Youth Radio: A Karen Refugee Talks To Those Who Helped His Family

Sep 1, 2014

About a thousand refugees resettle in North Carolina each year, and one third of them are from Burma and Thailand.  The Triangle is home to four of the nation's 10 refugee and immigrant resettlement organizations.  There are two in Durham, and two in Raleigh.

Resettlement agencies distribute State Department grants, a one-time payment of $925 per refugee.  For the first 90 days, the State Department provides housing and language assistance. But 90 days isn't a very long time when you are coming from a refugee camp. 

One of our Youth Radio project reporters, Thar Thwai, has this story:

Thar Thwai at work on his radio story in the WUNC studios.
Credit Carol Jackson

My family is Karen, and I grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Carrboro seven years ago.  I wondered why so many Karen refugees end up in North Carolina, so I talked to Kelly Cohen who works at Church World Service in Durham.

"We believe that the Triangle is a great place for refugees.  We have a low cost of living, and there are jobs available," Cohen said.

Even though organizations like Church World Service provide assistance to refugees, many still need help.

When my family got here, it was hard and we needed a lot of help. Luckily, Julianna Naw, a friend of my mom's, was there to make our transition to America a bit easier. She got us an apartment, food, and even helped my parents find a job. She and her husband, San Mya, still help many families like mine. 

One Saturday night, I went with Juliana to visit Nini who is a new arrival from Malaysia.  Juliana brought clothes and a car seat for Nini's new baby. This simple-seeming help is exactly the kind of thing that is needed when someone is new to the country.

Flicka Bateman directs an area Refugee Support Center.  She says refugees often don't know the basic things that Americans take for granted. They ask her things like "How do you turn on the lights?" Sometimes they don't know what a thermostat is, so they ask her "What's the thing that making my apartment so cold? I can't stand it!"

When I first got here, it was really hard just to learn how to live in America.  Things are so different from the refugee camp.  But people like Julianna Naw and San Mya made it a little easier. I asked them why they work so hard to help others.

"I think that my life is short, but if I help people it's a good thing for me," Julianna Naw said. 

"Because they are Karen, we are Karen, they are our people, they are our community," San Mya added.