A strange new world for refugees from Burma

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The "CSI" shows are a big hit. "Dancing with the Stars," too. And hamburgers! What a treat. Football, though? That's still a mystery, a demolition derby of huge men slamming into each other with few discernible aims.

America is both a challenge and an adventure for the Christian refugees from Myanmar in Jim Price's American citizenship class at Southside Baptist Church. It's a place that's almost science-fiction compared to refugee camps in the jungles of neighboring Thailand, where they lived after a repressive military regime in the former Burma forced them from their ancestral homes.

In the past five years, Christian refugees from Burma have far outnumbered the refugees from any other country arriving in Jacksonville.

Count each of the five people in Price's class among that group. They all lived for at least a decade in a refugee camp and are now preparing to spend the $680 it takes to become a citizen of the new country they call home.

Ta Yah Htoo has never set foot in Burma; she was born in a camp in northern Thailand after her parents fled their mountain homeland.

Her days there followed a similar pattern: Waking up in a bamboo hut. Walking to a stream to get water. Venturing into the jungle for firewood. Eating meals of fish paste, chili and rice provided by the United Nations.

She had some schooling, more than most. "Dad said, 'Go to school,' " she said. " 'You're a girl — you can't fight Burmese soldiers with a gun. You have to say something. Fight with your words.' "

For 17 years, her life was led in the boundaries of the camp. She had never seen a city, had never even been in a car.

She grinned: Her life has come so far. "Now I'm driving!"

Htoo, 21, speaks fine English and works at Catholic Charities, helping new refugees from her homeland. "They will be like a new baby," she said. "They don't know anything. I recognize myself every time."

She remembers starting her journey to Jacksonville at the airport in Bangkok. "A very nice place," she said. "And shiny." She'd never seen an escalator or an elevator; she was terrified of them at first, but got to like the airport's escalator, on which she took repeated jaunts.

Newcomers from Burma are often overwhelmed at first by their strange new home, said Elaine Carson of the Jacksonville office of World Relief, one of three refugee resettlement agencies in the city.

"You can see it in their eyes at night when we pick them up at the airport. You can see it when we're driving. Their eyes lit up: 'Where am I? What is this?' "

Carson said most quickly become self-sufficient — they're generally eager to take on jobs and a new life.

Still, the challenges they face are daunting: Those who help them say most are rural people who struggle with a new language and a new culture that can seem overwhelming. Some newcomers don't know how to use a toilet or a refrigerator, said Brenda Forlines, a Southside Baptist congregant who's worked extensively with the church's refugee members. And it's confusing finding their way around a sprawling city using public transportation. Even the idea of addresses is foreign: There weren't addresses in the refugee camps.

Bu Gay, 28, one of Price's citizenship students, remembers being dropped off at her first day at work, just a few months after arriving in Jacksonville. When work was over, she realized she didn't know how to get home, so she and a fellow refugee from Burma walked around the city for about three hours, looking for a familiar sight. Eventually a woman pulled her car over and managed to help them.

Several Southern Baptist congregations have adopted Christians from Myanmar, from ethnic groups such as the Chin, Kachin and the Karen.

The Karen dominate at Southside Baptist in San Marco, which now has about 130 members from Burma, most of whom live in apartment buildings nearby.

Price, a retired FBI agent, leads a citizenship class on Monday nights. He teaches them what they'll need to know for the test, like who was U.S. president during World War I. Who the speaker of the House is. What checks and balances are.

Price also tries to teach them some of the ins and outs of being an American.

In their culture, it's not polite to talk about yourself, or to give long answers to questions. But in America, one-word answers can seem curt, he explains.

In their culture, it's not polite to look someone directly in the eye. In America, that can seem evasive — so early in the class, he put a dot on his forehead, drawing their attention to his eyes.

His five students have all found jobs. Johnny Kim, 30, who lived in a Thai refugee camp since he was a child, works at Lutheran Social Services, helping new refugees.

In conversation, Kim several times takes the chance to praise his new home.

"When we were in the camp, we don't have any opportunity, no chance to go to school. When we arrive here, everybody has a chance," he said. "Here in America we can make our future. If you want to be somebody, (you) can be."

Though the vast majority of refugees from Burma have arrived since 2006, a few arrived years earlier.

Sengtawng Maran was in a small group of Christian Kachin refugees who came to Jacksonville in 2001 after spending time in a refugee camp in Guam. She had lived in Rangoon, a bustling city, and worked as a teacher, so her adjustment to the U.S. was not as difficult as some from Burma, she said.

In August, she opened the city's first Burmese restaurant, Naw's Fast Food & Sushi on Hogan Road. Maran offers familiar food and advice to the newcomers from her old country — it's her responsibility, she said.

"We have a culture shock here," she said, "especially when they live in the forest — they don't know how to live in the city."

But they're learning, said Htoo, Price's citizenship student. Four years after leaving the Thai jungle, she's got a job. She's studying to become an American. She's trying for her high-school equivalency test. She's dreaming of becoming a nurse.

"If I try hard, I see my future," she said. "I have opportunity, a lot, for me." http://www.necn.com/01/28/12/A-strange-new-world-for-refugees-from-...

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