By RINKER BUCK | Courant Staff Writer CATHY SHUFRO | Special to The Courant
August 10, 2008
Almost 9,000 miles separate the refugee camps of northern Thailand and Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood, but there are many days Than Htay realizes that his heart is still back in the Mae La camp.
Than Htay (pronounced Thon Tay), 24, who arrived in Hartford in June, is one of about 23,000 Burmese refugees who have legally immigrated to American cities in the past two years under a United Nations resettlement program. It is the U.N.'s largest such effort.
Many of the refugees have spent 20 years in the Thai border camps after fleeing what human rights groups have called the "slow genocide" of the Karen minority ethnic group by the military junta that rules Myanmar. The country changed its name from Burma in 1989.
About 350 Karen refugees have been settled in Hartford and Waterbury in the past two years. But the adjustment to American life can be abrupt.
"My eyes are amazed when friends take me to the A Dong Supermarket [in West Hartford] and I see all the food," Htay said one evening last week, sitting in the modest two-bedroom apartment he shares with other Burmese refugees on Collins Street, near St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.
"In the camps, there is no food. There are no jobs, or room, or rights. I wish all the people I left behind there could see what their future might be."
U.N. officials consider the plight of the homeless Karens to be one of the world's most urgent — but little known — refugee crises. But President Bush focused new attention on the Myanmar-Thai border situation when he met Thursday in Bangkok with exiled opponents of Myanmar's military government. While her husband was in Bangkok, first lady Laura Bush and her daughter, Barbara, visited the same sprawling Mae La refugee camp that Than Htay left in June.
The Myanmar regime also drew attention with the brutal suppression of Buddhist monks in September, and the decision in May to block most foreign aid from reaching victims of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into Myanmar's rice-growing region.
But the significance of Than Htay's arrival in Hartford goes beyond Myanmar's joining Sudan and Zimbabwe as one of the world's most persistent violators of human rights.
In the past five years, hundreds of thousands of political refugees, mostly from eastern Europe, Africa and southeast Asia, have been resettled in American cities, according to the U.S. Department of State. In Connecticut, they are transforming the face of metropolitan areas like Hartford, challenging the image of the state's cities as Hispanic and African American urban cores ringed by white suburbs.
According to projections several years ago by the U.S. Census Bureau, Connecticut will add 300,000 new residents from international migration by 2025. The bureau has estimated that non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders will increase from about 2 percent of the state's population today to 4.3 percent in 2025.
"In America, there are two things you need to be free — a driver's license and English," said Lah Di, a refugee from Myanmar who arrived in Hartford with his wife three years ago, and who sponsored Than Htay this year. Lah Di works at a metal fabrication shop in South Windsor.
"At my factory alone we have people from Bosnia, Laos, Poland, Burma and Korea," Lah Di said. "Everybody is like me — they are from someplace else. But we all love the work and communicate in English."
Judith Gough is the resettlement director at Catholic Charities in Hartford, which has been the most active group sponsoring refugees from Myanmar. She expects continued migration of Burmese refugees to the Hartford area through 2009.
Gough said that she and many other Catholic Charities officials were touched when, in January, recent Karen immigrants celebrated Karen New Year at St. Joseph's Cathedral, performing native music, dances and chants to thank church groups for bringing them to America.
"About 95 percent of our caseload right now is the Karen refugees, and I find them to be a very endearing people," Gough said. "They are extremely respectful, hardworking and determined to learn our culture so they can succeed here. Just watch these folks. They are really going somewhere in Connecticut."
Crossing The Border
Than Htay's long journey to America began more than 20 years ago, during the turmoil that intensified after the present military junta took over in the early 1980s. But in a larger sense, his is the story of the millions of refugees dispersed from their homelands in the past quarter-century, as the first post-colonial governments in Africa and Asia, and the old Soviet bloc in eastern Europe, were disintegrating.
When Than Htay was 4, soldiers of the Burmese military dictatorship invaded his family's village in the Kayin state in eastern Burma, along the Thai border. The attack, in 1988, was part of the government's campaign to control and exhaust the ethnic nationalities that compose between one-third and one-half of Myanmar's population of 50 million. Several ethnic groups began fighting for independence when the British left Burma in 1948.
Than Htay and his family are Karen (pronounced Kuh-REN), a large ethnic group whose members live mostly in Kayin state and across the border in Thailand.
The soldiers of the Burmese junta made targets not only of rebel soldiers, but of civilians like those in Than Htay's village.
The dry season was just ending when villagers heard that the army was coming. Than Htay's parents hid in the jungle with him and his older sister and younger brother.
After the soldiers burned down their village, the family wandered in the jungle for several weeks, then walked for four days to cross the border into the relative safety of Thailand.
