Saw Min.

A Refugee's Refuge

The Story of Saw Min

For a refugee, resettlement in America can be a terrifying and difficult experience. With little to no resources, you must try to support yourself (and often your family members) while struggling to communicate in an unfamiliar language. Serious situations like a hospital visit can be problematic – even life threatening – if doctors and their patients cannot effectively communicate. Additionally, communication barriers reduce one’s ability to integrate into the community, resulting in potentially negative psychological and health impacts. However, Buffalo is lucky to be home to a man named Saw Min, a Burmese immigrant who flew to the United States over twelve years ago,  who has dedicated himself to help refugees with their needs. 

Saw Min holds the title, “Outreach and Linguistic Specialist” at Evergreen Health Services, but the title does not adequately portray the work he does. Saw Min acts as a translator and mentor to countless people. He assists them to adapt to the new systems, learn new skills, complete necessary paperwork, and adjust to a new life. Applying for health care and for Social Security can be difficult and confusing to people who come from places without these systems; he uses his knowledge of the system to help people navigate these processes and receive important benefits. Outside of his job, he is often needed at obscure times in the night. Not everyone in the community speaks English; if a community member needs emergency medical help, they call Saw Min to call 911 on their behalf. Saw Min does not see this as a job. Instead, he considers it is his duty as a human to help people who do not have anyone else to rely on. His selfless nature has shone through his entire life.

Saw Min grew up in small town in Burma, Southeast Asia. During Saw Min’s youth a politically charged aggression between the citizens of Burma and its dictatorship government began and continues to this day. The Burmese military aim to unify the people under a brutal central government while minority groups are fighting back for political independence.  His father was a police officer and after he was killed as a government and public servant, Saw Min had to spend his free time after school preparing food that his mother would sell to make money.

Despite all of his responsibilities, Saw Min was able to graduate high school and went on to become a teacher. In Burma, teachers receive low pay making it a neglected career choice; or men can make more money from any other job. In addition to a lack of teachers, few children (34% in one study) are enrolled in secondary school. Yet, Saw Min would ride his bike 10 miles each way to work because he saw a need in his community. His career allowed him to develop relationships with colleagues and children, strengthening his sense of fellowship in a torn society.

When he first began his teaching career, Saw Min did not live with his family because he was teaching in a remote area for many years.  Wireless communication was unavailable and each new position he accepted forced him to relocate; the only contact he had with his family was when he visited. At one point, Saw Min traveled to Japan to study education after winning a competition against other senior teachers at the high school level in Burma.  In Japan, he made friends from all over the world, experienced life in a large city, and learned about the Japanese culture, lifestyle, and education systems. This experience was invaluable; it opened his eyes to the possibilities of the world, taught him how to navigate a city, highlighted the differences between the educational system in Japan compared to that in Burma, and allowed him to make connections with people from around the world.

At the age of 44, Saw Min and his then 16-year-old son were able to leave Burma and immigrate to Georgia after winning a visa lottery. The two stayed with a friend while Saw Min worked towards gaining financial stability working as a chef in a sushi restaurant and as a housekeeper. After three years, Saw Min moved to Buffalo, New York, leaving his son behind because he was unsure if he would be able to support him during the move. In Buffalo, Saw began working in Sun Cuisine restaurant. Eventually, he began working with Evergreen Health Services, extending a hand to people who are in need of guidance and friendship

Today, Saw Min lives in Buffalo, New York with his son. When not working at Evergreen, he works as a chef and sushi manager at a restaurant. Saw Min is not able spend as much time with him as he wishes.

Immigrants and refugees often face unfamiliar and complex systems that create unexpected and difficult challenges. In Buffalo, Saw Min uses his experiences in Japan and the U.S. to help others acclimate to their new home and obtain what they need. During the time that refugees are adapting to their new lives, Saw Min helps them take advantage of the new services available to them. From Burma to Buffalo, Saw Min’s selfless nature is serving the Buffalo community and changing the lives of many.

Authors: Jack Rooks and Carmela Ruiz

Editor: Jessica Scates

Design: Nicole Little