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Nov 10, 2015 | Carol E. Barnwell

Burmese Family Arrives Exhausted, Full of Hope

The Burmese family of seven still looked a bit dazed, having just arrived in Austin 36 hours earlier from Malaysia with a brief stopover in Los Angeles. Members of St. Christopher’s worked closely with Episcopal Migration Ministries and Refugee Services of Texas to furnish the small apartment off Cameron Road for their arrival.



With the help of interpreter Kim Pi, himself a refugee only a few years ago, Aung Thang, 36, shared his family’s story.


Aung was a poor, but happy, rice farmer in the western state of Chin in Myanmar (Burma) in 2006, when soldiers took over his small plot of land and conscripted him and fellow villagers to help transport arms. He hoped to return after several days, but as time passed, he realized the impossibility of his situation.


Aung escaped into the jungle one day when he was sent for firewood and, because his children were too small to travel and he had no money, Aung made a hazardous trip to Malaysia where he hoped to find work to help support his family. Now a “deserter,” he was unable to return to his village.


He earned 27 ringgit, or about $6, a day on a farm and spent a year earning the money to pay back the fee for his initial transportation to Malaysia. After that, he was able to send money to his wife, Baung Rai, who had not known where he was since the soldiers took him away. In his absence, with no land to farm, Baung earned about 50 cents a day working for other people in their village and delivered the couple’s fourth child alone.


As an illegal immigrant in Malaysia, Aung often hid in the jungle to avoid the officials and repatriation to Myanmar. Had he been arrested, he would have gone to jail, unable to work or even pay his way out. He earned money as a welder and later as an electrician’s assistant and lived in fear of deportation until he applied for and was granted refugee status by the United Nations.


The family—part of the 4 percent of Christians in Myanmar—was reunited in Malaysia in 2011 and waited until 2015 to receive word of their resettlement.


“Everywhere I’ve been, there is always fear,” Aung said. “I want an education for my kids and freedom. I don’t want to fear anyone.”


Very shy, Aung’s daughter Rebecca, 13, used her new language when asked what she looked forward to: “I want to learn English,” she whispered.


Aung has no family back home and says there is nothing there in terms of possessions, although he misses hunting in the countryside. Aung wants to continue his work as an electrician. The family brought the clothes on their backs and not much more, he said. “I don’t know what to ask,” he said, “but we are so grateful.”


RST works with Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries to provide services to refugees in partnership with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to serve survivors of trafficking. Refugees are expected to start working and supporting themselves within three months, Kim said.


As the newly arrived family strives to learn English, they must also learn the transportation system and school testing expectations, and negotiate their way around health care, usually making minimum wage (because of their language deficiency).


Families arrive with hopes and dreams, shared by the many people who help them get resettled. According to the Rev. Sherry Williams, church members at St. Christopher’s gathered furniture and bought groceries for the family, met them at the airport and helped them move into their apartment. Two Men and a Truck donated their time to move donated furniture.


“It’s a lot of work,” Williams said, “but people are generous.”  Williams plans to make sure the family gets a microwave and a cell phone so Aung can call the one person he knows from home who lives in Austin, also an electrician.


Many challenges still remain for Aung and other refugee families. The three-month window given to become self-sustaining is very narrow. It means many refugees are forced to take low-paying jobs because they have not yet mastered English, despite what talents they may bring. If they need two incomes to pay for their apartment, child care becomes an issue. Refugee adults lose their initial Medicaid after eight months so health care becomes an issue and the children sometimes struggle to keep up in school because of inadequate and interrupted preparation.


But these are resilient and courageous people who have already survived far worse. And hopefully, the fear is gone.