It's a good thing Maw Lay got a ride Wednesday from his job at Catholic Charities in downtown Hartford to his other job at Dunkin' Donuts in the South End.
He was carrying two small turkeys for today's dinner, and that would have been a tough trick on a bicycle — Maw Lay's usual mode of transport year-round.
Life is tough for Maw Lay, at least when it comes to creature comforts. He moved to Hartford last year from a refugee camp in Thailand, following his brother and sister.
Now he's working to support his wife and four children, aged 5 to 14, scraping by with no extras, save for a rare video game or a decent shirt for the kids.
The recession might seem to be squelching his hopes, as the chance to climb the American ladder is all the harder with jobs scarce and getting scarcer. Some people in his community of Karen tribe refugees, a growing group of 150 in central Connecticut, are still looking for work.
But no, for the constantly smiling Maw Lay, this is every bit the land of gold-paved streets that he and so many other refugees imagined.
"I feel I will have the opportunity," Maw Lay said in the back room of Catholic Charities, where other refugees were picking up holiday boxes of food. "Everyone is free."
That is no small thing to remember as the holiday season begins amid an uncertified but very real recession.
This downturn is painful for a lot of people a rise in joblessness from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent, a fall of $7 trillion or so in personal wealth, and a pre-Christmas collapse of retail spending totaling 2.5 percent.
Maw Lay has lived a different kind of pain. He spent 28 of his 36 years in a refugee camp with no formal schooling, no paid job and no place to go, day after day.
"We did not have a chance to go outside and look for a job," said Maw Lay, a Baptist who taught English, math and world history in the camp.
His earliest memories of Myanmar (The Karen people call it Burma) are far worse than that.
"I remember one thing — the military, they came and attacked our Karen people and they killed our people," he recounted. "They burned our village, our Karen village. I had to run from them. I had to stay in the jungle for two weeks."
His story sounded eerily similar to my grandfather's description of surviving the Russian pogroms a century ago, running into the forest as soldiers hacked and burned his Jewish village.
Now Maw Lay is settled near his brother and sister and their families. His mother just arrived; his father and brother remain in the camp, waiting for passage to Hartford.
He distinguished himself right from the start, snagging a job as an interpreter.
"Maw Lay just came over and definitely had more proficiency in the English language, so we were able to hire him," said Judith Gough, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities.
And his dreams are big: Maw, who speaks five languages, wants to someday be a doctor.
For now, he doesn't have the time or money for school. He's just hoping to someday buy a van for his family. Today, after prayers, his family will "sing a song and make a happy party."
And on Black Friday, he'd love to get to the stores and buy a computer for his children if he can borrow money from friends. Christmas will bring not much in the way of presents, but a nice tree and traditional relay races for the children, using stones as batons.
This is a truly American voice of immigrant optimism and faith, same as my grandfather lived with and died with.
"We are worried, but it's not in our hands. It is in Jesus Christ's hands. ... I'm not suffering. I'm just feeling good. Maybe someday when we are feeling bad, we can complain."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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