Group cites ongoing conflict in Myanmar as reason against premature repatriation of more than 130,000 refugees in camps.
My name is Hsar Lar Doe. I am 32 years old. I was born in Gee Lo, a small village in the countryside of Myanmar. My family were farmers. My village was a “Dark Zone”. The soldiers didn’t need permission to kill villagers there.
I was four years old when my father was killed by soldiers who suspected that our village was giving food to the rebel forces. I didn’t see it happen and I only remember him from a picture. I cannot say what his real face looks like.
In 1995, my younger brother, Kree Kre, and I left the village with our grandparents; we went to a refugee camp located on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. Everybody wanted to go to the camp, but there is not enough room, so parents often stay behind. It was hard to say goodbye to my mum.
I lived in the refugee camp for nearly 15 years.
The camp was controlled by the Thai authorities. They gave us a little bit of food and told us to stay inside the camp. We did not have any chance to find money or work outside of the camp. You don’t have any rights or freedom inside the refugee camp; life was really like being in a cage.
There was a school in my camp, but when you finished there was no opportunity for further education. Usually, people get married, they have children, and then they work for their community. Then the children go to school; it’s kind of a circle. We just followed the order of the authority. It was very strict.
Most people who came to the refugee camp were suspected of supporting the rebels. If you went back to your country there was no trust. While I was in the camp I heard about something that was sometimes a rumour, but sometimes real. The authorities would send a refugee back to their homeland, where the people in charge could do whatever they wanted to them. There was no way I could go back to Myanmar.
The United Nations was trying to get the refugees out of camps by finding countries to accept us. If another country was willing to take refugees then we could apply for acceptance. In the beginning they said, “Here are two or three countries that will accept refugees.”
By the time I applied the only choice was the US.
I was interviewed by the local government; they asked me why I left my country and why I wanted to leave the refugee camp. Before I came to the US I was interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and they asked me the same questions.
I wanted to come to the US because I knew that it was a free country, a democratised country, and it could give me more opportunity. Every person has the opportunity to study and the opportunity to work. The most important thing was safety: We never had safety in the refugee camp.
My application was approved in 2010, and I moved to Kentucky. It was scary in the beginning because life in the US is totally different from Myanmar.
I learned to speak a little bit of English in the refugee camp, but I had very limited language skills. The people were welcoming but it was hard to communicate.
I worked a lot in my country, but the way we work there and the way people work in the US is so different. In my country, most of the time, we work our own job and the time is more flexible. You can rest, and you can work hard. You don’t have to do one thing the same way all the time.
My brother also came to the US; he was living in Iowa. I wanted to be close to him, so I left Kentucky.
I found work at a meat packing plant. In the beginning it was so strange and scary because I never saw people kill animals that much. I worked there for seven months. It was great to be with my brother.
In 2011, my friend Thomas, also from Myanmar, was working as a programme coordinator at The Refugee Response in Cleveland, Ohio. The Refugee Response helps refugees by providing us with jobs and assistance as we adjust to life in our new community.
Thomas told me they were starting a farm, and if I wanted to work I could have a job. Farming was familiar to me because I grew vegetables in my country, so I accepted the job and moved to Cleveland. Now, I am the site manager on the farm.
I plant seeds and prepare the beds, I harvest crops in the morning, I sort them out, and I deliver produce to local restaurants. I manage a crew of nine people from five different countries. I like it. It reminds me of my home country.
When I first came to the US I thought I’d have an opportunity to go to school. When I was in the refugee camp I was interested in computers, but when I came to the US I realised that it’s hard for me to get into what I’m really interested in because having a job is the most important thing in the US, especially as a refugee. If you don’t work, you can’t take the risk. My job is the biggest priority for me.
It was really hard to get involved with the community when I lived in other cities. My daily routine was to sleep, go to work all day, then sleep.
The Refugee Response created an opportunity for me to get involved more in the community. We sell produce to restaurants, so I feel like I have an opportunity to meet people. We have many visitors who come to the farm and I have a chance to talk with them … I feel more like I am in the US.
I like American culture but we do not want to lose our culture. We don’t have to forget everything from the past; we can adjust by taking the good parts here and maintaining our good parts, too.
For me, for now, Cleveland is a good place. I have a community from Myanmar here, and some family and friends, and I am happy at The Refugee Response. I am applying for citizenship – we never dreamed of becoming US citizens. We always felt like there was a different world and nobody imagined that one day we could be there.