Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Guest blogger: Tadios Belay. master of laws student (LLM), University of San Francisco
A few months ago, I had a chance to interview an immigrant from Burma who left his country of origin at the age of eleven. This is an incredible story of a young and hardworking Burmese immigrant who came to the United States all the way from his small village in Northern Burma, first going to a refugee camp in Thailand, then to the United States.
Aung (a pseudonym), a member of the Karen ethnic group from Burma, came to the United States five years ago. Aung was the youngest in his family. Before Aung came to the United State, his small village was caught in the middle of an intense civil war between the Burmese soldiers and the Karen rebels, members of the Karen Union Army. The tension between the Karen community and the Burmese majority traced back since the time of its independence from the British in 1948. The Karen Union Army has been fighting the Burmese government since 1949, making this fight the world’s longest civil war.
Aung and his family were subject to regular harassment and intimidation by the Burmese security forces because of their ethnicity. He was not allowed to attend school or speaks his mother tongue language because of his father’s involvement in the Karen Union Army as a medical doctor and freedom fighter.
In 1997, the battle broke out in his village, Burmese soldiers came to their house, beat up two of his uncles, tied them, and took them to an unknown place. Burmese soldiers were everywhere, forcing the villagers to work for them, then killing his uncles and other villagers after a few days.
Late one night, Aung’s father and other Karen rebels announced to the family that they would have to leave the village. Aung had no idea where his family and other villagers were going; they all started walking east toward the border of Thailand. The journey to Thailand was very long, tiring and took a couple of weeks on foot. By then, they were out of food. They arrived at a refugee camp just across the border in Thailand.
Though his father accompanied them up-until their arrival to the refugee camp in the border area of Thailand, Aung’s father did not stay in the refugee camp; he returned to Burma. The family applied for refugee status that was approved after more than eleven years in the camp. “Living in the camp is like being a bird in a cage, without freedom and opportunity” Aung said.
Aung and his family arrived in the United States as part of a refugee resettlement program in 2009. Aung recalls his first experience in the United States: “Even though I had thought about it for a long time, arriving in such a new and very different place was a shock. I had so much to learn. Everything was new.” When he arrived in the United States, the International Rescue Committee helped to arrange for housing and food. Similarly, the International Rescue Committee helped Aung apply for a social security card, taught him how to open a bank account, and take the bus. Within three months of his arrival in the United States, he got a job at a Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Aung was a very hard working immigrant and his work eventually paid off. He progressed quickly and the company offered him a better position. He was eventually promoted to General Manager in the company. Aung views the United States as “ a land of opportunity, and I have so many to thank for it. I thank God, for letting me survive out of the civil war and come to the United States.”
Aung recently moved to the New York and lives in New York City. He got engaged and has applied to be a U.S. citizen; the process should take a few weeks. Aung is leading a happy life along with his fiancee. Currently, he is as a sales manager and goes to school part time. Aung is very thankful for the opportunities he enjoys in the United States, especially compared to his traumatic and challenging life experience at the refugee camp. He now has the opportunity to enjoy basic rights and freedoms, including the right to work and freedom of movement.
Aung’s experience illustrates how the U.S. refugee and asylum policies affect the lives of refugees. His example also shows the American public the benefits of being at the forefront of humanitarian crises by admitting the people most in need of resettlement.
However, for the United States to remain a haven for truly persecuted people like Aung, the country’s refugee protection system has to be more accessible and responsive to the increasing demand of most vulnerable refugees across the world. Currently, the refugee protection system many be generous, but the refugee resettlement program faces significant challenges, such as very tight security checks and inadequate coordination between the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations. Getting input from refugees like Aung as well as refugee assistance organizations would be helpful in improving the system.