and demanding school work in the United States. Byu Lay Doh, the son of Kay Hae, a high school student, said that he was having a hard time to cope with academic pressure and language difficulties.

“At Na Po school, I could even write poems and essays, but here, my teachers assigned me to write journals but I have no idea what I should write.” Byu Lay Doh considers to drop out of school and seek a full-time job. “I am not happy living here. I would like to get a full time job so that I can save money to go back to Thailand,” Byu Lay Doh said.

While coping with the challenges and differences, Burmese refugees are helping out to each other. “We pray together. And we try to keep our traditions and culture alive by building a community among the refugees,” U Saw Htee said. Against all odds they face, Burmese refugee families said that they keep faith alive and hope the best for the future of their children, even if not for them.

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About Wai Phyo Myint

Wai Phyo Myint is a senior at Green Mountain College, majoring in Political Journalism. She is now in Cambodia doing her senior studies and volunteering as an Communications/Advocacy strategy intern with International Labour Organiations in Phnom Penh.
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