photo of Khin .

Is There Anywhere Safe from Persecution?

The Story of Khin Win

In 1999, at the age of five, Khin Win and her family fled Burma to a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand, the beginning of a long and difficult journey to Buffalo, NY.

Khin spent her early childhood in the Burmese jungle, living on “rice for life” and vegetables, she laughingly explained. Everyone was skinny and never felt that they had enough to eat, but as a child she would find something to play with– distracting her from this harsh reality.

No access to schools or hospitals meant that midwives delivered babies and childbirth became dangerous, even deadly, if a woman needed a C-section. Given the lack of healthcare, many people succumbed to preventable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Even if one could make it to a hospital a two day walk at best– few people had the means to pay for the cost and would be turned away upon arrival.

Burma.

"This picture is at the famous river between Thailand and Burma. Lots of Karen people cross this river to get to Thailand or Thai refugee camps."

During Khin’s childhood, the Burmese Civil War, which began 51 years earlier, showed no signs of slowing down. Khin’s father and older brother, both shot and killed, fell victim to the violence around them. Unable to receive treatment for a high fever, Khin’s youngest brother also passed away. Thousands of families had no choice but to abandon their homes and loved ones. Khin recalls these tragic events as the norm for her people.

However, Khin’s mother continued to seek a higher quality of life for her five remaining children, one who has a disability. After walking two days to a refugee camp in bordering Thailand, Khin and her family arrived at the place they would call home.

The fourth picture was the famous river between Thailand and Burma. Lots of Karen people cross this river to get to o Thailand or Thai refugee camps.

"This picture was in Thailand - all my friends from Mae La Refugee camp. I haven't seen them over 10 years and that's was my first time seeing them since I left the refugee camp. We all hiked to the Mae Usue Cave and had a picnic together."

At the camp, Khin began school at the age of eight, taking turns with her sister due to the cost of attendance. Poor conditions– schools built out of bamboo with little to no supplies– and government regulations requiring each family to extinguish their candle by 9 pm, leaving little time for studying, limited her educational opportunities. Despite all this, Khin loved school as it was an opportunity not all Burmese children had.

Food in the camp was also regulated and never enough. Allotted a certain monthly amount based on family size, typical meals included chili, rice, and fish paste, which Khin explained is a Karen delicacy made of decomposed fish that, although she admits smells terrible, is quite delicious. When food ran out, which was often, families found and ate anything that could feed them.

 The second picture was in Thailand. All my friends from Mae La Refugee camp. I haven't seen them over 10 years and that's was my first time see them since I left the refugee camp. We all hike to the Mae Usue Cave and had picnic together.

"This picture was inside the refugee camp during early summer. So many empty water gallons in the line; sometimes they didn't get water for a couple days and sometimes we would go over a week without water in the summer."

In 2006, after seven long years in the camp, Khin and her family applied for a life-changing opportunity: refugee resettlement through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. After collecting documentation and performing  an initial screening, UNHCR officials referred Khin’s family to the US State Department Resettlement Support Centers, who conducted interviews, verified their documentation and personal data, and submitted this information for background checks, including medical examinations and cross-checking global fingerprint databases. Khin and her family were lucky to make their journey to the U.S. only a year after applying, as compared to the usual 18 months, arriving in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on September 27th, 2007.

After living in Chapel Hill for two years, Khin and her family moved to Buffalo, NY in 2009. They chose here because of the city’s high refugee population and vast amount of resources for refugees who settle in the area.

North Carolina, USA.

"In this picture, I wore a Karen cultural shirt. The stuff that I had on my face is called Tha na ka. I was very happy to visit the refugee camp that I, and thousands upon thousands of Karen people, grow up and live."

Day to day life in Buffalo differed greatly from life in Burma. For example, during their first winter snow storm, Khin’s grandmother wondered why “white flowers” kept falling from the sky. Having grown up eating organic, healthy meals, processed American food like peanut butter and cheese were also foreign to Khin.

 

I was in the countryside in the Dominican republic. Hunting for avocados.

"In this photo, I was in the countryside in the Dominican republic.. 'Hunting' for avocados."

Healthcare also differed considerably. For Khin, healthcare in the United States very accessible. Having never been denied care in the US, Khin believes that patient treatment is a priority. She is grateful for the benefits they receive, and not quick to criticize any negative aspects of the healthcare system.

We took the picture in Priscilla Project Office. They are all my cowers and its their very first time try jackfruit.

"We took this picture in the Priscilla Project Office. These are all my coworkers, and this was their very first time trying jackfruit."

Initially, what stood out to Khin more than anything was the diversity of the U.S. Growing up, she had always heard how “white” America was, yet she was greeted by a mix of all different nationalities, races, and ethnicities. Home to African Americans, Indians, Arabs, and Russians, this was the first time Khin realized that some of these groups existed.

 

Khin notes that her family would never have chosen to uproot their lives and leave their loved ones, had it been for the civil war. Refugees like her have no option but to leave the violence, war, and persecution of their previous homes to find freedom, educational resources, and a better life in a foreign environment.

However, Khin has experienced several accounts of discrimination since moving to the United States. Khin found it difficult to make friends in schools full of American children. She experienced bullying for eating with her hands or for not being able to speak proper English. Additionally, Khin’s family cooked meals using fish paste. Because of the smell, their neighbors accused them of hiding a dead body, and three police officers searched their home. Khin has also been told on several occasions to “go back to her country” and that she “does not belong” in the United States.

 

The five picture was in Buffalo. Karen people celebrate Karen Wrist Tying every once a year. In this celebration, we have to wear our culture traditional clothes.

"This picture was in Buffalo. Karen people celebrate Karen Wrist Tying every year once a year. In this celebration, we have to wear our culture's traditional clothes."

In Buffalo, the community and the Hope Refugee Drop-in Center has been extremely helpful to Khin’s family. They provide ESL resources, citizenship applications, and mailing services. Not only did they find a house for Khin’s family, but they also helped them obtain Medicare and offer interpretation services to overcome the language barrier.

"I was in Jericho Road medical van. We were doing medical outreach in a small town in Sierra Leao and we saw 78 patients in couple hours.".

"Here, I was in a Jericho Road medical van. We were doing medical outreach in a small town in Sierra Leone. We saw 78 patients in couple hours."

Khin has maintained a positive, accepting, and adaptable mindset throughout her life’s trials. Today, she works as a doula at the Jericho Road Community Center as part of the Priscilla Project, which aims to provide better healthcare for refugee and low-income mothers going through pregnancy, labor, and delivery. 

first picture I was doing back massage for my client. I was her doula and it's her first baby. She delivered four hours later.

"In this photo, I was doing a back massage for my client. I was her doula and this was her first baby. She delivered four hours later."

When she is not working, Khin enjoys watching movies and shopping with her friends, and hiking around Upstate New York, California, Arizona and even around the world, in countries such as Sierra Leone. 

"I love to kayak. I was kayaking in the ocean in Free Town Sierra Leao".

"I love to kayak. I was kayaking in the ocean in Free Town Sierra Leao."

Although her story is one of hardship, she hopes it will encourage people to express tolerance and compassion towards everyone, regardless of cultural differences.

Authors: Callista Zayatz and Nayana Madhudi

Editor: Jessica Scates

Design: Nicole Little