Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Burmese refugee community
John with a local Karen refugee family

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Burmese refugee community

I found the local Burmese refugee community by Googling. As it happens, there is a Baptist church in the Fan District of Richmond, Virginia, where many of the ethnic Karen, Chin, and others attend. The Fan is a fashionable yet friendly neighborhood that a century ago would have been considered the western suburbs. The metro area expanded, and a number of the established Fan churches followed their congregations further and further west. The Baptist church stayed. It watched its numbers decline and its congregation get older.

When the Burmese refugees began coming in the 1990s, they found this church, which is now richer (if not wealthier) for having opened their arms to these friends from halfway around the globe.

I contacted the pastor and explained who I was, and that I was interested in volunteering. I said I’d lived in Thailand along the Burmese border. I said I’d be glad to help wherever needed, but since my Thai language skills were decent, I’d be more useful to a family with a Thai speaker if there was one. He said there was a young family that could use help; they had two children and were expecting a third; the father spoke Thai. A number of weeks went by as I went through the application process and background check, handled by a local resettlement agency.

Living in Thailand along the Burmese border

I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer back in the 1980s, when the first large cross-border movements of Karen and others began, as the Burmese army stepped up its persecution of the ethnic minority communities. In the northernmost district of my province were a lot of Mon and Karen villages. My second year (1984) was the first in which there were a lot of displaced people crossing the long border from north to central Thailand – about 10,000 or so in that year. Neither I nor anyone knew at the time that the situation in Burma, which had been bad for a generation, would get much worse, especially after the student-led uprising and subsequent crackdown in 1988. Now there are over 100,000 refugees in Thailand. Some have lived in camps in Thailand for decades.

I hadn’t spoken much Thai since leaving the country, so I was nervous about that as I drove to meet my assigned family. As it turns out, our first face-to-face encounter was in the hospital room where their third child was about to be delivered. I was received most graciously, despite the unusual circumstances. We talked a bit (very early in labor, thankfully). I helped them fill out the necessary paperwork with the nurses, gave them my phone number, and then excused myself. A beautiful baby girl was born later that day.

Karen and American friendships

My own family responsibilities were such that I was not working a regular day job at that time, so I was able to see my new friends fairly often. We went to medical and dental appointments; got the oldest son registered at school; went to the free clinic; deciphered the mail having to do with Medicaid and met with the social worker; talked about jobs and benefits; filed tax returns. Occasionally there would be a celebration in their small home with 20 or so adults (Karen and American friends from the church) and an equal number of kids in the yard.

A while back we completed passport applications for the entire family so that they could, at long last, make a trip back to Thailand to visit family still in the camps whom they had not seen in many years. But in more recent times, my family and work life has gotten busy so I’ve seen less of my friends. So it was a nice surprise a couple of weeks ago when the father, Saw Wah Loo, stopped by with a delicious plate of pad thai that he had cooked himself, showing off the skills he’d honed as a cook at a Thai restaurant here. I heard about his current job and his wife’s trip to Thailand. (He had gone the previous summer.) I asked about the kids, how they’re doing in school, what they’ll be doing this summer ….

It was good to catch up. I think about my friends often even though I see them less often.

The importance of getting us all less polarized

In my work life, I’m now directing a local refugee resettlement office. It’s a hard road for the fortunate few families who make it to the United States. I’m happy for my Karen friends. They have suffered greatly, had a bit of luck, worked extremely hard, and found a community in Richmond that showed them love and took them in. I see other families whose adjustment is more difficult. Some have had more traumatic experiences, speak no English, have few marketable skills, are single parents, have serious medical problems, etc. It’s not easy to find a church or other local “family” that will give the kind of all-encompassing welcome that my friends received. And I wonder what new refugees think about their place in a country that seems polarized about everything, including them.

Getting us all less polarized is important. We’ve learned a new way of communicating that makes people two-dimensional and foreign to one another, and speaks directly to the brain stem. What I’ve learned is that it’s the unglamorous sharing of day-to-day life that makes us view “others” as three-dimensional and familiar again. We see them worry about money, laugh and gossip, have birthday parties, and hug their kids,

Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.

The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

Learn more
About John Baumann

John is the Immigration and Refugee State Program Director at Church World Service in Richmond, VA. John’s interest in refugee-related issues began when he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) along the Thai-Burma border. John holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration (Virginia Commonwealth University), an M.S. in Biophysics (U. of Rochester), and a B.S. in Microbiology (Pennsylvania State U.). He has served as Executive Director and in other staff and board leadership roles for Richmond-area nonprofits for over 25 years and currently also serves on the board of Friends of Thailand.