I was born a refugee with no country to call home. Now, I can gratefully say that I am a United States citizen and am proud to be an American.
My name is Saw Gary and I’m a resettlement case manager at World Relief Spokane. I came to the United States as a refugee from Burma 16 years ago. Now, along with my wife and three young daughters, I live in Spokane.
My parents were persecuted by the Burmese government as Karen people, forced to flee to Thailand before I was born. They raised me in a small Thai village along the Burma-Thailand border. There, my family was safe from the persecution and genocide of the Karen people in Burma.
However, the Thai government did not accept us either. Karen people, even if we were born in Thailand, were seen as less than human and were not granted citizenship or given documentation to work. The Thai government actually deported my family back to Burma when I was only 12 years old. I was “sent back” to a country I had never been to; to a country that spoke a language I had never learned.
Not long after being deported to Burma, we were forced to flee back to Thailand again because the Burmese government had significantly increased the persecution of the Karen people. It was a mass genocide of our people and our culture. You could hear bombings, grenades and shooting all day long.
Once my family had returned to Thailand, we discovered that our house had been demolished by the Thai government. We didn’t know what to do, so we went to a refugee camp we heard about that was full of other Karen people. The camp leaders said we were not allowed. They said we were “too Thai” because we had lived in Thailand for so long. We didn’t know where to go. Burma tried to kill us. Thailand didn’t want us. The refugee camp rejected us. We had no place to call home.
My brother and I heard we could get refugee status if we applied at the United Nations in Bangkok. We had no other options, so we took the dangerous journey to Bangkok, knowing that if we were caught by government officials we could be deported back to Burma.
It took three years before our paperwork was completed and approved, and when the U.N. said I was approved to come to the U.S. as a refugee, I felt numb. It couldn’t be real. I didn’t know what it was to live in a country that accepted me. It wasn’t until after one month of being in the U.S. that I started to feel this freedom. I was not going to be deported, I was not in hiding, I was home. I no longer had to fight for my basic human rights.
A few years later, I became a U.S. citizen. I felt for the first time that I had an identity. I felt proud. I finally belonged to a country I could call home.
Now, in my life in Spokane, I feel welcomed and received. I feel a part of the community here. My daughters go to school. My wife and I work. We pay taxes, and we give back. Our whole life is here.
I continue to believe in the importance of welcoming others. I came to the U.S. without knowing any English and not knowing the culture, but now I get the opportunity to show new refugees that transformation is possible. I did it. I overcame my hardships, so they can too. Watching new refugees go from fear to freedom in their life in Spokane fuels me to keep welcoming more people.
As someone who understands the struggles of refugees firsthand, I am disheartened to see my beloved new home denying the same opportunity to others now facing similarly dangerous situations. It has taken me a long time to feel confident enough to learn to use my voice. And now I feel compelled to use it to advocate for others in similar situations that I was once in. It has become so personal and I see policies and rhetoric affecting my community. I see my friends in pain. I see the organization I work for struggling. I see families not able to be reunited, families in waiting.
I want people who have prejudices against refugees or who are afraid of the concept of refugees to know that most refugees would prefer to stay home – but since it is not safe for us to be in our country, we are forced to flee. We are not here to drain resources, steal jobs, or be on benefits – we come here to work hard, provide for our families, and give a good future to our children. We want to give back to the country that has welcomed us, not to be a drain. In fact, if you think that helping refugees is a burden, I don’t think you have ever actually met a refugee.
During June, which is World Refugee Month, I challenge you to listen in order to understand, no matter what you might already think about refugees. I encourage you to find a refugee friend and listen to their story. Get to know them and their humanity. You’ll likely learn you have more in common than you ever thought you might. They are just like you, just like me, just like all of us.
Saw Gary is a resettlement case manager at World Relief Spokane.
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