Southeast to Northwest


Helen Cer sits on the floor of her new apartment and watches it grow dim as a gray October afternoon surrenders to dusk. Her two-year-old daughter sits on her lap sucking on a Milky Way candy bar, its wrapper still half intact.

“We have everything now,” Helen says.               

The only light in the room comes from the 20-inch TV that Helen’s new neighbors gave to her and the rest of her family: her husband, Dolla Nung, and their children, Albert Pui and Rachel Malsawmhui[1].

They’ve come a long way from their rural village in the mountains of Burma, and, more recently, from the cramped apartment she and her family shared illegally with 35 others in Malaysia. As four of more than 100,000 Chin refugees who either fled or were driven from Burma, they’re among the luckiest, they say. They’re in America now.

This is the family’s third day in the country. After fleeing a remote Burmese village to a cramped apartment in Malaysia, the family has made it to a modest two-bedroom apartment in the rainy city of Kent, Wash., just twenty miles south of Seattle. Washington resettles the eighth-highest number of refugees in the country, and many of them find homes in the culturally diverse city of Kent, where there are pockets of resettled refugee communities found in certain apartment complexes.

Refugees can’t bring much on their planes with them – they usually don’t have much to bring anyway – but the family did bring a RockAmerica DVD they’d bought at a market overseas, one of their favorites. Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” plays on the screen and Albert watches from the couch, mouthing along to the lyrics. Seven days ago, the family’s only experience with America had come from the occasional encounter with tourists or the sugary pop videos that disseminated overseas.

“I still cannot believe we are here,” Dolla says.

After living under persecution for most of their lives in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and for years under constant threats of violence in Malaysia, the family feels that they have at last reached safety. So far, they have only a vague idea of what life in America might be like, but they do anticipate some things: here, hard work will yield results. Here, they can take control of their lives. Here, life will be better.

 But the journey for recently resettled refugees is tumultuous and often lonely. While Helen and Dolla don’t expect things in America to be easy, they don’t yet know what difficulties lay ahead of them as they face integration into Western culture. Stepping off the plane three days ago was stepping into a new world, and the family doesn’t have much time to learn how things here work. Still, they welcome the challenge.

“In Burma, we are scared all the time,” Helen’s husband, Dolla, says from the couch next to Albert. “Here, we are free.”

For this family, America was the ultimate goal for escaping lives teeming with violence and poverty. But the longer they live here, the more they realize that they are not as free as they might have supposed.

As they’re resettled into the country, the family is thrust from a life of persecution into one of constraint. As Helen and Dolla try to navigate new lives in an alien culture, they are bound by the complications of time and ofmoney – and they aren’t alone. For most refugees fleeing persecution, reaching America is only the start of a long journey in search of freedom and relief.


“For Chin people, life is so hard”

 Helen was unwed when she fled Burma six years ago. During her first two weeks in America, she spends whatever time she’s not talking about her family’s future remembering the life of persecution she led in Burma. Her brow furrows and she stares into her lap, speaking of her past in a low voice, pausing occasionally to straighten Rachel’s hair or clothing.

 “In Burma, if soldier wants something, you have to give it,” she says. “They just take whatever they want. We have no power.”

After she fled her rural village tucked into the mountains of Burma, Helen sought refuge in Malaysia, where she later met and married Dolla. After that, the couple gave birth to their first daughter, Rachel, but Helen considers Albert, Dolla’s son from a previous marriage, her child as well.

In total, Helen lived five years in Malaysia after she fled Burma, and Dolla lived in the country for three years. The two married shortly after Dolla arrived in Malaysia in 2008, because it’s hard for women to live unmarried in Malaysia. Around the same time, Dolla sent for Albert, just twelve at the time, to join him and Helen in Malaysia. Each of the family members fled persecution in Burma separately. Their journeys were tumultuous and their fear real, but their stories are not unique. This year, the UN’s High Commission for Refugees reported a global refugee population of just over 10.5 million people.

