Ithaca’s population of Burmese and Karen refugees on the rise
For 15 years, Nobel Htoo lived surrounded by limits: privileges due to her parents’ strictness, limited rations of rice, oil, salt and pepper each month, and the limiting fences that surrounded each Thai refugee camp she lived in. She was confined by rules and boundaries, but her fighting spirit ran alongside her as she snuck out of the camp to cut wood in the jungle and teased her mind with thoughts of one day becoming a doctor.
“I spent my whole life in refugee camps,” Htoo said. “You’re in a refugee camp inside fences. You have no rights, and inside the house you’re still guarded. We don’t see anyone who becomes a doctor or anything like that. We don’t have a feeling we can become someone bigger because we don’t have high education or a job.”
Now at 22-years-old, Htoo enters in a café at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, N.Y., dropping her backpack before sitting down, the thump of it against the floor signaling the end of a long day of classes.
“I believe I’m good at math and biology,” she said. “I struggle. I study a lot, but I barely pass. I want to go to medical school.”
Only three years after she left the confines of the refugee camps in Thailand to come to the United States, her life — although not without challenges — seems almost limitless.
Htoo was born in Burma, but when she was 3-years-old her family fled to Thailand as the ethnic conflict between the Karen ethnic group and the Burmese government intensified. The conflict has continued for over a century displacing over 800,000 people. There are currently around 150,000 Burmese and Karen refugees living in Thai refugee camps.
In 2006, the U.S. State Department designated Burmese refugees a “population of special humanitarian concern,” marking the beginning of a steady stream of Burmese refugees into the U.S.. In recent years, Burmese people have made up one of the largest group of refugees in the U.S.. According to the Burmese American Community Institute, between 2001 and July 2012, nearly 100,000 Burmese refugees resettled in the U.S., 100 of which live in Ithaca, N.Y.
As more Burmese refugees resettled in Ithaca, an informal network of volunteers stepped up to help “sponsor” the families. The state agencies that originally placed the refugees were only obligated to help them for 90 days.
“A lot of these agencies do depend on volunteer networks,” Margaret Myers, a retired librarian and long-term Burmese refugee sponsor, said. “If someone told me in 2006 that we’d still be at it six years later, I’d be surprised. It has been a lot more of a time commitment than I envisioned. In some cases it’s like they’re friends instead of people you’re helping.”
Although there is no legal or financial responsibility, sponsor’s tasks range from helping the families with paperwork for housing and social services, driving them to medical appointments, and tutoring the children in reading. In many ways, they become advocates for the refugees.
When Htoo and her family came to the United States in 2009, a large network of people supported them, checking to make sure their family felt safe.
“They treat refugee families just like their families,” Htoo said.
Although Htoo had a strong support system, she learned to advocate for herself. Three days after arriving in New York, she started classes at Ithaca High School and was told she only had three and a half years to complete the credits.
“It was a struggle for me. In refugee camps you don’t learn things regularly so when I got here I felt so lost,” she said. “I thought I could understand English, but when people talked I just couldn’t understand anything.”
She pushed through classes, speaking out when she felt like she should be challenged more or when she was having difficulties. Not only did she graduate, but she also won several academic achievement awards and a scholarship. Now at community college, she is working toward her goal of becoming a doctor. While living in refugee camps, she saw how inadequate the medical treatment was. Her youngest sister fell ill in a camp in 2008. Medical personnel did not run any tests and her sister died 10 days later.
“I experienced a lot of death and I feel like I’m used to it now,” she said. “I’m sad, but I try to move on. I would say I’m strong. I don’t whine and I don’t cry and I don’t let other people feel bad. I stay quiet and I handle my situation.”
Htoo often felt like she had to hide who she was while living in the refugee camp, knowing that she could not disobey her parents or cultural standards without consequences. She is not a citizen of any country, but will be applying for U.S. citizenship soon.
“I don’t know who to say I am. I don’t follow all the Karen rules and I don’t follow all the American rules. I don’t fit into Karen because they treat the girls like housekeepers,” she said. “The only thing I have is I don’t forget my people. I used to be in a refugee camp so I know how they struggle.”
She continues to help lessen the struggles that many older refugees endure in the U.S. She acts as a translator for her mother and other adults in the Burmese and Karen communities who struggle with English. She began work within two months of arriving to the U.S., now she works at Shortstop making sandwiches to bring in some income.
“I train myself just to be independent and not burden the family,” Htoo said.
Although Htoo’s free-spirit and risk-taking nature causes a bit of tension between her and her traditional mother, she is grateful for all her mother has done and acknowledges the hardship she had to endure.
In high school, Htoo began making a documentary about the lives of her fellow Burmese and Karen Ithaca residents.
“When I asked the [adults] why they came here, they usually have one thing to say, they just came here for their kids,” she said.
Htoo is no longer confined by camp boundaries or food rations, but her life in the U.S. hasn’t erased her past.
“I don’t forget who I am and I promised myself if I became someone here, I might go back and volunteer both in Burma and Thailand,” Htoo said.
Kristin Leffler is a junior journalism major who was inspired writing this story of perseverance. Email her at kleffle1[at]ithaca[dot]edu