Becoming part of a Burmese family allows one journalist to understand the hardships and sacrifices that pave the road to freedom
In a small, low-income apartment in the western suburbs of Chicago, I sit on the floor next to my friend, Hlawn. She is a Burmese refugee, a young woman, wife, and mother of two. My partner, Micah, and I started meeting with Hlawn and her family this year when we volunteered to be English tutors through World Relief.
As I pick up a picture of her family in Burma, Hlawn explains to me, “Grandma is crying.”
“Why?” I ask.
“That is the day we left for Malaysia,” says Hlawn. It was the day she and the two kids, Kim and Samuel, left their relatives and country behind to flee to the relative safety of Malaysia. They left full of sorrow, fear, and also hope. They mourned the beautiful country they were leaving behind, feared the uncertain passage ahead, yet held hope that soon they could reunite with husband and father and find refuge from the conflict that had tormented them for so long.
It had been four years since Van Bawi (their father) left to prepare for his family’s passage out of Burma. He worked multiple different jobs, avoided immigration police in Malaysia, and was finally able to obtain UN cards for his family. The documents permitted their presence in the country, but still could not guaranty their security, which is why, three years later, they are here.
A large and thin woven mat covers the carpet of the living area in colors of red, pink, and yellow. Though there are two couches in the room, Hlawn, Kim, Samuel, and Van Bawi sit cross-legged next to Micah and me as we rummage through a pile of photos.
They are eager to show us their home, their family, and their culture. They take out a small container of yellow face paint, called “tanaka” and hold it up for me to smell – a thick, sweet smell of Jasmine. Disappearing into the back room, Hlawn emerges with the traditional formal dress of her people, the Chin, in Burma. She fastens the beads, waist-cloth, and vest on me, while Van Bawi helps Micah put on his shirt. We laugh and take more pictures.
The more they recount of life in Burma, the more they laugh and smile. Micah and I admire the pictures before us, only wondering how it has taken so long for us to see them! I almost forget the dark story that led “my family” here. But then Hlawn speaks as she thinks about ‘home’, “We miss it, yes. We want to go back some day.”
The Home Left Behind
Back to what? The land and life this family left behind is beautiful, yet it has not known peace since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948. Political parties and military groups have vied for power since that time, and most often, civilians are those who bear most of the cost and the loss.
Hlawn and Van Bawi both come from the same village where their families were farmers. Until seven years ago, they, too, worked the land, producing rice, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables and raising pigs and chickens. Their kids went to local Christian schools, which extended from primary school to high school. It was expected that they would grow up to either farm the land or go to college and move for jobs in the cities.
Then, in 2006, the military launched an offensive against the Karen National Union, a group of Burmese from the Karen region who want an independent Christian state. Though the Chin people are separate from the Karen people, they too, are Christians in a largely Buddhist country. Because of this, their rights are not as valued, and they are often persecuted.
The military come through. They are dangerous; they kill many people. They take our chickens, our pigs, our food. We are forced to move for work or starve
Van Bawi describes why he made the choice for his family to leave, “The military come through. They are dangerous; they kill many people. They take our chickens, our pigs, our food. We are forced to move for work or starve.”
Despite such trauma and suffering, the family still eagerly talks of going home. “Our family is there. Our people are there.” Hlawn often tells me about the green hills and the warmth in Burma, the holidays and water festivals, even the food that is “better there”. Even through the pain and loss, the country is still her home.
Straddling the Continents: A Life In-Between
In their flight to Malaysia, Van Bawi, Hlawn, and their family were not alone. Over one hundred thousand refugees have fled Burma for neighboring countries due to religious persecution and economic exploitation, filling refugee camps in Thailand and entering labor forces in Malaysia.
But refugee life in Malaysia is not easy. According to Reliefweb, most Chin migrants are men who “live in makeshift settlements and sleep in the forest to avoid being apprehended by the police.” Groups in the cities such as Kuala Lumpur sleep in “parks or the woods around golf courses.” Such is why Van Bawi was at first unwilling to take his family.
