Southeast Asians in America: Helping a Karen refugee family forge a new life

The Straits Times journalist Sharon Loh with the youngest Htoo children, Juno and Janne, both 8, at a cross country practice in March last year.
The Straits Times journalist Sharon Loh with the youngest Htoo children, Juno and Janne, both 8, at a cross country practice in March last year.PHOTO: ST FILE

North Carolina - My friends, the Htoo family, moved to Chapel Hill in North Carolina less than a year after we did.

But while we arrived from Singapore to start our new lives in America with most of our worldly possessions in a 20-ft container, they came from Thailand with a few clothes and nothing else.

Karen refugees fleeing oppression by Myanmar's military junta, Hsa K'Pru and Chu, both now 41, had met and married in a camp in Thailand. They lived in the camp for years, bearing five children, until the United Nations sponsored their passage to the United States.

At the airport in Bangkok, the family were each given a pair of shoes, a pair of socks and a jacket. It was March 5, 2009, and it would be cold in New York, where they were to arrive.

In fact, it was freezing, remembers Julia Htoo, now 19. Her sister, Jewellery, now 21 and the oldest child, remembers how bad the socks smelt by the time they got to North Carolina, a day later.

But it was a small price to pay for a new life, in a new country.

There was more hardship to come.

In their first week, the family of seven lived in a two-room apartment with five relatives until they got their own place.

The state pays for rent and utilities and provides food stamps for the first three months but apart from that, refugee families are on their own. Often, volunteers step in to plug the gaps.

Mr Htoo landed a job in a chicken processing plant in a town two hours' drive away. Later, a volunteer helped him get a job with a pool maintenance company.

For the next year, someone came nearly every day to help the children with schoolwork. Most of these helping hands were university undergraduates.

"They helped a lot," said Jewellery. "We didn't know any English."

I met them three years ago, when I signed up to volunteer with a group, the Refugee Community Partnership, working with families from Myanmar in Chapel Hill.

It felt right for me to help. After all, we both had come from Southeast Asia.

Based on 2010 figures, there are some 700 to 1,000 refugees from Myanmar living in this county of North Carolina.

Though the Htoos had lived for several years in Chapel Hill by then, they still could use a hand from someone conversant in English. My task was to befriend the family and help them in any way I could.

I started visiting once a week, sorting through mail, helping the younger children with homework and taking them to the library, advocating for them to the schools. I helped navigate forms that ranged from applying for after school care and soccer programmes, to documents for a home purchase.

Over time, things have moved forward for the Htoos. Today, they are new citizens, with jobs for both parents and the two oldest girls, who are in community college at the same time, taking courses in education and accountancy. They have a hopeful future, one they built themselves, but with helping hands from members of the community who asked nothing in return.

As for me, I started out with the intention of giving help but have come away far richer, with their friendship.

This story is part of Causes Week, which returns this year for the fifth time, from Dec 5 to 11, showcasing initiatives addressing issues such as disabilities, animal welfare, abuse, poverty and the elderly.

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