Skip to content

New refugees from rural Burma, grappling with modern California, find an ally in Oakland

on October 19, 2009

In the last three weeks, seven new families have finally won the right to move to Oakland. The most recent family arrived October 7, and like the others, was picked up at San Francisco International Airport after a 16-hour flight, taken to a sparsely furnished apartment on 19th street in East Oakland, and given a week’s expense money. With this final trip up I-80 and across the Bay Bridge, a journey that began in the depths of the jungles of South East Asia came to a jet-lagged and sudden end.

On a Sunday earlier this month, anyone looking in on the afternoon service at the Oakland Burmese Missionary Baptist church, down near Broadway and West Grand, would have seen a group of the newcomers huddled in the long pews, dressed in brightly embroidered traditional clothing that was designed more for the hot and humid jungle climes of the Burmese border than a fall day in the Bay Area. It was a high-ceilinged room splintered through with darkness, sunlight and un-stained wood. The tired group of newcomers were as close as Oakland gets to time travelers; they had come from a world of subsistence farming, where the roads are unpaved and water comes from wells and rivers, not taps. They clasped their babies close, watching a service conducted in a language that they didn’t understand.

“We are working to make sure they don’t get depressed,” said Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw. “We bring them to church every week.”

These new Oakland families are refugees from Burma, where a military government is waging a campaign of mass displacement and human rights abuses against some of the 135 different ethnic groups who live within its borders. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a place none of these rural farming families had ever heard of before, they now have a go-between, an interpreter and former countrywoman who helps with immigration papers, encouragement on learning English, and lessons on how to buy toothpaste.  Her name is Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw–Burmese does not separate names into first names and surnames.    She’s a store decorator at Target.

“They have so much to learn about living here,” Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw said.  “Some arrived here six or seven years ago, and they still need help writing a check, because they do not know how to write.”

The families are Karenni, members of the dominant ethnic group in Kayah state, an agricultural pocket in eastern Burma.   (The name of the country, which borders China and Thailand, was officially changed to Myanmar several years ago. But that name is rejected by much of the Western community and many Burmese in exile, who say it gives legitimacy to the ruling junta.  In Kayah state, the Karen National Liberation Army battles the Burmese military, which has responded by driving civilians from their homes or into forced labor and burning their villages to the ground. In contrast to the Buddhist majority, the Karenni are often Christian, or practice a traditional religion. Almost no humanitarian agencies are allowed to access these people, who often live in the depths of the jungle under constant fear of attack from the army, the risk of land-mine accidents, or the forced recruitment of their teenagers and children into both the army and military groups.

The newcomers in Oakland are joining 40 Karenni individuals already here. They have been helped to move into apartments in Oakland by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New York based nonprofit that works with the U.S. state department to resettle refugees across America.  Despite the IRC’s involvement, much of the day-to-day support to these families is given by Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw, who drives to Oakland nearly every weekend from her home in Stockton to volunteer her help.

She is small, with short dark hair cut in bangs across her moon-shaped face. Her demeanor is focused, practical and unsentimental, like her clothes.   She herself is not a refugee, but came to this country through legal channels to join her nephew, who is working as a doctor here.

“It’s only for my children,” she said, when asked why she moved to America. One of her daughters is studying at UC Davis, the second at Delta college, while the third hopes to become an engineer. “When they finish university, I will go back,” Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw said.

She is almost the only person in Oakland who can actually communicate with the new arrivals, whose Burmese language is almost non-existent. So vital are Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw’s skills that she has been flown to Utah and Georgia to translate for Karenni refugees there. With help from the Oakland Burmese Missionary Baptist church and its Karen Fellowship, for whom she serves as a pastor, she hopes to help the new refugees settle in.

She is one of the only people on the west coast of the United States who speaks the basics of one strand of the Karenni language. “I am Karen,” she said.  That is not the same as Karenni, which is a distinct ethnic group. “But I lived in Karenni state, so I can understand some Karenni, though not everything,” she said.   “For us, now, we are still learning.”

The new Oakland families have come directly from refugee camps in Thailand, where many lived for years, often forbidden to leave the camps or look for work legally. Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw is often their single source of practical advice for everything now. She tells them where to buy betel nut, which is chewed along with lime and aceca leaf in South Asia. She explains how to turn on electric lights, shows them how to recognize the 25-cent coins used for the laundry machines, and helps them understand what sanitary napkins and diapers are and how to use them.

Daw Ka Lameh in her home in Oakland.

Daw Ka Lameh in her home in Oakland.