Van Bawi worked for years, finding employment in packaging plants and restaurants. In his spare time, he did all he could, making connections and appointments, to register himself and his family to be legally-recognized refugees. Meanwhile, Hlawn moved in with her mother so the kids would be taken care of while she worked long hours at a store in the city. Finally, Van Bawi succeeded in getting his family documentation, and they joined him in Malaysia.
Yet even then, they knew they could not stay. They managed in their one room apartment, sharing a kitchen with other refugee families. They even sent Kim and Samuel to Christian schools in the area. But they were never truly safe. Reliefweb confirms their reports, “Refugees from Burma who are registered with UNHCR have some degree of protection, but still [are] often arrested and detained by the police and immigration authorities.”
most refugees have remained in this protracted situation for decades without a durable solution in sight
Wishing only to be free from that fear, the family applied to be resettled in the US, arriving here just last June. Thought they made it safely and successfully through the immigration process, most Burmese refugees have not had their fortune. They wait in limbo in refugee camps and informal settlements throughout Southeast Asia. The European Resettlement Network laments: “most refugees have remained in this protracted situation for decades without a durable solution in sight.”
Integration and a Whole New World
I have had the privilege of working alongside Hlawn and Van Bawi and their kids for six months now as they grapple with the English language and attempt to make a life here. Upon their arrival, they immediately began to work with World Relief, a nonprofit organization that assists immigrants with all that they need to integrate.
The family is both happy and thankful. They have good friends in the area and go to church with other Chin refugees. They have a sparse, but comfortable apartment, and plenty of food – even enough to share! Yet here, too, they face constant struggles and disappointment.
Van Bawi worked his first six months in a meat packaging plant. The work provided money, but was strict and inflexible, caused a back injury, and lacked clear communication. Unfortunately, for most refugees such situations are hard to avoid. It takes a long time for them to grasp the language and attain to jobs that fit well with their skills.
It is, no doubt, better here than Malaysia the couple explains. That fear of deportation no longer looms dangerous and dark over their hearts. But they often feel stuck. “We have no car. We can go nowhere. In Malaysia, we can go to the city, but here we cannot.” Full freedom, for them, is still more of a dream than a reality.
It is obvious that it will take much time for Van Bawi and Hlawn to become efficient in English. Even Kim and Samuel are still at a disadvantage in their classes. It will also take time to find truly satisfying work, or to be able to drive and have a car. These are all things which are extremely limiting to the family’s freedom. But they persist.
Because time is also the greatest source of hope for this family, and for most refugees. In time, they could improve their English, find great jobs, help their kids go to college, move about more easily, and have greater freedom.
Ultimately, though, Hlawn and Van Bawi hope that time will bring them back home.
Hope and the Burmese Future: Going Home
When Micah and I first visited Van Bawi and Hlawn after the Christmas holidays, the joy and excitement in the family was tangible. They had bought themselves a new computer, and we all gathered around it, eating sweet fresh apple slices. Eagerly, they loaded some Youtube videos and began to teach.
They showed us videos of President Obama promoting education in Burma and addressing the Burmese people alongside Aung San Suu Kyi. Micah and I looked confused and asked them who the women was, and the whole family jumped to tell us of their charismatic leader.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a revolutionary who headed the independence movement in Burma and was killed just before independence was achieved. He is beloved in the hearts of the people, and so is his daughter. Showing her father’s same leadership ability, Suu Kyi is renowned for her courageous and nonviolent opposition to military rule, for which she has won many honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kim explained, translating for her parents, that if Aung San Suu Kyi becomes president next year in Burma, they all hope that she will achieve peace for the country and make a way for the refugees to come home. “It will happen,” says Hlawn, optimistically, “Burma loves her!”
As I listened to my family’s ardent admiration and support, I could not help but hope that Hlawn would be right. Before that night, I had never even heard of the prominent leader in whom so many Burmese place their hope. Now I realize that the lives and futures of my dear friends are intimately tied to her success.
That is the most beautiful part of getting to know Hlawn and her family. I have learned so much more than I have taught! They have shared with me their food, their culture, and their history. Welcoming me as part of their family, they have even begun to share their hope. Together, we hope for a better future; we hope for a restoration of home.
Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch