Myanmarese Refugees Find Stability in Utica

Since Oct. 2016, more than 220,000 Rohingya people have escaped across the Bangladesh border and reside in makeshift camps, just as Kyi’s family did in 2004.

Kyi Kyi was preparing lunch with her in-laws after church when she heard her name called from outside. She peered out her kitchen window, seeing five men sitting on their motorcycles and repeatedly yelling her and her husband’s name loud enough to drown out the sound of roaring engines.

Kyi’s neighbors warned her to be careful if these men without uniforms pulled up beside her home — some that answered the door never came back. Fearing the safety of her 9-month-old daughter, Kyi and her husband gathered the courage to go outside and speak to the men, who eventually forced the young couple to come with them.

Long before she was separated from her husband, placed in different rooms and questioned for four hours by the unidentifiable officers, Kyi knew that Myanmar wasn’t going to be a permanent home for her family. She remembers a strike organized by the country’s youth in 1988, when students from different ethnic groups protested the military-led government, and the societal fear that resulted from her people’s demand for what are basic human rights.

Almost three decades later, Kyi and her family have found the comfort and stability they were desperately yearning for in Utica, New York as refugees – a label they’ll carry with pride forever.

The Anatomy of Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is home to more than 135 ethnic groups, according to the Oxford Burma Alliance, a group founded by two Oxford students to raise awareness of the issues youth in Myanmar face that their contemporaries in other countries likely never will.

Once governed by the Rohingya – a Muslim group that arrived to Arakan, an area that’s now Myanmar, through contact with the British in the 1800s – Myanmar isn’t unique for the heterogeneous makeup of the nation, but rather for the vast number of ethnicities in the country, all of which have varying degrees of differences within them, including religion.

Since the early 1960s (in 1962, the military organized a coup d’état) to 2015, when democratic elections took place following a series of governmental reforms, Myanmar has been under control by the state’s military. Every year, without fail, the United Nations flags the country for human rights violations such as mass murder, rape and widespread torture of certain ethnicities, but the international community has done little to stop the crimes, mostly because Myanmar doesn’t hold much political importance to the world’s powers, according to Utica College assistant professor of government and politics Jun T. Kwon.

The timeline below shows the development of Myanmar. Slide back and forth using the arrows to see the country’s history as an English colony to its modern state – and the travesties experienced by Myanmarese people today.

Despite the country’s change from militaristic to democratic rule, the people of Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya, continue to experience bloodshed. Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and current State Counsellor of Myanmar (or Prime Minister), remains silent as the country’s government and military continues to slaughter and displace thousands of Rohingya men, women and children, leaving them hopeless and often seeking refuge in other countries, such as Bangladesh, which neighbors Myanmar to the west.

“This is a critical issue for human rights,” Kwon said. “One of the important aspects of human rights is that people should be able to live freely without being slaughtered by others. Ethnic cleansing is going on and this is a textbook example of that.”

“We have to approach this as a humanitarian crisis – not politics or national interests. I don’t think that’s going to happen, which is sad. I really feel sad about the Rohingya people.”

Since Oct. 2016, more than 220,000 Rohingya people have escaped across the Bangladesh border and reside in makeshift camps, just as Kyi’s family did in 2004 when they found refuge in Thailand.

Seeking Temporary Peace

Kyi’s daughter, Nan Han, spent time with her dad at the refugee camp in Thailand when her mother taught English to other refugees at a nonprofit educational center nearby.

Han, a first-grader when her family arrived to Thailand, hopped on her father’s two-seat moped scooter every day and drove to school, where she had to adjust from traditional Burmese education to Thai.

Moving from Burma to Thailand seemed almost instantaneous to Han. She only brought a few outfits of clothing to Thailand and her father prefaced the move by saying, “we’re going to a place where our family can be together.” She didn’t think her life would be getting any different, especially since her family was always close.

But life — school, her parents and home — was different.

The family’s home at the camp, like their circumstance in Thailand, was fragile.

“The conditions were very hard,” Han said. “Every day, we worried about the house falling down – whether it was going to be the weather destroying the house or someone attacking the camp. The camp left a big imprint on me. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I never thought I’d be put in such a place – where people are so hopeless at times.”

Her mom, normally gleeful and exuberant, battled moments of misery and bickered with her husband about the move — overwhelmed by the changes, her commutes to the mainland for work and sometimes questioning whether the idea of starting a new life would ever come to fruition. By their second year in Thailand, her mom became adjusted and found ways to cope — teaching and church.

Kyi and her husband
Kyi and her husband during their wedding day in Burma. (Photo by Ben Mehic)

“I felt sad [about seeing my mom go through emotional turmoil], but knew what I had to do – listen to my parents,” Han said. “I did chores, washed my own clothes and did whatever my parents needed me to do.”

Han, now 19, studies biology at Mohawk Valley Community College and aspires to become a traveling doctor to eventually help those who were in her situation not too long ago. Han’s time at the camp taught her to survive on her own and cultivated an interest in serving others.

While Han has vague memories of the camp and didn’t hesitate to discuss them, her mother was reluctant to speak about their environment.

