Adjusting to America in a New Land, New Challenges

Refugees from Myanmar, formerly barred from the U.S. for opposing the regime there, are settling in Denver. But they need help crossing a wide cultural gap.

Running shoeless and wading neck-deep through jungle rivers to
evade Myanmar’s military dictatorship enraged her.

But sitting in Denver’s jail for seven hours, hearing the sobs of a
cellmate and knowing only of a world where authorities torture and
kill prisoners, refugee Always Ways, 37, doubted that America would
be better.

“I just prayed I’d be released,” she said, speaking through an

Her detention – after police found her toddler son roaming as
village children do – illustrates the bewildering cross-cultural
challenge she and other tribal refugees from Myanmar face as they
adapt to an alien U.S. culture that revolves around technology and

After years of rejecting refugees from Myanmar out of concern they
supported terrorists, the U.S. government recently began resettling
thousands in cities nationwide – including about 200 in Denver.

This latest wave of newcomers who speak no English and need help
with everything from food stamps to riding buses has resettlement
agencies, on contract with the government, scrambling to meld the
traditional and modern. Denver is regarded as comfortable for
refugees based on experience with the Hmong, facilities such as the
Rocky Mountain Survivors Center and a robust economy.

Yet social workers here are hampered by a lack of interpreters who
speak Karen and other tribal languages.

Isolated from one another in scattered low-income housing, refugees
accustomed to cooking with charcoal and fetching water from streams
struggle with taps, electric stoves, and TV images of sex and

They’re told they can receive free food for 90 days, but wait for
weeks as caseworkers try to arrange these benefits. Job interviews
at hotels and casinos often stall on the language barrier. Doctors
facing refugees and their children often aren’t sure what they

One family fell deeply in debt after an auto dealer gave generous
financing for a fully loaded van. Children brace for
misunderstanding at schools. At one, teachers struggled just to
identify a girl awaiting class whom they wrongly assumed spoke

A father working in a foam factory was left brain-damaged after an

“My friend call me: ‘Help me! Help me!’ I go to the machine. The
machine hurt my head,” said Tar Pine, 51, now living in an Arvada
head-injury care facility with a dent in his skull.

Distraught to be raising three kids without him, Tar Pine’s wife,
Dah Doh Moo, 47, recently wrecked the family car. “I saw the red
light, but I didn’t remember to stop.”

Now she nurses a bruised chest, tries to counsel other refugees by
telephone and reminisces of her simpler days fighting Burmese
forces with a U.S.-made M-16 rifle as a member of the Karen National Liberation Army,
or KNLA.

“We just protect our Karen people. Never do any terrorism. … We
want Americans to know we are not terror people.”

Her mother, Bheir, 87, waters backyard garden vegetables, telling
stories of “crying every day” in what is now Myanmar during World
War II, when she helped British soldiers fighting Japanese

“I’ve been in trouble my whole life. It got better here in
America,” she said. “But a lot of problems here, too.”

For two decades, ethnic minority refugees from Texas-sized Myanmar
(population 48 million) have been fleeing to escape abuse, forced
labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and death at the
hands of the nation’s Chinese-backed military regime. Myanmar is
the name adopted by the current government, which suspended the
nation’s constitution in 1988, though the U.S. government and the
Karen still refer to the nation as Burma.

Congress last week voted to extend economic sanctions against

Bending post-9/11 laws

Today, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other refugees languish
in crowded camps just across the Myanmar-Thailand border.
International resettlement efforts began in 2005.

But U.S. officials at first rejected these refugees because of
provisions in the post-9/11 USA Patriot and Real ID Acts that deny
resettlement to those who helped armed groups. Myanmar has charged
that the KLNA and another group, which have been battling for
independence for almost 60 years, are responsible for terrorist
acts, including a pair of bus bombings in June that killed 27

A year ago, U.S. officials waived the rules and agreed to resettle
up to 15,000 even if they did support armed groups.

“Few people are suggesting that terrorists might lurk” among
refugees from this region, said Paul Stein, state refugee
coordinator in Colorado.

U.S. security officials “have gone a little bit overboard because
the definition of ‘terrorist group’ is so broad,” said Rachel
O’Hara, director of refugee resettlement and employment for the
U.S. Committee for Refugees, an advocacy group.

U.S. officials “have said the government of Burma is committing
atrocities, and yet we term those who fight that government
terrorists? It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Bridging cultural chasm

For Always Ways and her five children, one of them a disabled
8-year-old boy, just leaving her apartment is scary.

First she got shaken down in the hall by a big man for money.

Then one day, when she went to talk with other refugees, police
picked up her 3-year-old, Tah Paw Kwa. He’d left the apartment and
was exploring other buildings. The officer handed her a ticket with
a court date Ways couldn’t comprehend. Children wander constantly
in her home village and Thai camps. Why not in Denver?