They were among tens of thousands of Burmese who began fleeing into Thailand beginning in the 1980s. They continue to leave Myanmar to escape forced labor, executions, rape and loss of their homes.
Since 1996, according to reports by the U.N. Refugee Agency, Human Rights Watch and Karen rights groups, Myanmar soldiers have destroyed thousands of villages in Kayin, either by torching them or by forcing their residents to leave. The people who leave their villages risk running out of food, contracting malaria or stepping on land mines if they sneak back to harvest their rice.
Before settling in the sprawling Mae La camp in 1997, Than Htay and his family spent nine years at a refugee camp in Sho Kloh, Thailand, just across the border from Myanmar along the banks of the Moei River.
Sho Kloh and other border refugee camps, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have frequently been shelled or attacked from across the Moei River by Myanmar's forces and Karen guerrillas allied with the majority government.
"The Karen people were always village farming people but, for me, there was no village life," Than Htay said. "I grew up in the camps. There is a whole generation of us who know nothing of outside life except a dream to come to a place like America. In the camps? I had no rights. Here? I have rights. But my mother is afraid to come to America because she knows nothing but life in the camps."
Than Htay's mother, sister and brother remain in the two-story bamboo house that the family built at the Mae La camp. (His father died there of an undiagnosed ailment in 2000.) Than Htay's reed sleeping mat lies neatly folded in the corner of the main room of the house where he slept. Rolled inside the mat are his gray blanket and two pink pillows.
The fenced-in Mae La camp is home to 38,000 people. At least another 100,000 refugees live in eight other camps along the border. Perhaps as many as 2 million migrants from Myanmar live illegally outside the camps in Thailand, surviving on menial jobs.
In 2004, after concluding that conditions in Myanmar would never allow the refugees' return, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reached negotiated agreements with governments in the West to begin resettling the homeless Karens.
Resettling In Hartford
On the surface, life seems tranquil at Mae La camp. Football matches on the large field at one end of the camp draw big crowds. Young men play sepak takraw, a hybrid of volleyball and kickball played with a woven rattan ball. Thousands of young refugees, like Than Htay, have completed their high school and even rudimentary college educations.
But camp life was also boring, seemingly without purpose or a future, Than Htay said.
"All you could do in the camp is play volleyball, go to school or learn English," he said. "There were no jobs. I wanted an education to build my life."
Through the U.N. resettlement program, and with the help of Catholic Charities and his sponsor, Lah Di, Than Htay found his way to Hartford. When he arrived, he was frail and emaciated, and now he is waiting until he completes two medical appointments at the University of Connecticut Health Center before he looks for work. He will probably find a menial restaurant job at first, but he expects to do better after his English improves. All of his possessions are neatly stored in an unplugged refrigerator in the living room of Lah Di's apartment.
Than Htay spends his days walking the Hartford parks to improve his health, attending English classes and occasionally taking driving lessons from Lah Di.
"I love Elizabeth Park and all the green beauty there," Than Htay said. "I guess everyone likes me because no one hits me."
Lah Di, 32, a cheerful man with a handsome round face, is a mainstay for Karen refugees in Hartford. He takes people shopping for Asian foods at A Dong Grocery, provides advice and helps people to sign up for English classes. He has a computer, but he hasn't figured out how to connect it to the Internet, and he doesn't think his English is good enough to call the help center for guidance.
But he has a good excuse: "I didn't grow up with a computer. I grew up with a sling shot," he said with a laugh.
Lah Di's favorite pastime is taking his battered 1994 Nissan Quest over to a parking lot in East Hartford and teaching other Karen refugees how to drive.
"There are about 50 Karen families here now, and more on the way," Lah Di said. "They all must learn to drive, get their license. I teach all of my Karen friends."
Than Htay has his own apartment one floor above Lah Di's family, but he sleeps on a bed in their living room every night because he enjoys the company of their children and likes knowing that his only close friends in America — Lah Di and his wife — are asleep in the next room.
"That's OK because my wife and I love Than and we are glad he is here," Lah Di said. "Than has no friends here, no cousins. So we are his family now. That is very Karen and he is my brother."
In June, during his first night in Hartford, Than Htay cried when he called Thailand to tell his family that he had arrived in America. His mother's voice sounded so far away and he knew he might never see her again. During his solitary walks around the Hartford parks, he is often homesick.
But Than Htay shook his head, thoughtfully and affirmatively, when asked if he'll ever see his native Kayin state again.
"The government in Burma is totally out of control, and I cannot go back there," he said. "But here I can be in control. Lah Di is teaching me. He says: Work hard and Americans will accept you."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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