Where EAST meets the Northwest
NEW AMERICANS. Caroline Lo (left) and Bu Gay put on New Year’s party hats as
they and other refugees learn about American traditions during an ESL (English
as a Second Language) class at Southside Baptist Church in Jacksonville,
Florida. Both are from Burma and are studying to become citizens of the United
States. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey)
From The Asian Reporter, V22, #03 (February 6, 2012), page 8.
A strange new world for refugees from Burma
By Matt Soergel
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The "CSI" shows are a big hit. "Dancing with the
Stars," too. And hamburgers! What a treat. Football, though? That’s still a
mystery, a demolition derby of huge men slamming into each other with few
America is both a challenge and an adventure for Christian refugees from
Myanmar (also known as Burma) in Jim Price’s American citizenship class at
Southside Baptist Church. It’s a place that’s almost science fiction compared to
refugee camps in the jungles of neighboring Thailand, where they lived after the
repressive military regime forced them from their ancestral homes.
In the past five years, Christian refugees from Burma have far outnumbered
the refugees from any other country arriving in Jacksonville.
Count each of the five people in Price’s class among that group. They all
lived for at least a decade in a refugee camp and are now preparing to spend the
$680 it takes to become a citizen of the new country they call home.
Ta Yah Htoo has never set foot in Burma; she was born in a camp in northern
Thailand after her parents fled their mountain homeland.
Her days there followed a similar pattern: Waking up in a bamboo hut. Walking
to a stream to get water. Venturing into the jungle for firewood. Eating meals
of fish paste, chili, and rice provided by the United Nations.
She had some schooling, more than most. "Dad said, ‘Go to school,"’ she said.
"‘You’re a girl — you can’t fight Burmese soldiers with a gun. You have to say
something. Fight with your words.’ "
For 17 years, her life was led in the boundaries of the camp. She had never
seen a city, had never even been in a car.
She grinned: Her life has come so far. "Now I’m driving!"
Htoo, 21, speaks fine English and works at Catholic Charities helping new
refugees from her homeland. "They will be like a new baby," she said. "They
don’t know anything. I recognize myself every time."
She remembers starting her journey to Jacksonville at the airport in Bangkok.
"A very nice place," she said. "And shiny." She’d never seen an escalator or an
elevator; she was terrified of them at first, but got to like the airport’s
escalator, on which she took repeated jaunts.
Newcomers from Burma are often overwhelmed at first by their strange new
home, said Elaine Carson of the Jacksonville office of World Relief, one of
three refugee resettlement agencies in the city.
"You can see it in their eyes at night when we pick them up at the airport.
You can see it when we’re driving. Their eyes lit up: ‘Where am I? What is
Carson said most quickly become self-sufficient — they’re generally eager to
take on jobs and a new life.
Still, the challenges they face are daunting: Those who help them say most
are rural people who struggle with a new language and a new culture that can
seem overwhelming. Some newcomers don’t know how to use a toilet or a
refrigerator, said Brenda Forlines, a Southside Baptist congregant who’s worked
extensively with the church’s refugee members. And it’s confusing finding their
way around a sprawling city using public transportation. Even the idea of
addresses is foreign: There weren’t addresses in the refugee camps.
Bu Gay, 28, one of Price’s citizenship students, remembers being dropped off
at her first day at work just a few months after arriving in Jacksonville. When
work was over, she realized she didn’t know how to get home, so she and a fellow
refugee from Burma walked around the city for about three hours, looking for a
familiar sight. Eventually a woman pulled her car over and managed to help them.
Several Southern Baptist congregations have adopted Christians from the
country, from ethnic groups such as the Chin, Kachin, and the Karen.
The Karen dominate at Southside Baptist in San Marco, which now has about 130
members from Burma, most of whom live in apartment buildings nearby.
Price, a retired FBI agent, leads a citizenship class on Monday nights. He
teaches them what they’ll need to know for the test, like who was the U.S.
president during World War I. Who the speaker of the house is. What checks and
Price also tries to teach them some of the ins and outs of being an American.
In their culture, it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or to give long
answers to questions. But in America, one-word answers can seem curt, he
In their culture, it’s not polite to look someone directly in the eye. In
America, that can seem evasive — so early in the class, he put a dot on his
forehead, drawing their attention to his eyes.
His five students have all found jobs. Johnny Kim, 30, who lived in a Thai
refugee camp since he was a child, works at Lutheran Social Services, helping
In conversation, Kim several times takes the chance to praise his new home.
"When we were in the camp, we don’t have any opportunity, no chance to go to
school. When we arrive here, everybody has a chance," he said. "Here in America
we can make our future. If you want to be somebody, (you) can be."
Though the vast majority of refugees from Burma have arrived since 2006, a
few arrived years earlier.
Sengtawng Maran was in a small group of Christian Kachin refugees who came to
Jacksonville in 2001 after spending time in a refugee camp in Guam. She had
lived in Rangoon, a bustling city, and worked as a teacher, so her adjustment to
the U.S. was not as difficult as some from Burma, she said.
In August, she opened the city’s first Burmese restaurant, Naw’s Fast Food &
Sushi on Hogan Road. Maran offers familiar food and advice to the newcomers from
her old country — it’s her responsibility, she said.
"We have a culture shock here," she said, "especially when they live in the
forest — they don’t know how to live in the city."
But they’re learning, said Htoo, Price’s citizenship student. Four years
after leaving the Thai jungle, she’s got a job. She’s studying to become an
American. She’s trying for her high-school equivalency test. She’s dreaming of
becoming a nurse.
"If I try hard, I see my future," she said. "I have opportunity, a lot, for