Category Archives: Refugees

Two teens. Two worlds apart.

Post by Terri Durdaller, DCF SunCoast Region Communications Director

Thomas and Terri

Sometimes you meet someone who makes you see your own life through a whole new lens.

I met Thomas while working on a video with DCF’s Refugee Services program and the Pinellas Technical Education Centers. Thomas is a refugee from Eritrea in East Africa, who resettled in Tampa three years ago. He and his family left Eritrea because they were fleeing political prosecution.

During his interview for the video, Thomas gave a powerful definition of what a refugee is. He describes a refugee as someone who loses their identity and culture for the sake of protection.

Hearing him say this made me think of my own identity, who I am and how I grew up. Thomas and I are roughly the same age. He was living in a refugee camp while I was graduating high school in the Midwest. His uncle from Germany would send his family money so they could eat. Mine sent me money for holidays and birthdays that I saved for my prom dress.

At the refugee camp, Thomas and his family were given oil and ground wheat. They had to grind the wheat themselves to make it edible. Their meals were eaten together in a house they built themselves from sticks and grass. My family shopped together every Sunday at the local market. I chatted about the week ahead as my mother placed pork loins and fresh vegetables in our cart. Thomas felt protected in his camp. I felt protected in my small town.

When I turned 18 my grandmother talked to me about the importance of voting, especially for women. I still follow politics and am active in a number of political causes.  Thomas’ grandmother was arrested three times for her political beliefs.

When Thomas is upset he struggles to find the English words to describe his emotions. Every minute he misses his home country. It took him a year to truly adapt to life in the fast-paced United States, but he now calls this home. He plans on becoming a citizen, and one day the kids he hopes to have will call Tampa their hometown.

The refugee video will be unveiled in early 2013. The department will link to it via YouTube. I hope each of you will watch it and learn more about the refugees sitting next to you at church, shopping alongside you in the grocery stores and attending school with your children. They aren’t here for a job. They didn’t come to Florida for a vacation. They left everything they know for protection.

God bless America.

Day 4: The stories of three refugees

Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. This is the last of a series of blog posts detailing trip to Asia, where he is spending time with Burmese refugees. Here are personal refugee stories he heard: 

A grandmother separated from children, grandchildren

Mia Yee and Hiram

Mia Yee first fled to Thailand some 30 years ago.  She has spent much of her adult life in Mae La camp. About 10 years ago, Mia Yee’s sister in Burma became ill and Mia Yee and her youngest daughter, Moe Moe Kaing, left the camp and returned to Burma to care for her. Mia Yee’s older daughter, Htee Paw, and her husband remained in the camp.

Mia Yee's oldest daughter, Htee Paw, and her son, Timothy, who is 9 months old.

Mia Yee and her younger daughter were in Burma when the last registration for U.S. resettlement took place in 2005.  Mia Yee’s older daughter registered, but her sister and mother, who were away, missed out.  The older daughter, her husband and young daughter resettled to Jacksonville just under two years ago. I met her and her family in Jacksonville not long before my trip. They are doing well.  The husband is working in a printing shop and Htee Paw is at home taking care of her young kids and improving her English.

Showing photos of Jacksonville to refugees who hope to reunite with relatives there.

When Mia Yee’s sister passed away, she and her youngest daughter returned to Mae La, where they remain.  The younger daughter has married, has a little girl, and a baby on the way. They all live with Mia Yee.  Because Mia Yee and her daughter missed the last resettlement registration, they are not on track to resettle in the U.S.  Her daughter in Jacksonville recently had a second child.  I brought Mia Yee a photo of the grandson she had not yet seen. I was hoping for a big smile, but Mia Yee broke into tears. I should have anticipated it.  The separation from her daughter and grandchildren, and not knowing when or even if she will see them again, is very painful.


Hiram with refugees in Mae La camp whose relatives have been resettled in Florida

My meeting with Mia Yee and her family ended on a very positive note, however. I asked the United Nations officers who were with me if there was hope for Mia Yee’s family to reunite in Florida one day.  It turns out there is hope. Apparently the younger daughter’s husband had registered for resettlement in 2005, before the couple married. His registration is valid and thus the whole family can apply for resettlement. Plus, it is likely that registration for U.S. resettlement will take place again later this year, though only for refugees with immediate relatives in the U.S. Since Mia Yee’s daughter is in Florida, they will be eligible through that route also. So in all likelihood, Mia Yee’s family will reunite in Florida within the next couple of years!

Father encourages daughter to go to U.S., pursue her dreams

A 19 year-old young refugee woman I met in Mae La has an even more certain future.  She has already been approved to resettle in Florida, where her uncle and his family already live. But she is sad because her father, with whom she lives in Mae La, will not be going with her.  While he has encouraged her to take up the opportunity of resettlement, he feels that he is too old to make a new start in another country and has decided to remain behind in Mae La.

