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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.