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, refugees are defined as people displaced from their countries for fear of persecution due to their races, nationalities, religions, or political or social affiliations. Some flee to refugee camps. Some live illegally in another country and face a different kind of danger in their new homes. And some – the luckiest – are resettled into one of twenty-five host countries worldwide, where host governments aid their assimilation as much as they can.

 Among the forms of persecution, from rape and torture to seizure or destruction of property, that members of ethnic minority groups like the Chin face in Burma, forced labor is the most common. Often, soldiers of the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar Armed Forces – recruit people living in villages to help them carry their packs or lead them through the dense jungles of the countryside, both for navigation and for protection.

  When Helen was barely eighteen, a Tatmadaw soldier tried to rape her. As a Chin villager, she was expected to comply, but she resisted his attempt and ran into the jungle that bordered her village to hide.

“I was not supposed to fight,” Helen says. “The Myanmar soldier, he got angry.”

Helen hid in the jungle for hours, but the solider recruited his troop to scour the village to find her. Helen knew that if she was found, she would be killed, and at the urging of a friend, she decided to flee the country.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have left Burma in droves during the last three decades, most of them members of one of Burma’s many ethnic minority groups. Helen is Chin, a minority group that numbers approximately 1.5 million within the country. This largely Christian group lives mainly in small villages in the western portion of the country and face constant abuse from the Burmese army.

To escape, people travel to one of the refugee camps hidden in the jungle near the border of Burma to seek a refugee resettlement agency. These agencies smuggle them out of the country and through bordering Thailand to – relative – safety in Malaysia.

After she resisted rape, Helen knew she could never return to her home in Burma. She also knew that trusting an agent to smuggle her out of the country was a risk, because even though most of them are legitimate, some of them are not, and refugees seeking asylum in neighboring countries are often turned in to the police or sold into slavery or brothels by fake agencies.

 Helen was lucky: hers was a real agent. But while she did not face the peril of human trafficking, she still had to face the arduous journey of approximately 2,500 kilometers from the border of her native country to Malaysia. Whenever she speaks of the journey, she punctuates her narrative with the same phrase: “It’s very dangerous,” she says. “Very dangerous.”

“The agency put me down in the small Jeep with around thirty people,” she says. “A lot of people die on the way. If somebody’s lucky, people can reach Malaysia [in] around five days, but mostly more than ten days. But some people’s travel lasts around three months because the agencies hide [the refugees] in the jungle and then come back later to pick them up.”

  The man who drove Helen from the country gave all the children under five years old are given sedatives to keep them quiet, because crossing the border from Burma into Thailand is a dangerous enterprise. Helen lay on the bottom of a Jeep between two other refugee. Each of the three had two others stacked on top of them. She was told by her driver not to move or make any noise, but she saw no point to the warning: she could barely breathe.

 Occasionally, these Jeeps pass through the border without a problem. But more often, border patrol officers decide to check the vehicles for illegal immigrants – which is precisely what happened when the Jeep Helen was in approached the Burma-Thailand border at two o’clock in the morning. The agency driver had no choice: all of the refugees in his car would be imprisoned or killed if he let the Thai police search his car. Instead, he accelerated quickly into the jungle, tailed by gunshots.

  “The driver ran, he just ran,” Helen says. “The jungle have no road. We nearly fall down to the river, it’s too dark, the driver doesn’t see [it]. It’s too dangerous, it seems like we die already.”

  When the driver found his way and put substantial distance between his vehicle and the gunshots behind him, he stopped beside a river nearby. The driver told all of the refugees to get out and hide themselves in the jungle. He’d be back in a few days, he promised. They had no choice but to believe it. “It’s too hard,” Helen says, her voice cracking.

 Helen isn’t sure how much time passed before the Jeep returned to take her at last to Malaysia. She spent hours – maybe days – waiting in the jungle, hidden as best as she could be, and listening for any noise 

  “Chin people never did something wrong in Malaysia,” Helen says. “We’re too scared to, and the army knows that. But for Chin people, our life is so hard.”