“It was very hard to live over there,” said Kyi as she glanced over to Han, who sat on the left side of her on their tan-colored couch in Utica.

Not making much money as an educator near the camp and fearing retribution from Myanmar’s government, Kyi and her husband sought refuge outside of Thailand, applying for the standing with several countries, including the United States. The four-year-long vetting process included two interviews by Thai immigration organizations and the U.S. government.

“The [Thai] border was close to Myanmar and we heard that some people would come and catch us, disturb us – it was a new issue every day,” Kyi said. “If a country were to accept us, we would go, especially because we wanted Nan to have a bright future. So we decided to move. We needed to go – and the U.S. brought us here.”

Adjusting to Life in America

According to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center, the United States granted 12,347 people from Myanmar admission in 2016. The world’s refugee population coming from Myanmar has seen one of the largest spikes ever recorded.

In 1994, only 40,053 people with refugee status were from Myanmar, per data provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2016, that number rose to 490,265 – mostly made up of the Rohingya people, 240,000 of which are children, according to the UNHCR.

The interactive graph below shows the rise in refugee population from Myanmar beginning in 1990 – when only 28 people had obtained the status – to 2016.

In 2008, Kyi (who identifies as Shan), her husband (who’s ethnically Pa-O) and Han – on a flight with connections in Bangkok, Switzerland and the U.S. –  were among the thousands allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees with links to Myanmar.

A fifth-grader by the time she arrived at Utica, Han had difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S. Something as simple as borrowing a pencil from a classmate caused frustration.

“I was very nervous and scared,” Han said. “I didn’t speak English at all. I went to school and cried a couple of times,” she said chuckling. “’I don’t know what they’re saying. They’re speaking so fast,’ she recalled thinking. Fitting in was difficult.”

Han found relief from her ESL teacher at Watson Williams Elementary in Utica – a Korean woman, who, like Han, was born to refugee parents and didn’t know the language growing up.

When Han was in school, Kyi was studying the differences between the American English and British vernacular, as she was used to speaking the latter. Six months after moving to the U.S., Kyi decided to apply to a job at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center – the same place that helped her family get adjusted to life in the U.S. by providing a home, language and cultural orientation services – and has been working there as a coordinator for translation ever since.

“I felt like I wasn’t very good at English or that whatever I learned was different,” Kyi said. “But I just kept learning and catching up.”

Nan Han
Nan Han standing next to her kitchen in Utica, New York. (Photo by Ben Mehic)

Seeking familiarity, Kyi wanted to cook meals unique to Myanmar when she first arrived to the U.S., but couldn’t find the ingredients. Utica, which now has several stores owned by people from Myanmar that carry products specific to the country, didn’t have markets nor food that reminded her of home.

“The first year was very hard,” Kyi said. “I cried very often, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly to myself. Now we’re settled. I feel like this is my home, but I’ll always miss my home country. But this is home, too.”

Maintaining Their Identity; Continuing to Adjust

Having spent just a year in ESL classes, Han had a predilection for her newfound life in America.

She made friends at school and at church. And, as her mother noticed, she started acting like them, too.

When Han got home from school, she casually sat on the family’s coffee table and gave her mom some attitude, too, as any preteen would, when she got scolded.

“I’d have to say, ‘get down…the table isn’t for sitting,’ said Kyi, smiling. “I want to maintain our culture, but it’s also important to adjust and adapt. We find it important to maintain family relationships.”

Last year, Han was reminded about her identity – during a game of dodgeball, an American playground staple, no less.

“Immigrants – go back to your country,” Han remembers hearing from several boys, reacting similarly to when her mother heard the men on motorcycles yell her name.

Representing Proctor High School, a school that prides itself on its diverse student body, Han was in a dodgeball competition against neighboring schools from New Hartford and Whitesboro.

Kyi and Dee Dee
Kyi helps her son Dee Dee with his homework. (Photo by Ben Mehic)

“Why would they say something like this?” Han said. “We try so hard to fit in with other people so we can be one and united. I don’t blame them – they don’t get it. I hope they never have to go through the things we did. I hope they enjoy their freedoms and maintain them. But that upset me.”

Kyi shook her head in disbelief while Han told the story and opted not to discuss the negative portrayal of refugees.

Han, though, spoke up and gained a sense of confidence in her tone – fixing her posture and telling Dee Dee, her 6-year-old brother who was born and raised in Utica, to put the iPad away.

“Don’t be afraid of refugees and don’t be offended by them,” Han said. “We’re people, just like you, in need of a home and refuge. It’s not that we don’t like our home countries – it’s just too unbearable for us to stay there.

“It’s not all about wealth, either. That’s fleeting during instability. The military can come, take what you have and your home in a matter of seconds. Then you’ve lost everything. [In the U.S.], you can’t do that. In our country, those things aren’t true. We don’t have that [protection]. You can become a refugee – helpless – in a matter of seconds and seek the same help.”

Ben Mehic is a senior at Utica College. He can be reached at bemehic@utica.edu

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