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First Weekend Home

From Refugee Camp to Austin Apartment

Tori Marlan

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A new home in Texas
(Tori Marlan)

Our next story is part of our continuing series, "First Weekend Home," which has followed people returning home after a long absence. Today's piece is a bit different -- it's about a family seeing home for the first time. Reporter Tori Marlan brings the story of a family of refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) spending their first weekend in a place they hope will one day feel like home: Austin, Texas.

Just a week ago, Burmese exiles Thaw Thi Htoo, his wife, Naw Lah Hay, and their three children were living a refugee camp in Thailand. Now they're sitting in the back of a strip-mall office in Austin, listening to a volunteer for Refugee Services of Texas teach them basic survival skills, like how to call 911.

"You want to learn this English word: help," she says. "Everybody just say it once: help."

Help is something the family will need a lot of in the coming days and weeks. Thaw Thi worked as a rice farmer in Burma -- not exactly a marketable skill here. He's a part of the Karen ethnic minority, which came under particular attack when a military junta seized power in 1988.

"Burmese soldiers forced me to work for them," he says. "And that's the worst thing, because I don't have time to work to support my family. I just have to work for them."

After soldiers burned down their village, the couple fled with their children. They walked through the jungle for two weeks until they reached a refugee camp in Thailand. There they lived for the next 10 years in a small bamboo hut, cooking with wood, relying on candlelight and sleeping on floor mats.

Now, Sofia Casini, the director of refugee services of Texas, shows them around their new two-bedroom apartment. "This is to turn on the light, for the electricity," she says.

The family crouches under a lamp, rapt as Casini brightens and darkens the room. She invites the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Hser Tha Blay, to give it a try. The girl has trouble with the twisting motion. Finally, she gets it.

"Yeah, good," Casini says. "And then do it again. Come try it again."

Hser Tha has a harder time with her bed. She's used to the floor, so that's where she sleeps. The comforts of their new home impress her mother more.

"In the camp I have to go and fetch the water, and everything is difficult for me," she says. "But here I can get the water easy, and everything is perfect for me. And like chairs, and sofas are very nice for me."

Naw Lah and her husband no longer have to collect their own water, but almost everything else is a challenge. Casini is there to help. "The first thing you want to do is connect them to food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security," she says. "And then as they're able to become more self-sufficient, they may or may not need it in the future, and the ultimate goal is that they won't."

Thaw Thi and Naw Lah will also need help finding jobs, enrolling their kids in school and even recognizing food in a supermarket. Even a take-out menu left outside their door has the power to confound. They show it to their caseworker, in case it's important. Anticipating these kinds of problems, Casini has placed them in an apartment complex with other Burmese refugees, who can ease their transition.

"I don't like to isolate people," she says. "There are different philosophies. But I try very hard to put people where there are going to be other groups of either refugees or just immigrants from their home community."

So Casini has arranged for a Karen neighbor named Mu Mu to have lunch with the family on its first Saturday here. Thaw Thi welcomes her at the door with a few English words he's recently learned: Good evening. Come in. Please sit down.

But as soon as they sit down for black pepper soup, they start chatting away in Karen. They swap jet-lag stories, and Mu Mu tells them where to buy fish paste. Making friends doesn't seem to be a problem for Thaw Thi. He's already met two other families in the apartment complex.

"If I see other people who look like refugees," he says, "I just go and ask, 'Where are you from? Are you a refugee? If you are, we are friends.'"

Their Burmese neighbors prove that starting over is possible. The family is expected to support itself in six months. That makes Thaw Thi a little nervous -- he's not used to paying bills. "Now," he says, "I have my own home, and I have to pay for everything: electricity, gas, water, and rent."

But his worries are small compared to the ones he had in Burma. And he's had more freedom in the last couple of days than he did in the previous 10 years. He marvels at the changes in his life: "It's safe here. And peaceful. So I'm happy to stay here forever."

The family knows that it will take time to settle in. For now, though, they're feeling hopeful. Thaw Thi has found work. He's cleaning hotel rooms downtown. And their daughter Hser Tha is finally sleeping in her bed.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Aeroc
    CD: Viscous Solid (Ghostly International)
More stories from our First Weekend Home series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By kris lazo

    From san clemente, CA, 09/08/2011

    where exactly in austin do these refugees live...i used to live in atlanta & i lived in a neighborhood full of the karen people...

    By Kari Nelson

    From Fargo, ND, 03/23/2011

    Arnold, there are plenty of places in the United States that help homeless people. There are homeless shelters and rescue missions that do just that. They provide shelter and many different services to the homeless in the community. These refugees are not simply immigrants, they are people who have fled their homelands to avoid persecution. Although I truly care about all people around the world, the homeless among us in the United States are likely not targeted individuals who need to relocate to avoid being killed. Also, the United States is not the only country that accepts refugees. The refugee resettlement is a federal program and the agencies who help the refugees working along federal guidelines. You should do more research into refugee resettlement and homeless in our country before speaking out.

    By Issa Sharif Ali

    From Austin texas, TX, 02/24/2009

    Hi Dear Sir my name is Mr Issa Sharif Ali, I am New Refugee living in Austin Texas I don't have Family or Friend here In United States and I don't have a Job Please help me..

    Mr Issa Cell.No (512) 902-5627 Austin

    By faysal sultan

    From baydhabo, NY, 11/06/2008

    i need to go america

    By Arnold Hokanson

    From Siren, WI, 07/08/2008

    Its all well and find to be able to help out another human being in time of distress, but look around us and see all the homeless people right here in the United States that could really use that service your agency is providing. The way I understand it Austin has a growing homelessness sitution on thier hands. Here a worker is willing to take refugees by the hand and help them with daily activities. There are places that turn away Americans because they have ran into diffculty. As I said before its all well and good to help out another human being. Let's lend a hand to families that are homeless right here in the United States

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