“They could not bring more than 30 kilos of luggage on the plane, and a lot of what they brought is no longer useful here, so we need to buy everything — cups, plates, knives,” she said.  Every Saturday in October, she has taken the families shopping – none of them had ever visited a supermarket before arriving in America.

“Whenever we buy them bread or American food, they do not eat it,” she said.  “So we need to show them where to get rice and chicken and vegetables, and how to pay at a supermarket.”

Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall of a refugees apartment in Oakland. Aung San Suu Kyi is leader of the opposition in Burma.

Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall of a refugee’s apartment in Oakland. Aung San Suu Kyi is leader of the opposition in Burma.

Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw looked overwhelmed as the last chords of the piano music ended and she juggled church business with rounding up the most recently arrived refugees for the home-cooked meal of fresh boiled egg curry, rice, fried chicken, noodle soup and fermented tea-leaf and peanut salad provided every week after the service.    The church is also providing the new families with food and household supplies to fill the gap while the new families wait for their food stamps and Social Security paperwork.

It is somewhat ironic that Burmans, the dominant ethnic group associated with the ruling military in Burma, have been fundamental in creating this Oakland outreach church,  whose mission statement focuses on reconciliation. The Burmese church here was opened three years ago, in part to welcome and support refugees arriving to the city. It is housed inside a building of the American Baptist Church, which back in the 1800s sent some of the first American missionaries to Burma. As the Oakland Baptist Mission congregation has aged, its members have been happy to share their building with the younger and growing Burmese congregation.

After lunch, the refugees stood on the pavement outside waiting for their lift home.  A man spat a mouthful of beetle nut to the ground, the reddened liquid staining the pavement like spilled paint or blood. A small child played with a plastic fizzy drink bottle. A woman watched the trickle of cars that passed by, mesmerized.

“When I was in my country, I didn’t know about the camps,” Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw said one  evening earlier this month, as she drove her battered white subaru from low-income apartment to low income apartment, the back seats piled high with plastic bags of clothes and household goods to deliver to the newcomers.

“It was only when I left that I found out,” she said.

In Burma, before she retired to study to become a pastor and applied for a visa to come to America, Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw was a high school teacher.  When she talks about the life of the refugees, she is straight-forward and practical, from the treatment many of the refugees have suffered at the hands of the military– “Their life has been a struggle,” she said–to the difficulty of young people adapting to education after years of living without it.  “The second generation will be fine,” she said.  “But for the first generation, it is difficult.”

We pulled up on a road lined with palm trees and waited on the driveway of a faded yellow apartment building as Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw made a series of phone calls to the family whose apartment we were due to visit.

“They don’t know how to open the door,” she muttered in between the instructions she gave in rapid Burmese and Karenni down the phone.

Ten minutes passed and we stared up to the upstairs apartments, waiting. Finally a small woman emerged in flip flops and socks from the second floor. She ran as fast as her footwear would allow her, down the flight of stairs to the gate on the first floor, smiling. As she beckoned for us to follow her, past some piles of broken furniture and potted plants lined up along the balcony, she introduced herself as Daw Ka Lameh. She was the mother of the small family who waited just inside the door of the small second floor apartment and who had arrived in Oakland in this past June.

Daw Ka Lameh’s daughter, Shor Mo is 21. She is working hard to fit into the category of second generation. She’s  attending 3 hours of English class every day at an adult education center, and burst into shy smiles between the broken English sentences Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw drew from her.

“Go on – introduce yourself,” Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw said encouragingly in English.

“My name is Shor Mo,” she said, spelling her name out loud, before giggling and retuning to her native language.

Shor Mo said she can’t remember Burma, or Kayah state, where she was born. She was five years old when her father carried her on his back, via a jungle trail and across the border to Thailand. It took the small family—her mother, her older brother and her father—a week to cross the river to what they thought was freedom.

Another pair of recent Karenni arrivals

Another pair of recent Karenni arrivals

“I love our village. I didn’t want to leave. But because of the soldiers and the government we had to,” Shor Mo’s father U Win Sein Elias Mireh said, the lines on his face tightening, as he described the Burmese government’s policy of forced labor for the 50 Karenni families in his village. The family fled in search of asylum in Thailand, where, after years of life trapped inside restricted refugee camps they finally decided to apply for asylum in America.

Shor Mo sat on the floor, cross-legged and quiet,  as her father told the story of why he felt they must  leave the land on which his own  parents and grandparents had cultivated corn and peanuts.

“The Burmese government wanted us to be porters for them, and would torture the village,” U Win Sein said. “We couldn’t farm our land and be porters and survive.”

