Our first family arrived in June from Burma, by way of a refugee camp in Thailand. No one in the family of six speaks English but through our translator we were able to learn about their background.
Originally, the parents lived in the Kayah state, formerly known as Karenni. They enjoyed farming in this very mountainous area, raising rice. They were far from any city and without electricity or indoor plumbing. Though they were oblivious to the tumultuous political situation and conflict between rebels and government as they lived their simple lives, they were caught in the middle when rebel troops came through the village looking for food and then the government troops came through. The latter group bombed and burned the village in retaliation for the villagers having fed the rebels. This family, who at the time consisted of the parents and their oldest son, escaped and walked to Thailand where they lived in a refugee camp for more than ten years. They received only meager rations and often went to the forest to search for nuts or fruit to supplement their diet.
The family now includes four children (sons, ages 14, 12, 8 and 6). They need a lot. The children don’t have any toys. The oldest son has a broken guitar which he would love to have replaced. The second oldest loves to play soccer. The oldest boy is uncomfortable going to school, feeling poor and different from his classmates in the way he looks and dresses. However, they are excited to be in America where they are safe. The airplane trip to get here was frightening; he commented on how little was familiar. The toilets on the plane were especially confusing! But despite their meager belongings and modest circumstances they were very hospitable, bringing us waters and Pepsi when we arrived.
Our second family turned out to be that of our translator for our first family. He was very kind, bright and outgoing. He shared many details of his life and was very talkative but his English is a bit hard to understand so we attempted to piece his story together. It was similar to that of our first family. He lived on a farm in the Karen area of Burma in a rural area where they walked for two days to get to a market. His village was also caught up in the conflict between the rebels and the government troops and was burned to the ground. At that time he and his two young sons walked for three days to a refugee camp in Thailand. They stayed there for only two weeks before they trekked to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. As illegal immigrants there they could not live in the city but on the outskirts near the jungle. The father had to move from place to place and job to job to avoid arrest. He worked construction, cut rubber in the jungle, served in restaurants and finally got a job picking and separating star fruit for $6 per day, working from 6AM to 6PM. He lived in Malaysia for sixteen years and married his wife there.
He and his wife and children arrived in the States in July and he is anxious to find a job. He now has five children here and his oldest son had to stay in Malaysia because he was older than eighteen. The father hopes to sponsor his son soon to come join the family. The children include three sons (18, 17, and 12) and two daughters (15 and 2). He is very bright, speaks Burmese, three dialects of Karen and Malay, and very gregarious. The children do not speak English and the two bedroom apartment is crowded.
Our third family came from a refugee camp in Nepal. Originally the father lived in Bhutan where his family had two farms; a cool weather farm in the country higher in the mountains and a hot weather farm nearer a city. They spent six months at each, growing crops that were well suited for each climate zone. The crops were never for market but for their own consumption. The travel time between each house was twenty four hours by foot. This family knew nothing about the government or even who the king was but because of civil unrest the king forced all ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese to leave the country so the father’s family went to a refugee camp in Nepal and lived there for eighteen years. The father of the family we met is illiterate but because of the education afforded his family in the camp his youngest brother has a college degree and will soon resettle in Phoenix. This mother and father met and married in the camp. The mother is deaf and has trouble speaking. Their only son is twelve years old. The father had numerous jobs while in the camp, everything from painting to landscaping to going into town to get the rations. They are very glad to be out of the camps where their grass roof often leaked and where the food rations were steadily decreasing in size. Their apartment was very bare. They arrived in this country in August and initially settled into a different complex where they were the only Bhutanese family. They recently moved to this apartment where they are part of a community and receive help and support from their neighbors.