“Every refugee is friend”

 Helen and Dolla fled Burma separately, but meeting in Malaysia was inevitable: the Chin refugees in the capitol city of Kuala Lumpur stick together, usually sharing apartments with one another. Although they’re both from the same small Burmese village, they didn’t officially meet until Dolla fled to Malaysia in 2008: He’s 17 years her senior and left the country to find work in Singapore when Helen was a baby. They’re quick to marry after they meet, largely because life for an unmarried woman in Malaysia is difficult and dangerous. A year after they wed, Rachel is born in Malaysia.

After they fled Burma, Helen and Dolla registered with the UNHRC in Malaysia, which verified their classification as refugees under international law before referring them to a U.S. Embassy with a Refugee Processing Post. Registration put them into contact with other Chin refugees: each day, refugees already living in Malaysia check the registration office for new arrivals, take them home, feed them a meal, and give them fresh clothes. Their common hardship unites them. Refugees say that when they get to a new country, they go find their friends, but usually, those friends are strangers.

“Every Chin is friend,” Helen says. “Every refugee is friend.”

Dolla fled Burma after receiving notice that the Tatmadaw wanted to see him for questioning about a soldier who had disappeared. Dolla didn’t know anything about where the missing man was, but he knew that if he couldn’t locate the missing soldier, the army would kill him. So he, too, found an agency to bring him from Burma to Malaysia.

At the time, Dolla’s son from a previous marriage, Albert, was still living in Burma. Dolla sent word to his son to meet him in Malaysia, so Albert, who at the time was 12 years old, made the journey alone through Thailand to meet his father. Today, Albert’s soft-spoken demeanor suggests a past too harsh for his age. “I do not like to talk about my journey,” he says softly, his shoulder hunched. “My mother said what it was like for her. It was same for me. It was very hard.”

Malaysia was also hard. As illegal residents of the country, the family had to share a small apartment with between 30 to 40 other refugees. The apartment was always alive with women cooking and swarms of children running around in play, and after Helen and Dolla married, they quickly assimilated into the refugee community. Many of their relatives had also sought safety in the country, and those who were not related by blood were united by collective hardship. They built relationships quickly and enjoyed the industry and resources the large city of Kuala Lumpur afforded them.

But their time in the country was marred by difficulty. Residents of Helen and Dolla’s apartment lived in constant fear of the police knocking on their door. A visit from aThai police officer meant death or jail; a visit from a person impersonating a police officer meant being robbed of all of their items. Impostor officers were common, because everyone in the country knew that crimes against refugees went unreported, as any refugee who reported a crime would be deported into the custody of the Myanmar junto government – a death sentence.

As illegal residents, refugees are not allowed to work. Albert earned money washing the windows of cars on the street until he was caught and imprisoned for a month. His sentence in the grueling prison, where he ate close to nothing and lived in isolation, would have been longer, had Helen not gone to the UN office to plead her son’s case daily. Eventually, the UN issued an order to free Albert after he had served for just 29 days of his indefinite sentence.

Helen and Dolla also had to use discretion as they moved around the city: taxis were dangerous because any drivers would take their passengers, particularly if they were female, far outside the city and demand a ransom in exchange for their lives. But without steady employment, no refugee could meet this ransom, so most of the refugees opted to walk or take the bus rather than risk a cab.

Malaysia was better than Burma, but still dangerous, and Helen and Dolla hoped for one thing during the four years they lived in their overcrowded apartment: resettlement. Most refugees do not get resettled into a host country, because resources are limited and the resettlement process is complicated. After Helen and Dolla registered with the UNHRC, an agency affiliated with the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration prepared a case file about the them before an officer from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services met with them for an interview that confirmed once more the their legal standing. This is the most terrifying part of the complicated resettlement process because refugees know that a wrong answer could devastate their chances for a new life.

 After their successful interview, Helen and Dolla’s case received final approval, and their information was sent to the Refugee Processing Center in Arlington, Vir. In Malaysia, the family received the medical exams and cultural orientation classes that marked their final apprehensive days in the country. Then, they boarded a plane for the first time for a 24-hour journey to Seattle, Wash. Now, this is home. Their many questions all point in the same direction: How do we live in America?