Twenty-five percent of the people of Kayah state have been forced from their homes, said a 2008 report from the NGO and human rights research group Burma Issues. According to the report, three-quarters of those refugees are women and children. By the close of April 2008, 81,000 villagers in Kayah state had either been re-located or had their villages completely destroyed; the figure has since risen, and this June more fighting broke out.  The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international research body, has labeled this the largest single displacement across the Thai border in more than a decade.  Even Burmese living inside the country are not aware of the exact details of what the government terms a fight against “internal and external saboteurs.”

U Win Sein was wearing the typical Burmese longyi, a sarong  both men and women in Burma wear, tied in a knot at the waist.   He clasped his hands together in his lap.  “When we left, we were worried someone would tell the government, so we didn’t say goodbye,” he said quietly.  “I thought maybe I would come back if the journey was too hard. I didn’t even tell my mother we were leaving.”

Two bright orange and green soda bottles st on the floor in front of him, and beside them, two apples and a knife. Nobody ate or drank; they were symbolic of hospitality.  “I do not know if my mother is alive or has passed away,” he said. “She would be ninety years old now. ”

He said he doesn’t know the distance they traveled after they left their home. “We couldn’t take much, because I had to carry the children,” he said.  “So we just took a small blanket, a few clothes and food for the journey.”

One of the villages they rested in on their retreat has now been burnt to the ground, translated Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw.

“We do not know where our village is, we are all spread now,” said Daw Ka Lameh, the mother of the family, clearing her throat gently. “I did not think of myself, because I am old enough. I thought of the children. I want them to have education, and that was my dream for America.”

She is a small-framed woman, and she knelt quietly, one arm resting on the sofa, while her left hand cupped her cheek. As she spoke, each of the family members slowly moved from sitting on the sofa to the more comfortable and traditional position of sitting or kneeling on the floor beside her. The two dark sofas that dominate the room were left empty, save for U Win Sein Elias Mireh.

Recently arrived refugees in Oakland

Recently arrived refugees in Oakland

“I thought we were coming to freedom when we got to Thailand,” said U Win Sein Elias Mireh, “But I found out that the Thai government did not give us freedom.” They arrived in Thailand in 1993, where their second son was born. For 16 years they lived in the camps.

“If we left the camp, the Thai authorities would take you and put you in the trunk of a car and dump you at the border miles away, where you didn’t know where you were,” U Win Sein Elias Mireh said. “It was worse for the Pa O—they were used as tourist attractions, and so kept in a separate camp.” The Pa O are a Karen group whose women wear metal coils around their neck. Foreigners are charged entry to the refugee camps where the Pa O women live.

The process of asylum is long, and requires a series of interviews to determine whether applicants face persecution in their home countries. This small family began the application in October last year and finally arrived in the U.S. this June.

“The IRC helped with settling us,” U Win Sein said. “We are happy to be here, but we still must struggle.”

“There is nothing left for me to do now,” Daw Ka Lameh said. “I do this for my children – for their education and their future.” She wore leopard print leggings and her youngest son, when he came back late from the English school he attends, had on a black T-shirt, with a bright yellow face. Most of their clothes have been donated by the Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church, although Daw Sayama Aye Aye Thaw said the church has trouble finding clothes that fit the small frames of the refugees.

Before they started toward America, the family received training from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on how to use Western-style toilets, how to order a meal on a plane and what they should expect in their new life. It was designed to prepare them for resettlement.   The completion certificate is almost the only decoration on the apartment wall.

But their home in the camp was so different, they said; it was as large as their living and dining area in Oakland is now. The roof was made of leaves, the walls of bamboo lashed together, so that in the humid midday heat typical on the Thai-Burmese border, sunlight could push its way through the cracks between the trunks of bamboo to light the house. Like the 30,000 other people living in the camp, they carried their water from a well and had no electricity.

“I cannot explain whether I have adjusted or not,” U Win Sein said. “I do not know what surprises me the most, or is most different, because now we have decided to be here – we are here.”

U Win Sein said he wants to work. He is worried about the $35 he owes to IRC for the subsidized plane tickets to America. He is also worried about finding a job and paying the rent once the IRC support runs out in a few months.

“If two of us can work then we can manage,” he said. “I will work anywhere.”

Does he believe he has found the freedom he first sought 16 years ago when he left his village?

“I would say, not yet,” he said. “We still have a lot of struggles to go before we have that.”

Lead image: From left, U Win Sein Elias Mireh, Shor Mo, Daw Ka Lameh and Byar Reh.

Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

Latest Posts

Scroll To Top