When she failed to show up in court, police came to arrest her with
handcuffs. Ways panicked, collapsed and was taken to an emergency
room – then jail.

A resettlement caseworker and members of a newly formed Colorado
Burma Roundtable Network negotiated her release.

Ways now laughs at her misunderstanding, embarrassed. The arrival
of her mother and sister last month may free her to study English
at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School.

Such cases consume de facto community leader Rocky Martin, 47, a
Karen-speaking sushi chef who escaped Myanmar a decade ago. He
translates for refugees, warns them about credit cards, escorts
them to emergency rooms and arranges gatherings at a church where
the Karen hold Christian services in downtown Denver.

“In jungle, we scared. … We were raped, tortured and killed
because the government people hate the Karen people,” Martin

“In the jungle, they can kill the Karen people. But they cannot
kill the soul,” he said. “Here in the United States, good place
to live. But we have to take care of our spiritual welfare. We have
to fight for our soul.”

Demand for Local Food Grows

The rush is on for fresh food delivered by farmers directly to
Front Range neighborhoods – in line with a national trend toward
bypassing grocery chains.

Families switching to cooperatives as a healthy, fuel-saving
alternative today find farmers hard-pressed to keep up with demand.
Some 640 Front Range families receive boxes of vegetables, fruits,
honey and eggs from Monroe Organic Farms, a Greeley-area producer
that does weekly drop-offs in 25 urban neighborhoods. This volume –
more than double Monroe’s membership five years ago – has exhausted
the capacity of owners Jacquie and Jerry Monroe to produce.

“I could easily double my customers, but I couldn’t raise enough
food. I don’t have enough labor,” Jacquie Monroe said.

Among those who’ve tried to get farmfresh produce through a
cooperative but have not been able to find one with an opening is
Melissa Snow, 32, a mother and parttime teacher who is crazy about
the idea.

“I like the whole concept, that it doesn’t have to be shipped as
far – less of a carbon impact. I like supporting the small local
farmer,” Snow said.

More local farmers will have to get into the action, said Monroe,
who credits her cooperative with saving her 175-acre,
three-generation family farm.

Neighborhood drop-offs by a few Colorado growers has emerged as a
new dimension in the community-supported agriculture movement that
began in the late 1980s and, until recently, struggled to gain

Today, some 1,581 community-supported farms nationwide supply more
than 300,000 households, according to Local Harvest, a Santa Cruz,
Calif.-based group that tracks the trend. At least 25
community-supported farms in Colorado – such as Denver Urban
Gardens – grow food for members willing to drive to the farms to
pick it up.

Many of these operations, too, are overwhelmed, unable to grow
enough fruit and vegetables to satisfy growing demand.

Turning away would-be buyers “is really heartbreaking,” said
Heather DeLong, the Denver Urban Gardens farm manager. “They’ve
gotten to where they are taking initiative to be active in what
they are eating.”

Door-to-Door Organics, a food delivery service that buys as much as
possible from local growers, also is experiencing rapid growth,
with 650 metro-area customers, owner David Gersenson said.

Specialty grocers such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats sell good food,
“but this stuff is picked the day before it gets here. It’s
fresher,” said Patrick Winfield, 38, a software engineer whose
porch in central Denver serves as a drop-off/pick-up point for 40

He and his wife, Stefanie, who developed a taste for mangoes during
a Peace Corps stint in Malawi, wanted chemical-free food for their
children. They reckon the $300 or so that they pay for five months
of all they can eat is well worth it.

“And it’s like you’re tied into nature,” Winfield said. “You
care about what happens on farms.”

Small farmers struggle across much of the country in the face of
global competition. The share of U.S. food imported from abroad is
increasing, from about 7.8 percent of total food consumption in
1980 to at least 14 percent today, according to government

“Obviously, we’re all time-stressed,” and having fresh food
delivered “is a convenience issue,” said Carol O’Dwyer, a Park
Hill resident who is part of a cooperative that requires members to
take turns driving to the Cresset Farm east of Loveland.

“But mostly this is for the environment.”

Buying local also makes sense for health reasons, said Suzanne
Wuerthele, 60, a federal government toxicologist who picks up a
weekly box of vegetables a few blocks from her home.

Grocery store fruits in the off-season are tempting, “but I’m
concerned about where they come from. They may ship them 8,000
miles,” Wuerthele said.

The growing demand for fresh local food “is going to allow more
farmers to use more of their land to grow organic vegetables,”
said Marla Kiley, a mother of three who has had food delivered to
her central Denver house for five years.

Farmers “won’t have to sell to the bigger companies,” she said,
“because they have a ready local market.”