When Athens resident Esther Htoo arrived in the United States in 2008, she’d been living in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand for 10 years. She arrived in the camp as a 12-year-old girl with her parents, brother and sister, after fleeing the civil war in Myanmar (aka Burma).
Htoo tells of how her family lived in a small mountain village in Myanmar and how, as the battles got more intense around her village, bit by bit, everyone started to leave, traveling over the border of Thailand into refugee camps. She recounts in halting but serviceable English: “My country was so bad because of the civil war. The government fighters were fighting with the Karen soldiers.” (Karen is the ethnic group she comes from.) “They were fighting day and night. We can’t go to school to have our education, and at night we can’t sleep, because they are always fighting.”
For the next 10 years, Htoo lived in the camp with her family. Mae La refugee camp is the largest camp in Thailand, with over 40,000 people crammed into an area about a half-mile wide and three miles long.
Coming from Camps
Refugees entering the U.S. from anywhere in the world have spent an average of nine years at a refugee camp. Many refugees spend far longer in the camps, and only a tiny fraction of the world’s estimated 19.5 million refugees are given the chance to resettle in another country. Of the approximately 150,000 refugees referred for resettlement by the UN Refugee Agency annually, the U.S. normally accepts 70,000—far more than any other country. For 2016, due to a sharp spike in worldwide refugees and the brutal war in Syria, President Obama has raised that number to 85,000.
The application process for resettlement takes an average of 18–24 months. Htoo was able to complete the process in a year. After a person goes through the United Nations’ process and is referred for resettlement, the applicant is interviewed by the U.S. Department of State and then the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If a refugee makes it through all of the interviews and background checks, he or she has to pass a medical screening.
The camp where Htoo and her husband, Sawdaw, grew up was safe, but options are severely limited. There are no legal employment opportunities, and residents are confined to the camp, which is surrounded with a barbed wire fence. There are schools in the camp, which is how Htoo knew some English when she arrived, but higher education is not a possibility for most. Refugees are not citizens in the countries they reside in, and they have few of the rights and protections of citizens.
“I didn’t want to live there, because the education is so low,” Htoo says, softly. “Also, you don’t have a job. It is so poor. Sometimes my son, who was just 2 years old, wanted to have a snack, and I was so sad because I didn’t have money to buy [one] for him. It is so difficult to live in a refugee camp. That’s why I want to live in another country. I want to work; I want to make money; I want to give my son more food.”
The housing in Mae La is very basic and densely packed, with six or seven people sharing a small, one-room hut made of bamboo and leaves. There is no electricity or running water and, needless to say, no privacy. But beyond the lack of material commodities, the main problem in refugee camps is the lack of opportunity and choice.
“Living as a refugee in the camps means having a very uncertain future,” says Jennifer Drago, who has worked with refugees at Jubilee Partners—a Christian service community in Comer, about 10 miles east of Athens, that offers hospitality to refugees—for 20 years. “There’s a lot of boredom, with nothing productive to do; a lot of hopelessness. They also suffer from having very poor health care,” Drago says.
The Htoos arrived in the U.S. eight years ago when their son was 3, and Esther was pregnant with their second child. Asked what is the hardest part of resettling, she says, “Only the English. That is the hardest thing. Sometimes I wish I could talk like I do in my own language, but it’s hard because my English is so little.”
While it’s much easier to learn to adjust to a new culture when you know the language, the main thing refugees need when they arrive in their new country, says Drago, “is a friend, and I mean an American friend, to help them navigate all these different systems. Things that are hard for us to do, like deal with the Social Security office, medical offices… I mean, those are overwhelming for us, but for people who have never had to deal with those kinds of bureaucracies and don’t have the language for it… It’s just impossible.”
As the refugee health coordinator at Jubilee, Drago knows what frequently happens. “Often when there’s a medical need, people don’t go, and if they do go, they don’t know how to follow up,” she says. “If they have insurance, many don’t understand what their insurance will pay for, so they don’t go. Sometimes they can’t get off work, or don’t have transportation. It would be wonderful if every family could have someone who can be a friend and advocate for them.”
Htoo’s family found one such friend in Athens resident Matthew Hicks. As a graduate student at Emory, Hicks had worked with Jubilee on a project. “Ten years later I was out in the work world, and I started thinking about how I could participate in Jubilee’s mission a little more fully,” he says.
As a real estate investor and owner of New Ground Realty, he saw that he had the ability to help refugees out with housing. “What they do at Jubilee is fantastic, and it works, but usually refugees are only at Jubilee for a couple months. My thought was that we could work with a few families to give them a chance to catch their breath, figure out where they are and find work,” he says.
Hicks decided to make one apartment available to a refugee family, offering free rent for a year. He contacted Drago to find a family to take him up on the offer.
“Matthew was offering a very nice two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. For him to offer free rent for a year was incredibly generous, but even so, it was hard to find a family for that apartment,” Drago recalls. “The problem was that no one wanted to be the first in Athens. They were used to living in groups, near other families like them. Who would help them to accomplish all the different things they need to accomplish? And though it was a tremendous offer, Matthew wasn’t promising anything but the apartment.
“Well, finally I found a family who I convinced to come look at the apartment. It was a family of seven, with the grandparents. When Matthew walked in, the grandmother of this family walked over to him and hugged him. That’s when I knew it was going to work. It’s hard to be a pioneer, to be the first ones to step out of your comfort zone.”
That first family was Sawdaw Htoo’s parents, along with one of their daughters and her children. Matthew encouraged them to invite more families and made a total of three apartments available, eventually helping five families by offering a limited time of free rent while they adjusted to their new town.
