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Refugees from Myanmar settle in for first Christmas in Wichita

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, at 11:37 p.m.

Refugee programs

For more information about the refugee programs, contact:

Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry

401 N. Emporia

Wichita, KS 67202

316-977-9276

International Rescue Committee in Wichita

316-351-5495 or www.rescue.org. Link to the Wichita office.

Besides jobs, new refugees need household items: towels, twin-size sheets, blankets, pillows, shampoo, soap, laundry soap, toiletries, dishes.

Waking up with his wife and baby in south Wichita, Saw Moe can feel time passing and the worry nibbling at him under all his good fortune. Soon it will be Christmas, and he is a Christian and an ethnic Karen refugee from Myanmar, also known as Burma, and mentions God in daily life.

“With love there is no burden,” he says. “And God is love.”

The Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry is settling him and his family into Wichita. They plan to make sure there is a Christmas stocking stuffed for them before Christmas.

He has found no work yet. He is 32; his wife, Naw, is 29. They have a new country and a new baby and they want to do right by both; they want to work, save, pay taxes, help the community.

He and Naw greet visitors with hot jasmine tea and small bowls of beans, cabbage, olive oil, tea leaf, sesame seed, chile, tomato salad and tangy spices. “Yu-zan-al-ephet,” he calls it. A bean snack.

Saw was born into the Burmese ethnic group called the Karen. Like many Karen men, his height reaches only a shade above 5 feet. He points to a flag hanging on the wall of his small apartment, the red and green flag of the Karen. There is writing on the flag including three words important in Karen culture:

“Bravery,” Saw says. “Purity. Fidelity.”

Saw doesn’t want to depend on American generosity. In the refugee camp in Malaysia, they told him, as they tell all the refugees, that they’d get along fine with Americans by working hard. Saw says this is also the Karen way. Karen bravery, purity and fidelity mean that a man stands on his own.

“I never want to be lazy,” he says.

In Wichita, two refugee rescue groups, supported by a number of Wichita churches, have brought in more than a hundred people who ran from death and now live here.

The International Rescue Committee, since February 2011, has brought in 90 people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eretria, Sudan and the Congo.

Shannon Mahan, director of the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry, is helping 22 Burmese people get settled, learn the culture and find work. These were rural people in Myanmar who had no money. Mahan’s organization is teaching them that men in America shake hands, that hunting dogs for food is not allowed, and that a $2 charge in a store does not mean that you hand over two $20 bills.

The refugees will spend their first Christmas in America surrounded by American generosity, and the underpinning of worries.

The IRC has found jobs for some of the refugees; Chick-fil-A and other Wichita businesses have hired them, attracted by their work ethic. But the Burmese people haven’t found jobs yet.

Government assistance for refugees, even persecuted refugees, runs out after six months. Saw and his family have been in Wichita four months. He has applied for several jobs. If anyone hires him, Mahan said, they will be rewarded.

“We would like to have more Wichita business partners working with us,” she said. “The people from Burma have a terrific work ethic.”

In the rice fields and jungles of Myanmar, Saw learned how to work. Karen villagers farm the rice fields below the mountains. They walk everywhere, no cars. They share every bit of food and work to keep families alive despite poverty and “ethnic cleansing.”

After Saw and his wife ran for their lives, he worked 15-hour days in the refugee camps in Malaysia for seven years, washing dishes, helping in the kitchen.

He learned fluent English, learned first how to say “please” and “thank you” because he wanted to thank the English-speaking people helping them. He learned the phrase “ethnic cleansing” because he said that is the name for what the government of Myanmar has done to the Karen.

He and his wife had known each other since childhood. In the refugee camp, they were cut off from their village, parents and lifelong friends. This hurt. The Karen people are close-knit. Saw says he and other Karen passionately love their people and their country. It hurts to be gone. But it is good to stay alive.

In the camp after seven years, they were approved as refugees and were given no choice about which country to go to. One day, he and Naw were told they were going to America, to Wichita.

They had never heard of Wichita, but they had heard of America. Saw said the one thing he knew was that America has freedom of speech. This impresses him deeply. In Myanmar, free speech can get you killed and your tribe hunted down by men with machine guns.

When they boarded the plane to Wichita, Naw was eight months pregnant.

They were told that someone from a church group would meet them, but when they got off the plane and started walking, they saw no one, and Naw began to cry. Then someone pointed the right direction to walk, and they walked toward a crowd and realized suddenly that the crowd was there for them. Thirty Wichitans greeted them, with signs and cheers, handshakes, promises of help and words of welcome.

Most of the Americans were church people. Some have helped Saw and his family ever since, donating coats, rides, food, anything.

Saw is grateful, but reluctant. At 11 p.m. one night, three weeks after he and Naw arrived in Wichita, Naw felt painful contractions and told him the baby was coming. They needed a ride, fast, because Via Christi Hospital on Harry was miles away.

Saw declined to call anyone. He thought it would be rude. He made Naw wait seven hours, in contractions, until 6 the next morning, until he finally called Mahan from the church.

Saw says many Americans are great people, and not only because they are generous. At Thanksgiving, their doctor showed up at their little apartment, carrying a turkey. They had a meal together.

Later Mahan, one of their benefactors, saw leftover turkey in the refrigerators of all the other Burmese refugees. As they did in Myanmar, Saw’s family shared everything with everyone.

Saw says he misses his parents and his village terribly; it is sad. They are alive, but they are homesick, and they are worried.

He says he hopes things work out here.

When a visitor gets up to leave, Saw stands up and takes the visitor’s extended hand in both of his hands.

He slowly bows over the hands, holding his head in the bow for a long, respectful moment.

“Thank you for coming to our home,” he says.

He had told a story a few minutes before, about how he and Naw named their new son.

They had been so scared, after flying around the world and landing in a strange land, and now the baby was coming.

At Via Christi on Harry, Saw said, the doctors and nurses took good care of them and treated them with respect. In Myanmar, people in authority don’t do that, Saw said.

Saw and Naw were so grateful for everything that they named their baby Joseph Eih Khant.

Joseph is for St. Joseph, the former name of that Via Christi hospital.

Eih is the word in the Karen language for “I love.”

Khant is Karen for “my country.”

So their baby’s name in the Karen language means “Joseph loves his country.”

“Which country?” a visitor asks. “Burma? Or America?”

Saw pauses for a long moment.

“Both,” he says.

Reach Roy Wenzl at rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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