The city of Kent drips beneath a weak sun, recovering from the aftermath of a snowstorm that left 300,000 people in the Seattle area without power. This is the first time Dolla Nung has seen snow, and he and his family responded the same way the rest of the metro area did: sitting at home and waiting it out.
Today, though, Dolla is venturing out. The roads are mostly clear, but piles of snow dot the sidewalks like islands between the droves of melted water rushing toward storm drains. He dons his Nikes and a sweatshirt and sets out for the Department of Licensing.
Helen and Dolla have finally gotten their work cards, so they can at last apply for jobs in the country. But it’s already January, and their funding from World Relief is ending this month. They’ll have no money to pay their bills if they don’t find jobs – and fast. While Dolla has a Washington state identification card, the other refugees in his apartment complex told him he’d have a better chance of getting a job with a driver’s license, so he decides the three-mile walk is worth it.
It doesn’t take long until his feet are wet, and soon, they’re numb, but he keeps walking. The buses aren’t yet running, but businesses are open, and Dolla has braved more treacherous walks before, albeit in much warmer weather. For Pacific Northwesterners, below-freezing temperatures are brutal; for those who have always lived 20 degrees north of the equator, they’re nearly unbearable. But he needs to provide for his family, and this is the only way he knows how to do so. After almost three months, he can’t sit and wait any longer.
“I have to think of my children,” he says.
When he finally gets to the DOL, he finds it closed. He stares with narrowed eyes at its locked doorway for a moment before turning back in defeat to make the three-mile trip home. Even though Kent businesses have reopened by now, the Kent DOL is never open on Wednesdays. Dolla never thought to double check, and if he had, he wouldn’t have called ahead anyway: he knows people can barely understand him on the phone because of his accent and still maturing English lexicon. He walks home, his head bent close to his neck, shivering slightly. He’s out of ideas, and almost out of time.
Dolla and his family pay $790 in rent each month, a low price for a two-bedroom apartment in Kent, and more so, only about half of what they’d pay inside Seattle. But now, earning that much money in a single month seems impossible, and Dolla knows that he and his wife have other obligations as well.
They still have IOM loans, travel loans from Malaysia, and electricity and phone bills. Rachel Malsawmhui is growing faster than ever and will soon need new clothes. They want to buy a car someday, and promised to send money home to Burma and Malaysia – but earning next month’s rent alone seems like a miracle too steep to wish for. Dolla wonders what his family would do if they lost their apartment. Surely they could never survive on streets as cold as these ones.
“Having a job means everything”
One week later, the family finds their salvation: Helen Cer is offered a job as a housekeeper at a hotel 20 miles away from their home. The news lifts a clench of tension from Helen and Dolla’s minds, and they finally think, for the first time in weeks, that things will be okay.
Helen’s first day of work falls on February 1, the first day that she and her family are officially out of their resettlement periods and no longer qualify for government funding through World Relief. Working full-time for a wage of $9.50 per hour, Helen could not have asked for more, but meeting her family’s financial needs will still be a challenge.
“I was very worried for a long time,” Dolla says. “But now, I think we can manage.”
The first three days are brutal. She wakes at 4:30 every morning, pulls her long hair back into a bun, and slips out of her apartment into the dark winter morning to wait for the bus. Her commute is arduous: first a 40-minute ride on route 169 to Renton, and then a brief wait before a 45-minute ride on route 240 to work in the swanky city of Bellevue, just east of Seattle. She clocks in by 8:00 am for her shift, well aware that by car, her drive would take just twenty minutes.
With a new job comes new difficulties: a new commute, new paperwork, even a new language. She spends her first shift in confusion: housekeeping is a busy job, and it operates around the hub of a laundry room in the heart of the hotel. The room is hot and humid from the constant whirl of washing and drying machines, and Helen feels dizzy watching the other housekeepers whipping creamy white sheets out and of the dryers and folding them into crisp squares. Helen turns to her new coworkers, asking for help in English. They glance at her quickly, and point to their mouths. “Spanish, please, Spanish.”
Helen was hired through a World Relief connection on a probationary term. Many local businesses understand the challenge refugees face in seeking employment, and they offer a handful of entry-level jobs for the resettled, but not at the expense of their own standards for employees. Newly hired refugees are told that they will lose their jobs if their performance is not up to par, and to Helen, that means perfection is necessary – which is a tough feat for a Hakha-Chin native in a hybrid English-Spanish culture.
She comes home at 7:30, exhausted. Dolla meets her at the door, eager to hear an account of her first day of work.
“It’s not easy,” she tells him. She’s worried about losing her job because she’s slower than the other housekeepers and doesn’t like to ask her supervisor for help in fear of revealing her ineptitude. She and her husband sit at the table, wondering if it’s time her to take on another language: Spanish.
"I still need to learn better English,” Helen says. “I think that is most important thing, but I do not want to lose my job.”
They sit at the table, their apartment dim: only the stovetop light is on. Albert is in his room doing homework, and Rachel is asleep.
They test their knowledge of what they already know of the language.
"How to say, ‘How are you?’” Dolla asks.
“¿Cómo estás?” Helen says.
“And what to say next?”
“Muy bien. ¿Y tu?”
But how to ask for help, how to listen to instructions, is nothing Helen will learn overnight. She resolves to work harder and faster the next day.
“Having a job means everything,” she says. “I cannot lose it.”
Soon, her job gets easier. After three shifts, she has gotten used to it. Ruth Tuan Cuai, her pastor’s wife, also works there, so the two spend their lunch breaks together and sit side by side on the long commutes to the hotel and back.