“The most important thing is, I want to learn English”

 When they landed in America, the Helen, Dolla, Albert, and Rachel were met by Suiem Vankulh, a caseworker for World Relief Seattle. This is one of three main refugee resettlement agencies in the area, and between all of them, they meet, assist, and advocate for the thousands of refugees arriving in the city annually.

Case workers like Sui Em are the primary mediator between refugees and the rest of the culture, and they assist with everything from paperwork and lease agreements to explaining crosswalks and toilets. Sui Em picked the [last name]s up when they landed at SeaTac International Airport on October 21and brought them to their new home, a dim and dingy two-bedroom apartment equipped with modest furnishings: a small kitchen table, a floral couch, and two beds. Its brown carpet is threadbare in places and mold stretches from the showerhead across the bathroom floor. By some standards, the quarters are passable at best; to the [last name] family, they’re a luxury that had once seemed unattainable.

  “In America, we can have anything,” Dolla says. “We can do anything.”

The family says they’re lucky to be in America. They have hopes for jobs, savings, and comfortable lives for their children. They want to save enough to buy a car, to send Albert to college, and to send money back to their friends and family in Burma, the ones who weren’t as lucky as they. They’re safe now, but sometimes they forget about the security their new home offers.

One week after arriving in Kent, Helen sits with Rachel in her lap, speaking to her in Hakha-Chin in a soothing tone.

“Someone told me if we make our baby cry so loud the police will come,” she says. “We afraid, but we don’t know what to do. We take care of her, but sometimes she, when I’m doing something, she asks me something to do if I don’t do she cry, she cry a lot. I’m worried about if the police will come.”

By now, the family has learned to fear the police. They’ve been told that law enforcement in America doesn’t operate the way it does it Burma or Malaysia, but living under the oppression from these institutions for most of their lives has left them with attitudes that aren’t easily altered.

From their first days of resettlement, refugees are hungry for information about their new culture. Three days before they left Malaysia, the International Organization for Migration taughta handful of classes about America and gave Helen and Dolla a book about American history, culture, and customs. The couple read and reread the book, determined to learn everything they need to know to be successful in America.

The family wants to know if Miley Cyrus lives nearby, who the governor of Washington is, where the largest city in the country is, and what the difference between Washington state and Washington, D.C. is. They want to know where they can find jobs, how long American children breastfeed, and whether the nearby Mt. Rainier will erupt soon. They want to know the complexities of the upcoming presidential election, the history of Native Americans. They want to know why children dressed up and collected candy on Halloween days several after their arrival. They want to know everything about America, they say. They want to be successful here.

For refugees, success is tied to English. Many Burmese people study English from a young age, either independently or as a part of their schools’ curriculums – but many refugees are resettled into the country with a nonexistent English lexicon.

Dolla speaks slowly and deliberately as he wrestles with the nuances of the English language. This is his fourth language, and he’s been studying it for years, but words like “gnarl” and “schedule” roll still over his tongue heavily as he forces each phoneme into place. For the first several weeks of the family’s time in America, they have a few appointments with World Relief and doctors, butlittle more to do but sit and wait for their work permits to come and their English as a Second Language classes to start. Day after day, with the DVDs humming in the background, their frequent skips from overuse prompting Rachel to tears, Dolla sits at the kitchen table and tries to improve his English.

First, he read from a Department of Licensing driver’s manual. Now, he reads his latest novel with a slight smile playing across his lips: a grocery store romance he bought at a store down the road from his apartment.

“I don’t like it” he says of the novel. “Is no important.  But the most important thing is, I want to learn English.”

These first weeks are filled with days running into one another. The Helen and Dolla say they are bored, but happy: they know they’re safe here, and they can buy groceries with the government funds that are passed to them through World Relief. They feel secure for the first time in years. They read, watch TV, look at photos from their time in Malaysia and make plans for their future lives in America.

“We are so lucky,” Dolla says. “We get a new life.”


[1] The Burmese people do not assign a single last name to a family