Timing prohibits man from leaving Mae La

The final refugee whom I met, a man in his 30s who speaks English quite well, has no such positive prospects. He arrived in Mae La after the 2005 registration and though he too has an uncle who has been in Florida for five years, even if there is a new registration later this year he won’t be eligible to register because an uncle is not considered an immediate relative.

Getting a head start on English in case her family can join relatives in Jacksonville

As Mae La enters what may be the final chapter in its 30-year history, the refugee camp’s 47,000 residents, who have been there anywhere from a few years to their entire lives, contemplate the prospects of change in the coming year. For perhaps a few thousand, that change will be a new life in the U.S. or other resettlement country. For most, if recent changes in Burma take hold, repatriation is likely in the coming years. Hopefully they will return to a changed Burma, one where there is peace, greater democracy, and respect for the rights of all its citizens.

Day 3: Burmese Refugee Leaders Talk about Recent Developments in Burma

Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. He will be contributing a series of blog posts over the next week detailing his trip to Asia, where he is spending time with refugees.

The Burmese have not had basic human rights for many decades, leading to hundreds of thousands of Burmese fleeing their country. However, in the past few months Burma’s military rulers have taken steps towards democracy and political reform.

They freed revered opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi from her years-long house arrest, permitted elections that elected her to Parliament, and allowed her to leave the country on a trip that included a stop to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  Suu Kyi also paid a brief but historic visit to Mae La refugee camp in Thailand.

Hiram showing photos of Burmese refugees in Florida to the Mae La camp Refugee Committee Leader

Burmese refugees in Mae La and other camps are closely following developments in their homeland and wondering what the implications are for them.  Is the change real?  Is the Burmese military really going to permit further democratic reform?  Even if there is real change in Rangoon, the capital, will the Burmese military end its decades-long repression of ethnic minorities?  Or is it all a façade?

The answers to these questions will determine the refugees’ future.  If democracy takes hold in Burma and the government allows ethnic minorities to live freely, the refugees may be able to finally return home.  But what if the apparent change in not genuine?  And what impact will current developments in Burma have on the U.S. and other countries’ plans for future resettlement of Burmese refugees?

Hiram Ruiz meeting with leaders of the Karen Refugee Women's Asociation

Among the refugee leaders I met in Mae La refugee camp and Mae Sot town were the head of the Karen Refugee Committee in Thailand, the head of the Refugee Committee in Mae La camp, and leaders of the Karen Women’s organization.  Their views varied, though all remain wary.

They welcome the recent developments in Burma, but while some think they offer a glimmer of hope, others believe that the Burmese military is unlikely to end its repression in ethnic minority areas.  Many believe, however, that the international community will continue to respond positively to the Burmese government’s moves (U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma recently, the first high-level administration official to do so in many years) and that there will start to be pressure for the refugees to be allowed back into their countries.

Burmese refugee students at work in Mae La camp school

With the eventual closure of the camps now on the horizon, some refugees in the camps who had not made up their minds whether to apply for resettlement to the U.S. or other countries are now beginning to decide.  Even the head of the Refugee Committee in Mae La told me he and his family had applied for resettlement to join relatives in North Carolina.

Resettlement is not an option for most, however.  For some time, the U.S. has only offered resettlement to refugees who have been registered in the camps since 2005 and it is likely that future resettlement to the U.S. will be limited to refugees who have immediate family members already in the United States.

Next post:

At Mae La, I met one young woman already accepted for resettlement in Jacksonville, a family of four who have immediate family in Florida and may be eligible for future resettlement, and a man whose uncle lives in Jacksonville but who is unlikely to qualify for resettlement because he arrived in the camps after 2005 and his uncle is not considered an immediate family member. 

Day 2: Mae La: Thailand’s largest camp for Burmese refugees

Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. He will be contributing a series of blog posts over the next week detailing his trip to Asia, where he is spending time with refugees.

The drive from Mae Sot town to Mae La refugee camp is about 45 minutes.  The scenery along the way is breathtaking:  shimmering green rice paddies framed by rugged mountains that disappear into the mist.

As we approach Mae La, a dramatic contrast between man and nature emerges.  The rice paddies suddenly give way to row after row of thatched-roofed shacks packed closely together behind barbed wire fences.  Mae La may be a refugee camp, but it is in fact also a large town that is home to some 47,000 Burmese refugees.

Mae La camp

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees arranged my visit to the camp, and two of their staff – one Bosnian and one Thai-Burmese – are accompanying me on the visit.  They show the guards at the gate (all the entrances to the camp are guarded by uniformed Thai military) our permits and we proceed to meet the Camp Commander.

After introductions and coffee, I explain to the Commander that more than 1,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in Florida – including many from this very camp. I tell him that we are generally able to help the refugees become self-sufficient and many do well, though some do struggle to adapt.  I explain our integration assistance program that provides case management to select families that may face more challenges than others.

