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
“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,
“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.”