What motivated Hicks to help refugees? “Certainly my faith has something to do with it,” he says, “and my belief that people who live in very bad conditions in other parts of the world should have a chance to resettle here.”
That’s not an attitude shared by everyone, as many conservative politicians and pundits have called on Obama to stop accepting refugees for fear that, in spite of the rigorous application process, some could be terrorists. “What I wish is that our culture was more empathetic towards refugees that need a place to settle in,” Hicks says. “If I were a father living in another country, and my children weren’t safe, I would do everything I possibly could to get them to a better place. Who wouldn’t do that? Refugee resettlement has become a political hot button, and that’s unfortunate.”
When the Htoo family moved to Athens, they became part of a small group of pioneers. At first there were five families, all related to each other. Then five more came, and there are now at least 10 refugee families settled in Athens—all ethnic Karen and Karenni people who fled the long civil war in Myanmar—and dozens more in Madison and Oglethorpe counties.
For eight years, Hicks has continued to be involved with the five families he provided housing for. He no longer owns the apartments they initially lived in, but he went on to assist three of the families in buying their own homes. “I found houses for them and put my own money up,” he recalls. “They do repay me with interest, but it’s not an exorbitant interest.”
Two of the three families managed to pay their houses off within four years and now own them outright. “It’s amazing,” says Hicks, “More than anything, I think it’s a story about them and their ability to quickly adapt. And it does take some help; it does take people taking a risk.”
A New Home
Esther and Sawdaw Htoo, along with their two children and her parents, are one of the families who have paid off their home. Esther states proudly that they made their last payment this past December. It’s a neat brick, one-story, four-bedroom, two-bath house in a quiet neighborhood filled with similar houses. Inside it’s clean and uncluttered, with sparse, tasteful furnishings. Two other refugee families live in the same neighborhood, and the rest of the families are clustered together in houses about a mile away.
Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
All of the adults in the family work at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant. Esther and her father work the night shift, while her husband and mother work the day shift. They do it this way so someone can always be home with the children.
Most refugees living in Athens and Comer work at a poultry plant—the industry that provides the most jobs for refugees in Georgia. It’s tedious work and physically hard, but the poultry plants pay $10–11 an hour, more than you can get almost anywhere else for unskilled labor, and that makes it hard to leave. Esther stands on her feet for eight hours, five or six nights a week, cutting chicken in the cold factory, moving fast to keep up with the conveyer belts. One day she’d like to get a job that’s not so hard, maybe in a retail store or daycare. “We don’t have much time to be social,” says Esther, laughing, “because sometimes we work 60 hours a week. On Sunday we go to church, and then the whole week is finished.”
Last year the International Rescue Committee (a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency) proposed setting up a small office in Athens and bringing 150 refugees here, but it was rebuffed by local government leaders. Subsequently, an ecumenical group composed of clergy and other citizens formed Welcoming Athens, a group “working to nurture a culture of welcome for all people in Athens and the surrounding area.” Among other things, the group is advocating for the city to let the resettlement office come.
The main reason Mayor Nancy Denson gave for not wanting IRC in Athens was that resources are stretched thin, and her priority is “to take care of the people who are already here,” citing issues with homelessness and panhandling. But some in the U.S. also resist taking refugees because of a concern that some refugees coming in might be criminals, violent radicals or unable to adjust successfully to American culture.
“That’s not why they’re coming here,” says Drago, emphatically. “They’re coming here to work, to go to school and have a better future. Now, after having been here awhile, they’re also part of humanity, and some people do commit crimes, but no more than people from any country. But to say that people come here to sow discord and terrorism in our country, absolutely not. They’re fleeing that! They’re coming here because they want to live in a peaceful place.
“In fact, many refugees are afraid because they’ve heard about American gun violence, and so many refugees do live in big cities where crime is more common. And they are often the victims, because who could be more vulnerable than a new refugee who often won’t call police because they’re too afraid and can’t explain what happened?”
Hicks pushes back against the idea that refugees drain resources. “You know, our local government says that there’s not housing, that there are no jobs, but that’s simply not true,” he says. “Of the group of refugees I’ve been working with, three families own their homes. They live in nice houses in nice neighborhoods, and they did it working at the chicken plant. They work and go to school here and pay property taxes.”
Esther Htoo is grateful for the help she and her family have received. “American people are so kind,” she says. “Matthew helped take care of us and he is very kind. I’m so happy. Our lives are changing. Before I’m so poor. Now I have a job and what I want, I can buy. I can buy things for my children.”
Htoo says initially she thought she wanted to live in a big city, but now she prefers a smaller town. “The main thing is that in the big city everything is more expensive. The apartment is more expensive, so here we can save money. Also, school is close; everything is close to my house.”
Drago chimes in: “Sure, and there’s less crime. It’s easier to get around. It’s only a 10-minute drive to their jobs. Some people commute from Atlanta to work at the poultry plant.
“Since she’s lived here for a while, Esther is able to see the whole picture and all the benefits. But when you first get to a country, you have no idea. Who do you trust and how do you know where to go? These folks have never had bills; they’ve never been in debt. There are very few money exchanges when you’ve been living so many years at a refugee camp.
“The refugees do have drive and vision and hope. They want a good future for themselves and their kids. They’re willing to work hard, but they do need a lot of help, especially at first.
“The ones who make it are true success stories, and the amazing thing is that there are so many who do,” says Drago. “To see the tremendous resiliency and inner strength they have to rebuild a life, to start all over from scratch, with nothing, I get to witness that unfolding all the time.”
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