I am interested to know what they have heard about the experiences of refugees who have resettled in Florida and also what their hopes and expectations are for when they go to Florida themselves.  He gives the green light for our visit to proceed.

Cultural orientation center, where families are prepared to move to the U.S.

It has been raining every day for a month and the roads in the camp are muddy and slippery.  Our first stop is the building where an American non-profit contracted by the U.S. State Department provides an orientation program for refugees scheduled to resettle in the U.S.  I am pleasantly surprised to see a hut at the center that is fully equipped with a U.S.-style kitchen.  It’s quite strange to see a modern stove, refrigerator and dishwasher in a thatched roof hut on a muddy road in the middle of a refugee camp.  But I’m glad to know refugees from this camp will arrive knowing that the oven is for cooking and not for storing clothes.

Traditional Mae La kitchen. A big difference from the modern U.S.-style kitchen found in the orientation center.

The Bosnian UNHCR officer relates a story of a refugee who resettled in the U.S. who complained to their relatives in the camp that they were provided a television but it had no picture – it was a microwave!  I am not making light of the refugees’ experience, but rather trying to convey just how far removed their world in the camp (or even in their former homes in remote villages in Burma) is from the world they will encounter when they arrive in the U.S.

Our next stop is a day care center run by members of the Karen Women’s Organization.  A large majority of the refugees in Mae La are ethnic Karen and the KWO runs day care centers, provides assistance to elderly and disabled refugees and single mothers, and assists victims of domestic violence (sadly, a too prevalent problem in a place where families live in overcrowded conditions with no work, few distractions and often little hope for the future).

There are dozens of children at the day care center, shy but quick to smile.  The conditions in the center are basic, but the children are well cared for and seem cheerful.  I am glad that I have brought several bags full of crayons, colored pencils, pencil sharpeners, pens and balloons that I will give to the KWO leaders when I meet them.  Yes, I know, balloons are not very practical, but they are fun!  They will certainly add a dash of color to their otherwise rather harsh surroundings.


Mae La refugee leaders’ thoughts on recent political developments in Burma and their implications for the refugees.

Day 1: I’ve Arrived in Thailand

Guest post by Hiram Ruiz, DCF’s Director of Refugee Services. He will be contributing a series of blog posts over the next week detailing his trip to Asia where he will spend time with refugees.

I arrived in Thailand Friday night and today, Monday, am heading to Mae Sot near the Thai-Burmese border area.  While there, I will visit Mae La, the largest camp in Thailand for refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar).

There are more than half a million Burmese refugees in Thailand with about 140,000 living in 10 camps along the border.  Others live in nearby towns and villages.  In recent years, the U.S. Department of State has offered resettlement to the U.S. to thousands of Burmese who had been living in the refugee camps.  Many had been living in the camps for years or even decades and would otherwise have been condemned to a life without hope in the crowded camps, where they are not allowed to work or farm, and with very limited educational opportunities. Since 2007, Florida has become home to more than 1,000 Burmese refugees resettled by the State Department, primarily to Jacksonville and Tampa, though some to Orlando and Clearwater.

Burma is governed by a communist military regime that has for decades suppressed democracy and abused its citizens, particularly ethnic minorities that live in areas near the Thai border.  Most of the refugees in Mae La Camp are “Karen,” one of Burma’s ethnic minorities; many of them are Christian.  Since 1983, the Burmese military has destroyed Karen villages and subjected men, women and children to forced labor, prompting tens of thousands to flee to Burma.

In 1998, widespread support for a Burmese pro-democracy party led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi culminated in more than 80 percent of the population voting in favor of Suu Kyi’s party, but the military junta suppressed the election’s results, placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and cracked down on the pro-democracy movement’s supporters, leading to another exodus of refugees to Thailand.

It is only in the past year that the Burmese military has begun to ease its iron-fist rule.  It released Aund San Suu Kyi from her years of house arrest and permitted elections.  Suu Kyi has taken a seat in parliament and the U.S. and other Western countries have begun to improve relations with Burma.  Given what happened in 1998, many – particularly the ethnic minorities and the refugees in Thailand – remain wary of the sincerity of the Burmese military’s intentions.  Time will tell. It is not a good omen, however, that the Burmese military has recently resumed brutal of repression another ethnic minority, Muslim Rohingya who live in western Burma near the Bangladesh border, causing an exodus of tens of thousands more Burmese Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.

While in Mae La camp, I will meet refugee leaders, camp officials, and United Nations personnel, who will share their thoughts on the future of Burma, the camps, and of the resettlement program.  I will also visit Burmese refugees scheduled to resettle to Florida, as well as relatives of Burmese refugees already in Jacksonville. I am taking one Burmese grandmother in the camp a photo of her newborn grandson, who she has not yet seen!

Tomorrow:  Mae La