Eh Doh, at 62, can’t help but smile at the thought of starting a whole new life at his age, though that is just what he’s in the process of doing.
A native of Burma (also known as Myanmar), Doh and his family have spent the last 17 years in refugee camps in Thailand. Like thousands of others, they were forced to flee their village due to attacks from the Burmese militia, who have long targeted certain ethnic groups, such as their tribe, known as “Karen.”
Now Doh’s family, along with two other refugee families, are in temporary residence at Jubilee Partners in Comer.
“I feel like a small bird that has flown from the nest,” Doh said in halting English. “I will only look to the future and I will not look back.”
For Doh and his family, the future means a new way of life in America, and eventually, American citizenship.
“They will be American citizens in five years, after going through the naturalization process,” said Jennifer Drago, a counselor who lives and works at Jubilee.
And Doh’s aspirations for his children are not so different from any father’s. He hopes to be able to help guide them in this new world, and he hopes that each will find productive work.
“That’s what I want for them,” he said.
That work will likely consist of factory work, such as at a chicken processing plant or as a housekeeper for the hospitality industry.
“These (refugees) are all documented workers, which makes them attractive for these industries to hire,” Drago said.
Each refugee family spends an average of two months at Jubilee, where Drago says the most important thing they provide is hospitality.
And those lucky few who find themselves there after their flight into Atlanta from Malaysia or Thailand, where they may have been in refugee camps or worse, are embraced, literally and figuratively, by the counselors and their families.
Here in the quiet, rolling, Madison County countryside, they get their first taste of life in America, where a rooster’s crow and the sound of the trains going through Comer are about all the noise they’ll hear while they’re here, unless it is the laughter of their children on the camp’s playground.
“It’s a chance for them to de-stress,” Drago said. “Many of them have come from incredibly stressful situations. Here they can meet Americans, visit with them in their homes and we can learn about each other.”
Drago said in many cases the refugees are victims of ethnic genocide. Some have had their homes, villages, churches and schools burned to the ground, their animals, and their livelihood all taken from them. In desperation, many of them fled across the borders into Thailand and Malaysia, where they were housed in refugee camps. Sometimes the men were kidnapped by the Burmese army and forced into slave labor as “porters” to carry military equipment.
“Their experience may be different, but they all come here as the result of the harsh military regime now in Burma,” Drago said.
At Jubilee, they are furnished a comfortable cabin, medical care, legal assistance and daycare for their children while they attend 18 hours of classes in English, math, banking and other basic skills they’ll need, such as the ability to purchase tickets and travel on MARTA, once they move to their next location with refugee services in DeKalb County. All of this and more is provided to them through donations to Jubilee, a non-profit Christian outreach organization.
LIFE IN THE REFUGEE CAMP
Though Doh refers to himself as a “simple teacher,” who taught math and the Burmese language in the refugee camp where they spent the last 14 years, Drago said they’ve heard he was a leader in the camp of 10,000 to 12,000, where he sometimes served on the education committee.
Doh’s daughter, Htee Moo Thaw attended school in the camp, where she learned some rudimentary English. School began every day at 8:45 a.m., but Htee left home for the two-hour walk each day at 6:45 a.m., walking the two miles back when the school day ended at 3:30 p.m.
When Htee was not in school, she often wove bags, thread by thread, for her family and friends, or to sell for money, which the family used to purchase extra food.
Regular monthly rations in the camp, according to Doh, included 16 kg (about 35 pounds) of rice, oil, fish paste, beans and salt. Twice per year, they also received cans of fish. The food generally was enough to feed the family of five twice a day, until it was later reduced to 12 kg (about 26.5 pounds). To supplement these rations, the family raised ducks and chickens to eat and to sell, and they also picked bananas from the forest.
The camps were set up by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, with rations furnished by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), another non-profit organization that works under the UNHCR.
Drago has high praise for these organizations.
“The (TBBC) is a great organization that began working in the camps 26 years ago when just a few families arrived as refugees and some kind-hearted folks scrambled to provide safety for them for a few weeks — never dreaming it would be 26 years,” she said.
Jubilee Partners is an international Christian outreach refugee organization that has housed more than 3,000 refugees from 31 countries since the first refugees from Cuba came in 1980.
They’ve hosted refugees from Burma since 2007. Last year, they hosted 80 Burmese refugees, which is about average.
“Atlanta receives about 3,000 a year,” she said. “We can (only) host up to five families here at a time for the two-month period.”
Drago said the U.S. government has agreed to take about 100,000 refugees from Burma over the next five or six years, and though the number that comes to Comer is small, Jubilee is glad to do its part.
All donations to Jubilee are tax-deductible. The address is: P.O. Box 68 Comer, GA 30629, call 706-783- 5131, or go to www.jubileepartners.org
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