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Burmese immigrants pursue home ownership, education, career (Video)

Sept. 6, 2012 at 4:06 a.m.
Updated Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:10 a.m.

Baby Boy is his name. Born prematurely in a Thailand refugee camp to Karen parents escaping the military atrocities in Myanmar, Baby Boy and his family relocated to Georgia, then eventually moved to Port Lavaca.

Baby Boy is his name. Born prematurely in a Thailand refugee camp to Karen parents escaping the military atrocities in Myanmar, Baby Boy and his family relocated to Georgia, then eventually moved to Port Lavaca.

PORT LAVACA - The 200 block of Bonham Street in Port Lavaca is fairly ordinary as far as streets in the coastal community go.

Lined with '70s-era modernist architecture homes reminiscent of the days of Marcia, Greg and the rest of "The Brady Bunch," the neat, tree-lined block features a soundtrack of neighborly hellos, children's laughter and porch chairs creaking.

But for Daro Ma and his family, their white-trimmed, brown-brick, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a front porch represents much more than just a place to call home.

It is the culmination of countless hours of hard work and years of hopes and dreams for a better life. Ma and his family first moved into the Bordeaux Apartments when they came to Port Lavaca.

"If you live in the apartments and pay for a long time, it will never be yours," Ma, with the help of his daughter Bar Ret Htoo translating, said about his desire to move his family from their apartment into their own home in August 2011. "You will have to pay forever.

"For my kids to grow up and get a good education, I wanted them to have their own house."

Ma and his family are one of a growing number of Karen refugee families who have made the transition from renters to homeowners, making yet another step toward solidifying their place in America.


"It's the first time I've had my own room," Htoo said as she turned the doorknob to a lavender-colored room at the end of a hallway. "I wanted to paint it red, but purple looked better."

A 14-year-old's personal sanctuary, the room was decorated with Hello Kitty paraphernalia, a certificate of her baptism, a simple wood desk and chair and a ceiling full of glow-in-the dark stars.

Pictures of friends and medals for Htoo's many feats in track also canvass the walls.

She even managed to sneak her favorite color, red, into the room via a multi-color bed comforter.

"It feels good to decorate your own room," the Travis Middle School eighth-grader said, grinning.

Previously, the only place Htoo had her own room was in her dreams.

She and her family came to Port Lavaca in 2007 from a refugee camp in Thailand. One of five children - three boys and two girls - Htoo lived in a shanty house of sorts, with everyone sleeping, eating and living in one room.

While the Bordeaux Apartments provided the large family with more modern accommodations, Ma said, it was not suitable for the long term.

All 136 units at the Bordeaux were rented by Karen families when Ma and his family moved there.

Today, only about 40 units are occupied by Karen families.

Families have either moved away to different apartment complexes or rental homes, or they have made the leap to purchase single-family homes.

In some instances, multiple families have pooled their resources to purchase homes, which they share.

Although the complex provided a sense of familiarity for the fish-out-of-water community, Ma said the apartment and its appliances were old and in need of major repairs. The noise and drug usage in the area also made moving a necessity, he said.

Ma, who had previously served in an elected position similar to that of a mayor in the refugee camp, and his wife, Hsa Pree, worked long hours as packers at Inteplast to save money to purchase their first home.

He and his wife saved for several years before they applied and were approved for a 15-year mortgage.

They borrowed money from friends to come up with the down payment.

"He doesn't think it's his house because it is not paid off yet," Htoo said about her father.

The house is home to Htoo, her parents, her younger sister and one of her older brothers.

Shortly after the family arrived in Port Lavaca, Htoo's two oldest brothers moved to start their own families.

One of the brothers and his family live at the Bordeaux.

The family has fully embraced the joys and responsibilities of home ownership.

From throwing a traditional American housewarming party to buying their own barbecue grill for family cookouts and even working together to grow a garden of mostly peppers and pumpkins, Ma and his family have made themselves right at home.


Dr. Gillian V. Kwi has worked as a dentist in the Crossroads for the past 22 years.

During her time in the area, she has made a mark on the local community, but arguably her biggest impact was starting the movement to bring other Karen to the Port Lavaca area.

In early 2007, she helped eight Karen people find employment at Inteplast and get settled into the area.

In turn, this opened the door for hundreds of more Karen to move to the area.

Her own upbringing led to her desire to take on such a large project.

The eldest of two children, Kwi was born in Myanmar to a Kachin father and a Karen mother, both of whom were college-educated.

When Kwi was a teenager, her mother left to pursue a master's degree in library science from a school in Pennsylvania.

While there, Kwi's mother gained a better understanding of not only what life was like in the United States, but also the perils that lay ahead for her home nation.

She returned home after graduation and began preparations to relocate her family from socialist Myanmar to the United States.

A few years later, Kwi's parents were granted work visas, and the family made the move to the other side of the world.

The Kwis left in the 1980s, before the worst fighting and violence started.

They landed in Terre Haute, Ind.

At that time, during the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, not many people had fled from Myanmar to the U.S., especially none to their Midwestern city.

Adjusting to life in the rural city was a culture shock in itself, but the family was particularly taken aback by the constitutional mandate separating church and state.

"We thought America was a Christian country," Kwi said. "How can you rule a country or state without God? Christianity should be a way of life from top to bottom from Monday through Sunday."

Kwi soon learned English and enrolled at Indiana University, majoring in pre-medicine and biology.

Mastering the English language and her course material was a challenge for the bright student.

"If it took others two hours to read several chapters, it took me double," Kwi said. "I studied with fears and tears."

She went on to attain her doctorate of dental surgery from Indiana University's school of medicine.

