Photo story: Finding home from Myanmar

Moon Hen waits expectantly for her brother, San Neng, and his wife and child to arrive at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. They have not seen each other in five years, since Moon Hen left Myanmar with her husband in 2012.

By Katherine Lewin |

My work with refugees mostly involves trying to explain to people who don’t know me and don’t speak my language that I am not there to get them into trouble. Most of the time, I can only hope that the interpreter is fully explaining that I am a journalist–I’m there to help them tell their story. It also consists of some awkward moments with my camera pretty close to their face or the both of us staring at each other during an interview while the one is speaking in a language the other doesn’t understand at all.

Oftentimes they don’t trust me or feel comfortable with having their photo taken. We struggle to communicate clearly with each other through a translator that may not know their unique dialect.

But it’s through these struggles that I have moments where I see in this other person’s eyes–a person who in most ways is completely different and foreign to me–the familiar love for a child, the familiar spark of laughter, or the shining emptiness that is the universal reflection of grief and tears. I may not know their past or their language, and they may not know mine, but we do share this.

Through these struggles to communicate, I find answers to the questions I have about what it’s like to be thrown out of one country and not welcomed anywhere else; what it’s like to feel lost and scared that this day may be the last; what it’s like to want, at the very least, safety for the next generation and to not be sure they’re going to get it.

These are the questions that I ask myself and deeply consider when working with refugees to put myself in their shoes.

Imagine, just for the few minutes it takes to read this article, that you are a refugee.

When you have not known peace in so long you can’t remember the last time you could take a full breath of air; when you have seen your friends and family blown apart, shot and raped; when you have been told that you don’t belong where you took your first steps and where your grandparents and their parents took their first steps.

What do you think when you see America’s neat rows of houses? Our neatly vigilant police? Our neat streets with our giant green signs telling you exactly how to get where you’re going?

What do you think when you understand, though you may not know the exact numbers, that there are 65.6 million people displaced all around the world. What do you think when you know there are that many people who share your sleepless nights and your memories that are more like nightmares?

What do you think about when you land in the Jacksonville International Airport, and you know that for the displaced peoples and the 22.5 million official refugees in the world, roughly 16 percent will be hosted in the Americas. So you each only have about a 1 in 10 million chance of being selected to live even anywhere near the United States.

In fiscal year 2016, only 96,900 people were admitted as refugees into the U.S.

What do you think about when it fully sinks in, standing underneath that giant star-spangled banner in the brightly lit atrium of the Jacksonville Airport, that you are the 1 percent that are selected to live in the United States of America? 

This enormous American flag is one of the first things you see when you arrive at the Jacksonville International Airport.

Moon Hen waits expectantly for her brother, San Neng, and his wife and child to arrive at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. They have not seen each other in five years, since Moon Hen left Myanmar with her husband in 2012.

Moon Hen and her family are of the Kachin minority, an ethnic group that lives mostly in the Northern region of Myanmar, on the border with China. The Kachin are persecuted because most of them are Christians, but there are Buddhists among the Kachin, which is the official religion of Myanmar.

The Kachin State also has ample valuable resources that the Burmese government covets, such as jade and timber.

Moon Hen greeted her brother, San Neng, with a quick handshake. She reaches out to her nephew, Bawi Tha, who will turn three in November.

More than 100,000 people are currently displaced in Kachin State. The Burmese government and military are accused of numerous human rights abuses against the Kachin ethnic groups, including land confiscations, forced labor, sexual violence, conversion activities and elimination of Kachin people from community and government leadership positions. There are also reports of the Burmese government offering lower food prices to those who convert to Buddhism.

Before leaving Myanmar, San Neng’s family were rice and corn farmers. But since 2011, the situation in the Kachin region has only worsened.

There are frequent land and aerial assaults meant for rebel camps – but civilians are killed in the assaults as well. Those that survive are forced to leave their homes. Once displaced, they live in camps scattered across the mountains that have little protection from the military and no access to humanitarian aid.

Bawi Tha looks out from the safety of his mother’s arms. Zing Lat, 31, says that her son is malnourished. He will receive medical attention with the financial and logistical help of the Refugee Resettlement Program at the Diocese of St. Augustine in Jacksonville.

Basic medical assistance is unheard of for minorities in Myanmar. Many people struggle to get even the necessities like food and water because the government and military block most humanitarian efforts.

Bawi Tha and his family spent 2 1/2 years attempting to reach the United States. After fleeing Myanmar, they stopped in Thailand to go through the numerous interviews and wade through the paperwork that would allow them into the U.S.

Travel time to Jacksonville then took more than 15 hours. Upon arrival, the Refugee Resettlement Program gives the family $40: $20 per adult, for pocket money. They also make sure that the arriving refugees will have a warm meal that is familiar to them.

Moon Hen made beef, white rice and fried vegetables for her family, a typical dish of their homeland.

(from left to right) Moon Hen, Bawi Tha, Zing Lat and San Neng pose for a photo together shortly after seeing each other again for the first time in five years.

Moon Hen and her husband will host San Neng and his family at their house until they can begin work and afford a place of their own.

Bawi Tha does not let go of his mother for even a moment on their way through the airport.

Back in the Kachin State, women and children are driven by poverty into forced labor and the sex trade, typically ending up in Rangoon or China. The Refugee Resettlement Program in Jacksonville will make sure that San Neng and his family find honest work and a safe place to live.

These (almost) three-year-old feet have traveled many war-torn miles. But they are now safe from the helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, mortar bombs and parachute bombs that still impact the Kachin State today.

“We are looking forward to the safety of the United States, a decent and good life with basic necessities, and a safe, bright future for our son. Now that we have arrived, we feel safe and happy.”

Zing Lat smiles easily for a photo with her son in the parking garage, right before they get in the car with Moon Hen to go to their new home. Bawi Tha’s expression did not change the entire time, from the first moment I saw him until the last. I wonder if he is still too young to understand just how far they have come.

For more information on how you can help, please contact the Refugee Resettlement Program of the Diocese of St. Augustine.
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