Helen rarely sees her family these days because four hours of her day are spent on the bus, eight at work, and eight asleep. She hopes that one day, she will be able to buy a car, but that day is far off: after taxes, she yields about $1,300 each month. After rent, they have just about $500 for their others bills, loans they incurred traveling during the resettlement process, and living expenses. They want to save for the future, but right now, they’re too worried about the high cost of living they’ve inherited to do so.
And the family hasn’t yet learned exactly what their cost of living is. Dolla is confused about their electricity bills. Seattle City Light has only sent one bill in the three months since they’ve moved in, and for a staggering $373: they had not realized the importance of keeping the lights turned off and their heat turned low.
“It’s very hard to plan for the future,” Dolla says. “But we are very lucky. I know other people, other refugees, who have been here one year, two years, and still cannot find job.”
“I’m not ready, but I’ll do it”
Helen’s employment ended Dolla’s search for a job: with two-year-old Rachel at home, only one of them can hold a job. He stays at home to cook and care for the house. But he’s used to working; he’s never been unemployed. He’s getting antsy.
Steven, the family’s neighbor, still hasn’t found a job, so comes over in the afternoon, and the two men sit on the couch, making jokes and watching TV. To accommodate Helen’s work schedule, Dolla has started going to the late evening ESL classes at World Relief, so he and his wife seldom see each other.
In America, the family does what it must to navigate a new life and pay swarms of bills, but Dolla feels bored and frustrated sitting at home. He often flips through his photo album from Malaysia, remembering a life that was fraught with worry but also rich with activity and people.
One day, San Lal Hming Thang, the pastor at Chin Christian Church, calls Dolla and asks if he will give the sermon at Saturday night’s church service for teenagers. Dolla hesitates, saying he’s not qualified, but his pastor insists. Dolla hangs up the phone, a small smile on his face.
“I do not know why he pick me,” he says, laughing.
Steven gives a yelp of mirth, patting his friend on the shoulder in congratulations.
“You will teach us all how to behave,” he says.
Dolla is pleased. He takes his Bible and a notebook to the kitchen table, where he spends the evening and the entire next day studying the book of Ephesians in preparation for his first-ever sermon.
Dolla is silent when the Chin Christian Church van pulls up outside his apartment to take Albert and him to youth group. He’s nervous; he has no training as a spiritual leader or public speaker. He’s going to tell the youth that they should respect and listen to their parents, and he’s worried that they won’t respond well to the message, even though Chin youth are generally soft-spoken and respectful around their elders. Dolla clutches his Bible as the van bounces over potholes to an apartment complex in the nearby city of Auburn.
The two-room apartment is crammed with forty people, most of them teenagers. Five women bustle about the kitchen, bringing doughnuts to new guests and stirring an enormous vat of coffee on the stove. A toddler stands on a chair next to it, pouring the entire contents of a 15-ounce can of powdered coffee creamer into the vat while her mother ladles cups to hand to everyone as they file in.
Eventually, Dolla stands on a chair and asks them all to be quiet, and forty faces turn to face him in the crowded room. He starts to speak in Hakha-Chin, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet, his socks dotted with the Playboy bunny – a donation from World Relief. His sermon is sprinkled with jokes, and he earns appreciative laughs from the kids as he delivers his brief message. When he closes, the room erupts with applause, and Dolla smiles, relieved. He leans against the wall for the rest of the night, watching the kids exhausting their repertoire of call-and-response worship songs. He does not have a job, but he’s found his work.
“I will not mess this up”
Whenever Albert Pui comes to youth group, he’s barraged with pats on the back and yelps of greeting. He takes a seat on the floor with a group of his friends, sliding into their conversation with ease. He sings Bruno Mars under his breath, a sign that he is at relaxed and happy. The steely reservation he brought to America is melting away the longer he’s here. He knows his days of fleeing through the jungle are behind him, as are his days of fearing imprisonment from working to help support his family. He has a warm house, clothes, and food. His life is secure for the first time, and he’s ready to open up to others.
School is his most important place to be, because his top priority is getting an education and, one day, finding a good job. He wants to take advantage of the opportunity he has to start over in America, but he loves school more for the friends it led him to who are all also Burmese refugees. They move as a pack between classes at school, and go to the Kent School District Refugee Transition Center after school to do their homework together.
When he works, Albert disconnects from his friends, falling silent and leaning close over the pages he reads or writes on. He supplements his curriculum with young reader books he checks out from the school’s library. He likes to read, and he says improving his English, already strong for a refugee, is imperative.
“Education is important,” he says. “I will not mess this up.”
After tutoring at the center, Albert and his friends play soccer until dusk surrenders to night and Albert comes home, muddy and giddy: soccer is his favorite part of the day.
Once Helen gets a job, though, he has to be home by six each evening to watch Rachel while Dolla goes to ESL class. This is a substantial cut to his time with friends, but he does it without any adolescent complaints. His parents have done a lot for him, and he knows it’s his duty to do the same for them. To Albert and his parents, family is a team that’s meant to support itself internally. He’ll do what it takes – all of them will – to make it.
Four months ago, the family was living in an overcrowded apartment in Malaysia, hoping day after day for the call that would tell them they had been chosen for resettlement. Now, their entire lives have changed.
They seldom talk to the family and friends they left behind – long-distance phone calls are far too expensive – but they’ve found new friends and a new family in the Chin community within a small, economically sluggish American city. They’ve carved a place for themselves in an environment about as opposite from their former lives as there is.
Life in America is hard, and living with their pasts is as well. The family does not forget where they came from; they are haunted daily by memories of the terror with which they once lived their lives and by the knowledge that their family members still live with such terror. At the same time, they are aware daily of the precarious financial position they are in here. It’s hard, but they take things one day at a time. They look upward and forward, working to improve their lives.
“It’s very hard in America,” Helen says. “Every day, hard. But in Burma, in Malaysia, we cannot change things. Here, we can. We are free, very free.”