About the Author: Adam Zerbinopoulos serves as the Deputy Refugee Coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
BANGKOK, September 25 -- Even though it’s 5 a.m., Myint Myint (not his real name) has been on the move for hours. It was a long way from the refugee camp to the hotel yesterday, and he had to wake up at 2 o’clock this morning to get to the airport on time.
But this is only the latest stage in a journey that has lasted years. Myint Myint and his family, members of the Karen ethnic group, were forced to leave their village in Burma after it was attacked by Burmese soldiers. Burmese troops routinely burn crops, rout villagers from their homes, and force them into portering and other grueling labor. Rape and murder are common. In the last two decades, hundreds of thousands of villagers, most of them from ethnic minority groups, have been violently displaced.
Burmese troops pushed Myint Myint’s family out of their village in 2004. After weeks of moving through the jungle, Myint Myint and his family crossed the border into Thailand and arrived at Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp. None of them thought that they would spend the next several years there. Myint Myint and his family always hoped to return to their village, but with each passing year of continued conflict that dream seemed more and more like an illusion.
Then, last year, Myint Myint learned about something exciting: a way out. As part of a long-standing commitment to the world’s refugees, the United States contributes nearly a billion dollars a year to provide millions of refugees around the world with food, housing, education and a sanitary environment. To the most vulnerable refugees, the United States offers a chance to apply for resettlement. Every year the United States accepts more refugees for resettlement than any other country.
Myint Myint and his family are among the last to depart in fiscal year 2008, when over 60,000 refugees worldwide were admitted to the United States. More than 14,000 of these refugees are Burmese who fled to Thailand. Many of them have lived in refugee camps for decades, or, in some cases, all their lives. The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in Thailand is a humanitarian partnership between the United States Government, the Royal Thai Government, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Two implementing agencies, the Overseas Processing Entity managed by the International Rescue Committee and the International Organization for Migration, coordinate the processing of refugees for admission to the United States.
Myint Myint was one of the thousands of Burmese refugees in Thailand eligible to apply to the U.S. resettlement program through UNHCR. After completing his initial paperwork with the Overseas Processing Entity, Myint Myint was interviewed by a U.S. immigration official to determine his eligibility for entry into the United States.
As he waits in the airport, Myint Myint is not sure what he will find in the United States. Upon arrival he will be greeted by representatives of the sponsoring resettlement agency that will provide initial services, which include housing, essential furnishings, food, clothing, community orientation, and referral to other social, medical and employment services, for the refugees’ first 30-90 days in the United States.
The normally bustling airport is quiet at this hour. Myint Myint and his family wait quietly near the gate. While the small children smile and play, the older relatives look anxious. Understandably, Myint Myint admits to feeling a little overwhelmed. For him and other refugees, many more challenges lie ahead, including learning English, finding a job, and adapting to a new culture. It has been a long journey from a Burmese village. But Myint Myint is hopeful that when he gets to America, he will have arrived home.