A Malaysian experience in Yakima

I met my new best friends tonight. Ok so maybe they won't be my 'best' friends, but they're probably going to be my favorite people in Yakima this summer. A few weeks ago I heard about a group of Burmese refugees that recently moved to Yakima to work for the fruit season (or as one man put it, he works in an 'apple garden'). My church is sort of 'adopting' them. My parents have been spear-heading most of the efforts: bringing them to church (they are from the Karen and Chin tribes, which are Christian), taking them to Wal-Mart, etc., and I'm so happy to see how excited they are about helping them. Since I've been gone in Phoenix for the last 2 1/2 weeks, I just met them for the first time tonight. It just so happens that most of them had lived in Malaysia before being resettled, so we had a lot to chat about. I never thought I'd get the chance to practice my Malay in Yakima!! It was a joyous sight to see men in wraparound skirts, to take my shoes off at the front door and have a seat on the floor. One does not do such things in Yakima.

While in Malaysia I visited a lot of different Burmese refugee groups - those living (hiding) in the jungle, on plantations, and in urban areas. I never met a refugee I didn't like. They all have a story to tell - mostly heart-breaking ones, but you can tell in their eyes that the struggle has made them stronger. They speak of children they've left behind, the human-traffickers they had to give their whole life savings to just to bring them across the border, the danger of the journey from Burma to Malaysia (often by FOOT), and the dangers of living in Malaysia - a country which sadly refuses to acknowledge them as refugees. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are arrested and find themselves in detention camps, where they can be held indefinitely or be deported to the Thai border. Through an unjust agreement between the Malaysian and Thai immigration officers and Thai fishermen, the refugees are commonly sold to Thai fishing boats and forced to work at sea. When they decide they are done with them, the Thai fisherman throw the refugees overboard. Or perhaps you heard the story of the Thai navy forcing hundreds of refugees out to sea in boats without engines. They were found near the Andaman Islands, more than 2 weeks later.

But these guys are the lucky ones!! I haven't had the chance to hear their stories yet. But I'm sure that they are equally tragic and compelling, because even if they didn't get sold into slavery or stranded out in sea, the life of a refugee is full of grief, injustice and pain.

Refugees have three realistic options: repatriation, integration, and resettlement. Of course, most refugees would prefer return back to their homeland and back to their families they have left behind (repatriation). Integration isn't an option in a place like Malaysia where they have no rights, or Thailand where there are few jobs for them. I'm interested to know if they are happy with their resettlement and how they feel about America. So many questions I want to ask!!

Starting this weekend, I will begin ESL classes with them Saturday and Sunday evenings. I'm giddy with excitement!!

1 comment

  1. You should definitely move to Kent! We have so many Burmese refugees here!


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