BY NHIEN NGUYEN
For 10 years, Pee Dee Hswe languished in the cramped quarters of Thailand’s Tham Hin refugee camp, longing for the day that he and his family could return to his slash-and-burn farming lifestyle in the country he was raised — Burma, also known as Myanmar.
That wish continues this winter, as Hswe begins a new journey in a SeaTac neighborhood building a life for his family — a mother, a wife, a teenage daughter, a 14-year-old son, and a three-year-old toddler.
The Hswes are among the first refugee wave of Karens, a Burmese ethnic minority group, who have recently resettled in Seattle after waiting for years to get placed out of a refugee camp.
Since the Burmese military regime seized power of Burma in 1962, the Karens and other ethnic minority groups have experienced numerous abuses, including forced labor, relocation, torture and sexual violence. In 1997, the military launched a major attack upon a predominantly Karen region of Burma and took control of the area. Thousands of Karens fled into Thailand that year — about 9,325 persons were registered at the Tham Hin refugee camp, according to the U.S. government.
In 2006, 1,612 ethnic Karen refugees were admitted to the United States. This year, the U.S. government expects to accept another 3,000 Karens, resettling groups around the country, in particular the Seattle area.
With only about two weeks notice before new arrivals are confirmed, the Seattle regional office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has helped resettle the Hswes and a handful of other Karen refugees. The IRC is the world’s largest non-profit, non-sectarian organization providing resettlement services to refugees worldwide.
When the Karen refugees arrived to the unusually cold fall and winter seasons in Seattle, IRC volunteers and staff welcomed new arrivals by assisting them with the most basic needs, from picking them up from the airport to providing them with hot meals that evening. They assist the refugees with long-term needs as well, such as teaching English, finding housing and job placement.
Controversy over “Material Support”
Bob Johnson, regional resettlement director for the IRC in Seattle, has been anticipating the arrival of the Karens for quite sometime. The processing was delayed due to a controversial clause in the USA Patriot Act that has prevented them and other refugee groups from entering the United States.
With recent U.S. legislation expanding the definition of “terrorism,” the USA Patriot Act and the REAL ID Act prohibits terrorists or anyone who has provided “material support” to terrorist organizations to enter the United States.
The “Material Support” provisions affect refugees and asylum seekers who have been persecuted for their religious and political beliefs and seek sanctuary in the United States, according to an IRC briefing. Victims of terror are being turned away if they provided any assistance to a terrorist or terrorist organization — even if that assistance was provided under duress, such as through cases of kidnapping or rape.
Recently, the State Department waived this clause for Burmese refugees living in Thailand, though other Asian groups still caught in the law include the Vietnamese Montagnards and the Hmong — both groups who supported U.S. troops during the wars in Southeast Asia.
Johnson, whose work with refugees dates back to the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1974, urges for the repeal of this restriction for all refugees.
Though Johnson says the process for admitting the Karens has been “very slow,” the delay has given the IRC time to collect necessary items such as donations of furniture and warm clothing. The delay also gave them an opportunity to recruit volunteers from the handful of existing Karen immigrants currently living in the area.
Working with Hswe and his immediate family in September and then his mother in November last year, the IRC has learned that one of the biggest challenges to the successful resettlement of the Karen refugees is that there are very few in the area who speak the language of the Karens, or the specific dialect within the larger Karen group. Without translators, communicating with the Karens can be extremely difficult, especially when it comes to addressing complicated needs such as job placement, transportation or health issues.
Like many newcomers, language is a significant barrier for making a life in America. For Hswe, 51, learning English has been the most challenging part of his journey. Though he speaks some Burmese, he is illiterate in his own language and has never attended school.
“Learning English is very difficult,” said Hswe through a translator. “It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to speak. Everything about it is difficult.”
The other challenge for the Hswes has been climate adjustment. Though the IRC and the Karen immigrants have provided warm clothing, wearing socks, and especially shoes, are foreign to them.
Hswe’s wife, Paw, 42, who is used to wearing flip flops in Burma and Thailand, says she is learning to wear socks because they keep her feet warm, but shoes are still “too heavy” and “hard to move in.”
With all the dramatic changes in her family’s life in the past few months, Hswe’s wife says it has been very helpful to have others assisting her family, or else they would be “totally lost.”
As the Hswe’s settle into their new home, they are poised to welcome the incoming Karen refugees later this year. Now that they have had a few months of living in Seattle under their belt, they are eager to help others adjust.
Finding a Home
Before coming to Seattle, Hswe had no delusions about the American dream — he knew he would have to work hard to “learn the language, to pay rent and to live.”
When asked if he considered Seattle to be his home, he said, “I have no home here, I have no home there, either.”
Like many other Karen refugees, Hswe does not wish for many things, simply a country he can call his own..