Refugees happy in Marshalltown

An over-packed, undersupplied refugee camp. Government oppression. This is what life was like for Wee Gay Htoo and Ko Meh, two refugee women from the country of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

After a national political shift in the mid-Twentieth Century, members of the majority Burman ethnic group began conflicting with minority ethnic groups within the country.

“I was 16 when I came [to the United States] in 2009,” Ko Meh said. “My family and I didn’t speak any English.”

Ko Meh came from Burma to Seattle after 10 years living as a refugee.

Wee Htoo was 18 when she arrived in Las Vegas the same year, having spent 16 years in the refugee camp in Burma.

“We (Ko Meh and Wee Htoo) lived in the camp ‘Kerenni 1,” Wee Htoo said. Kerenni, along with Keren, are two other ethnic groups in Burma that some within the majority Burman goup conflict with.

Ko Meh is ethnically Kerenni, Wee Htoo has mixed Kerenni and Keren ethnicity.

Wee Htoo said life in the United States is more comfortable than the camp. Ko Meh said camp conditions were overcrowded, undersupplied and without good medical care.

“The house we lived in was (made of) bamboo, the roof was made of leaves,” Wee Htoo said. The camp offered a few ways to make a living.

“We both worked in the fields for farmers,” she said. “Planting, tilling and picking were what we did.”

For their work, which started before the sun shined and lasted until after it disappeared, they earned about 50 kahts. Ko Meh said that was a small amount of Burmese money.

Medical care was not of a high standard in the camp, Wee Htoo said.

“We only had three or four clinics,” she said.

Rauzi said the clinics that did exist were undersupplied and did not offer modern medical care.

“There was no preventative care and no prenatal care,” she said.

It was not known by either woman the name of the international group that helped get them out of the camp and to the United States.

Hayley Rauzi, program coordinator for Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center in Marshalltown, said voluntary government resettlement agencies called VOLAGS may have helped Ko Meh and Wee Htoo get to the U.S.

“Usually VOLAGS transport refugees to the U.S. on a loan, which the refugees then pay back,” Rauzi said.

Culture shock ensued when the women and their respective families arrived in the U.S.

“I got lost on my way to school the first day,” Ko Meh said. In the camp, walking was the main mode of transportation. No buses, no bus schedules to follow.

“Also, we don’t normally make appointments or knock before entering, where I’m from,” Wee Htoo said.

Other differences in culture were language, hand-shaking etiquette, duration of normal eye contact, transportation methods and getting food.

“There were stands in the camps that sold items,” Rauzi said. “Going to an indoor grocery store is weird for many refugees from Burma.”

Wee Htoo and Ko Meh learned English in English as a Second Language programs and by immersion.

Marshalltown, a community with an increasing Latin American immigrant population, has also received a small group of Burmese refugees.

“We have about 1,000 refugees from Burma in Marshalltown,” Rauzi said. EMBARC is Des Moines-based, and the Marshalltown location is a new branch of the organization.

“Working with the refugees is so amazing, it’s hard to put into words,” Rauzi said. “How much they love and respect their families makes me see the world differently.”

Ko Meh and Wee Htoo are now mothers who work and have families in Marshalltown, and both are Refugee RISE AmeriCorps members.

Wee Htoo said her life in the U.S. is much better than in Burma and the refugee camp.

“Everything here is much better,” she said. “There’s a lot more freedom in what you can say and do.”

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Contact Adam Sodders at adam.sodds94@gmail.com