LIRS’s upcoming Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is diverse: home countries, religions, and native languages vary. But despite these differences, their passion for serving their communities is notably consistent. This passion is evident in Ser EhDoh Htoo, an Academy participant and former refugee from Burma who now lives in Utah. Ser was a small child when he and his family were forced to flee Burma. He spent his childhood in a Thai refugee camp. Now that he has resettled to the United States, he can proudly say that he is the first person in his family to complete high school and attend college. He is known to his community as an inspiration for others.
Ser EhDoh Htoo writes:
I am a Karen refugee from Burma. I was born in a Karen state, but when I was a small child, my family was forced to flee Burma because of war and persecution. We found safety in the Thai refugee camp, Mae La. I spent my whole life in the refugee camp, so I do not know anything about my home country. All I know is it that it is not a safe place to live and there is war every day. I lived in the Mae La camp until I turned thirteen, in 2008. Then, my family resettled in the United States.
Life in a refugee camp is difficult. There is no freedom. Refugees can’t go outside the camp and the Thai police control everything. This causes stress and depression for many people. My mom knew that if we stayed in the refugee camp there would be no future for her family so she decided to move us to the United States.
The most difficult cultural barriers I faced in United States were going to the doctor’s office, learning to drive a car, and living in Western-style houses. I did not speak English and knew nearly nothing about the culture and laws of this country. In the United States, my family lived in many states because my mom couldn’t find a job because she doesn’t speak English. Even though she works hard, there is not enough money to support our family because all the money she earns pays for the rent.
I am the first person in my family’s generation to complete high school and have the opportunity to attend college. That was the happiest moment for my family and me. By attending college I want to be good example to my younger sister and other Karen people.
A common challenge in our community is overcoming the language barrier. Many Karen senior adults have been living in the United States for more than five years but are unable to receive U.S. citizenship because of the difficulty in learning English. These are challenges that need to be addressed in our community.
I want to let my people know that they are not alone. We all are facing the same challenges and we need to turn our challenges into opportunities. My passion is to help the Karen people, especially those struggling to learn English. I know I don’t have the opportunity to help my people who are suffering in Burma but if I can help those in United States, I will feel like I’m making some contributions and giving back.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I work for the refugee services office in Utah to help the Karen Community of Utah (KCU). My goal is to help all Karen people feel a real sense of belonging in the United States and to become contributing members of their communities. I have worked with the KCU programs to build community cohesion and help newly resettled Karen refugees integrate with the larger mainstream community. Creating programs and activities for youth and parents to help them feel connected is one step in building this community cohesion. Bridging such connections also helps reduce school dropouts and drug and alcohol abuse.
I believe that the LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is a powerful tool that will help me more effectively serve my community. At the LIRS Academy, I am expecting to gain more knowledge about the government system and programs that are beneficial to the community. In addition, I hope to connect with local resources or partners that I can refer people to. Overall, I hope this LIRS program will build my skills that could be, in return, a huge benefit to my community.