I Came to DSM USA as a Refugee but My Story Doesn't Stop There
The idea many people associate with the word “refugee” is people fleeing their home country and relocating to a new one. Then that story stops. However, the story after resettlement is worth telling. Just like many others, I came to the U.S. looking for new opportunity and a new community to call home. After going back to school and entering the professional world, I realized I wanted to give back to my community and work in the nonprofit sector.
My siblings and I were all born during the 19 years we spent living in refugee camps. When I was five-years-old, the Burmese military attacked the camp I was living in, so we had to flee to a second camp in Baw Naw, Thailand where we lived until our resettlement to the U.S.
My Refugee Camp Experience
During our time in the refugee camp, we lived without electricity or running water. I would collect firewood to cook our meals over the fire. Education was very limited in the refugee camps, since none of my family members were citizens of Burma nor Thailand, we could not further our education after 10th grade. Employment was also scarce; my family would have to sneak out of the camp underneath barb wire fences to work for a Thai farmer to be able to provide a small meal for our family.
Coming to the U.S.
My family and I came to the U.S. in phases, just the way resettlement works. My older brother first arrived in the U.S. in 2007, then my parents followed in February 2008, and finally, I arrived in July 2008. I had plenty of anxiety, fear and a little bit of hope. I was anxious about going to a completely new place, fearful that we would not be welcomed and survive but hopeful of the second chance in life I was receiving. We were resettled in Greater Des Moines (DSM). I have found DSM to be very nice, compassionate and, above all, welcoming of me and the thousands of refugees who have made DSM their new home since then. I feel lucky that I was resettled in DSM and wouldn’t change that for anything.
Arriving in DSM USA
I was 19-years-old when I first arrived in DSM. I knew that I wanted to further my education in this land of opportunities, so I started taking English as a Second Language classes at DMACC to help me better adapt to my new community. I had some previous English language knowledge, but soon realized people spoke a lot faster and it was harder to understand. The size of the houses, access to electricity and weather were some of the things that first shocked me. I was happy I no longer had to collect firewood to cook or use candles to see at night. But I didn’t expect summers to be as hot as Thailand, I thought America would be very cold!
Since I arrived, I have been a volunteer for my church and community by taking people to their doctors’ appointments and helping with school registration. In 2011, I started working for Lutheran Services in Iowa, managing an elderly aid program, and then went on to work for Des Moines Public Schools as an outreach worker in November 2011. I currently work as a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member for the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, an NGO I helped co-found. This organization acts as a bridge that connects the community to established resources. EMBARC has three offices in Iowa located in DSM, Marshalltown and Waterloo.
I’m grateful to have resettled here in DSM. I have been able to grow both professionally and personally. I became a U.S. citizen the same year I earned my high school diploma from DMACC in 2014. I have gone back to school to continue to further my education and am still involved in the communities around me.
I’m grateful for the help offered to me in DSM from community organizations upon my resettlement, and it’s made it apparent to me that I need to return the gesture of providing aid to others. Along with serving as an AmeriCorps member, I also serve on the EMBARC board, my church board and do public speaking about my story as a Burmese refugee and how we can help this community.
I am just like you because I am a human too and I want to help others around me. I want my community to have a better life and I have compassion just like you.
Through the Global DSM initiative, the Greater Des Moines Partnership works to establish Greater Des Moines as a global community through bolstering global trade and foreign investments and leveraging international talent. To learn more, click here.