Steven Sanyu’s home country of Burma has been in a state of civil war for the last 59 years. Burma (now known as Myanmar) has had ongoing ethnic conflicts ever since it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948.
Steven Sanyu grew up in Burma. A politician and a major in a student led militia, Sanyu was raised to stand up for his people and what he believed in. Because Steven’s beliefs differed from the Burmese armed forces, they targeted and arrested him, his family, colleagues, and associates on multiple occasions.
Sanyu fled to Thailand as a political refugee and later applied for refugee resettlement and resettled in the United States.
U.S. administrations and policy changes have a major impact on refugees around the world. The United States has a history of welcoming tens of thousands of refugees every year. However, the Bush and Clinton administrations placed higher restrictions on refugee resettlement and more recently, Trump’s administration blocked refugees from coming to the U.S.
The U.S. policy pertaining to Burma changed rapidly after the military crackdown on the Saffron Revolution in September and October 2007, when the Burmese armed forces fired on peaceful protests in urban areas in Burma and detained several hundred civilians. Sanyu recalls rapid large-scale flight from Burma after this tragedy; thousands of refugees applied for refugee resettlement in the United States. After the Saffron Revolution, most refugees were from rural areas, had little to no education, and did not speak English. A majority spent a large amount of time, even decades, in refugee camps in Thailand, Laos, and China. Though there were self- run schools, children felt little to no motivation to attend, adult illiteracy rates were high, and camps lacked health care facilities.
Sanyu was one of the very first Burmese people to resettle in Buffalo. Arriving on January 20th, 2000, he slowly witnessed the number of individuals and families from Burma increase.
When Steven and other refugees resettle in Buffalo, four resettlement agencies work to assist them in their transition to U.S. systems and culture. However, federal funding is available for only three months, too little time for a newly arrived family to transition to self-sustainabilit
Witnessing that his community members who needed extra support, Sanyu’s founded The Burmese Community Services, Inc. with a mission to assist refugees and immigrants with any issues they are facing including cultural adjustment, accessing local resources, and language barriers. Sanyu helps Burmese refugees who do not speak English to enroll their children in school and set up medical appointments – preventive care is not common in Burma and healthcare systems differ considerably.
Almost two decades after his first day in Buffalo, Sanyu continues to aid those in need and stand up for what he believes is just. Reflecting on why he goes to such lengths to help his New American neighbors, he explains “I know you [refugees] are the people. You are the humi, [the people], and you need assistance from us. That’s all.” Steven’s bravery as a politician in Burma, a refugee in Thailand, and now a New American in the United States is most clearly seen when, even though he has lost so much at the hands of people, he works to uphold and honor people every day.