In 1990, she moved to Port Lavaca and opened her dental practice, moving her parents and brother with her.

Although they were a world away from Myanmar, Kwi said, her family never forgot their homeland.

Her mother prayed daily for the Karen still in Myanmar and those in the Thailand camps.

During the years, Kwi has been on two missionary trips to the camps.

Thus, when the opportunity came to assist some people from her native land, she did not hesitate to help.

"It was by the grace of God," said Kwi. "God sent me here and gave me this education and position to help." "God planned it that way."

Even now, five years since more Karen arrived in Port Lavaca, she still steps in to lend a helping hand when necessary.

"If I didn't help them in some situations, they couldn't get help," she said. Even if native English speakers "have the heart to help, there is a language barrier."

Seeing the families become independent and build their own lives in the community makes her efforts worth it, Kwi said.

"I'm very proud of them. I wish them well," she said. "I'm sure they will continue to multiply their skills."


Baby Boy.

Most people familiar with Port Lavaca's Karen community know the unusual name, even if they have never met him in person.

Boy, who is actually 22 years old, earned local recognition when he became the first Karen student to graduate from Calhoun High School in June 2011.

His name remained a fixture in local conversations when he became the first of the area Karen students to enroll in college classes, starting at Victoria College in August 2011.

"I'm a little bit proud, but not much," said the modest young man, who slightly blushed and looked away in embarrassment during talk of his accomplishments.

Boy said he received his unique name after being born seven weeks premature in Mae la, a Thailand refugee camp.

A family friend always referred to the child as "Baby Boy" and pretty soon so did everyone else.

The term of endearment stuck as his legal name.

The spiky-haired, young adult donning jeans and T-shirt recalled moving to Atlanta with his family at the age of 17.

He and his three younger siblings went to school both in the camp and in Atlanta, where they attended an international school and a regular school.

He completed ninth and 10th grades in Atlanta before moving to Port Lavaca for his junior year of high school.

His parents, Mya Mya and He Tha, took jobs as packers at Inteplast.

A minister, Tha also serves as one of the pastors for the Port Lavaca Karen Fellowship Church.

Boy picked up English at a moderate pace, finally becoming comfortable enough by the time he arrived at Calhoun High to hold conversations with native English speakers he did not know.

As he grasped a working knowledge of the language, he began to shine academically, passing classes such as physics, chemistry, algebra II and pre-calculus.

The only time Boy, who speaks Karen and Thai, said he felt held back academically was when Calhoun High School administrators would not let him enroll in any advanced placement classes or take any other foreign language classes.

He subsequently graduated 90-something of 200 students in his class and enrolled in college, completing the admission paperwork with little help.

He pays for college with the help of his parents and a grant, but he expects he will have to find a part-time job and apply for student loans for this upcoming school year

At this point, Boy said, he speaks English better than he can write the language.

However, his sister, Monday, who is starting her first semester at Victoria College, is the complete opposite as far as fluency goes.

Being a college student has not been without its challenges for Boy, who is still learning the nuances of the language, along with trying to learn the information in his classes.

The second-year college student said he would eventually like to transfer to the University of Houston and major in chemical engineering with a minor in photography.

"It's kind of a challenge. I know there will be a lot of hard things up ahead, but I'm ready."


Younger Karen are looking to achieve Boy's high levels of success.

While 12-year-old Christina Htoo, no relation to Bar Ret Htoo, hopes to become a singer and actress like her idol Selena Gomez, others like Wah Moo Paw hope to pursue more conventional career paths.

Inspired by her cousin who is a nurse in Thailand, 18-year-old Paw hopes to become a registered nurse. She has been volunteering at Port Lavaca's Memorial Medical Center for the summer to familiarize herself with the medical field.

"I just have the feeling to be a nurse. I like to help people," said Paw, who came to Port Lavaca in 2007. "I like that I get to meet a lot of people."

Paw said she was not intimidated by the many years of school ahead for her chosen career.

"I will have a career and my own life." she said. "I won't have to depend on my parents."

Against her parents' wishes, Bar Ret Htoo said she aspires to enroll in cosmetology school after high school.

She has been styling the hair of her friends and others who live at the Bordeaux Apartments for the past couple of years.

Most recently, she was commissioned to do hair for someone going to prom and for a bride on her wedding day.

My dad "wants us to have a good education, job and a nice house," said Bar Ret Htoo. "He thinks if I become a doctor then I can easily travel between here and Myanmar."


The integration of the Karen refugees into the Crossroads could result in a mutually beneficial relationship to both the newcomers and existing residents in the long run, said Julie Weise, an assistant professor in California State University, Long Beach's International Studies Program.

This symbiotic relationship can result in immigrants not only becoming important, productive members of society, but buying into the American Dream of equality, democracy and material prosperity, Weise said.

Often to the dismay of immigrant elders, younger generations may not choose to learn their culture's language and customs. And they may even choose to marry outside their culture.

Balancing her identity as both a Karen and an American is something Bar Ret Htoo faces daily.

While she speaks English fluently and shares the same interests and lives of most typical American teens, she is Karen the moment she walks through the door at home.

There, she eats Karen food, follows Karen customs and speaks only the Karen language.

"I don't like to speak English in front of my parents," she said. "It feels weird because I'm not used to talking English around them."

Even when she is out in public with her family, she tries to avoid serving as a translator if possible.

Whenever possible, she does try to share aspects of her culture with her American friends, though.

Despite the clash of these two worlds, Weise said, historians "already know how the story ends" for second-generation immigrants and beyond.

"Historically," she said, "the American side always wins."



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