Just before 8 p.m. on the last day of September, eight weary travelers touched down on the tarmac at Spokane International Airport and caught their first glimpse of their new home, more than 7,000 miles from the refugee camp where they had spent the past 14 years.
Bu Hae Gay, 31, and her husband, Pu Pu, 46, entered the terminal with their six kids, ages 1 to 13, who had never known life beyond the barbed wire fence that surrounds the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. About a dozen friends and relatives were there to greet them, including her sister, Aye Naw Win, who arrived in Spokane with their mother in 2007.
“I was so happy to meet all the family, including my mother and sister, who I hadn’t seen in 13 years,” Bu Hae Gay said later through an interpreter.
The kids embraced cousins they had known only through the occasional video call. Mark Finney, director of World Relief Spokane, a Christian group that helps refugees settle in their new homes, said the adults were more stoic, “But you could see in people’s eyes and on their faces how glad they were to see each other.”
Spokane’s newest residents didn’t know it at the time, but they would be among the last refugees to enter the United States before President Donald Trump put unprecedented restrictions on refugee arrivals. Less than an hour after they touched down in Spokane, the Trump administration notified Congress it would limit refugee admissions in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to just 15,000, a historic low.
The notice, sent just before a midnight deadline on the East Coast, was the culmination of a four-year effort by the White House that lowered the cap on refugee resettlement by more than 82% since Trump took office.
“We didn’t know when – or, really, if – we would be seeing any other families after theirs,” Finney said. “We knew that was sort of the last night, depending on how the election went. We had no idea what we would see.”
The World Relief director, whose group has welcomed more than 10,000 refugees to Eastern Washington since 1992, said Bu Hae Gay and Pu Pu’s arrival was in many ways like others he has witnessed at the airport.
“Any time we have family members coming that are reunited with family, it’s always one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Finney said. “I just feel so in touch with what it means to be an American when I watch a family who’s been separated by violence and thousands of miles and geopolitical conflict be able to be with each other again. I just love that that happens in America. It’s just a unique thing about our culture, our society.”
Aye Naw Win, 43, came to Spokane from the Mae La camp with her mother, 79-year-old Khin Thein. They are members of the Karen community, an ethnic minority in Burma, the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar. Since their arrival in 2007, they had waited, hoping Khin Thein’s younger daughter and her family would make it through the increasingly restrictive U.S. refugee resettlement process.
“The thing that was different was the climate,” Finney said. “We’d already been told to expect no refugee arrivals at all for the month of October, anticipating that the White House would be dragging their feet or avoiding the issue altogether of reopening the program for the next fiscal year.”
As of Nov. 14, no more refugees have arrived in Spokane since the end of September. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees,” but experts caution it could take months or even years to restore the refugee resettlement infrastructure that has atrophied in the Trump era.
Refugee admissions plummet under Trump
The world is seeing more people than ever forced to flee their homes. At the end of 2019, the United Nations estimated nearly 80 million people were forcibly displaced, including 26 million refugees outside their home countries.
Nearly three-quarters of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, but for decades the United States had led the world’s wealthy nations in welcoming those fleeing conflict and persecution abroad. That ended in 2018, when Canada – with a population nearly 10 times smaller – surpassed the U.S. in refugee resettlement.
Congress established the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in 1980. That year, the nation welcomed more than 207,000 refugees, and for decades the refugee program was a national point of pride with wide, bipartisan support among politicians, in part because of the strong backing of faith-based resettlement agencies like World Relief.
The ceiling, set by the president at the end of each fiscal year, fell to an average of 76,000 between 1983 and 1988 before rising as high as 142,000 at the end of the Cold War as the U.S. opened its doors to people fleeing the former Soviet Union. The annual cap had never dropped below 67,000 until Trump took office.
In one of his first acts as president, Trump issued an executive order in January 2017 that slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country by more than half and suspended the refugee program altogether for 120 days.
While Trump lowered the upper limit on refugees allowed into the country, his administration took other actions that barred refugees based on religion and nationality. The same Jan. 2017 executive order, billed as “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry,” brought the first iteration of the so-called “Muslim ban” Trump had promised on the campaign trail.
Despite Trump administration policies that favor Christians and other religious groups over Muslims, a report published by World Relief in July found a 90% drop in Christian refugees resettled in the U.S. from countries where the church faces persecution.
In 2018, roughly 22,500 people were given refuge in the U.S. despite a ceiling of 45,000 that fiscal year. Fiscal 2020 saw fewer than 12,000 refugees enter the country, well below a limit of 18,000.
The same day Bu Hae Gay and Pu Pu arrived in Spokane with their children, Trump told supporters in Duluth, Minnesota he had “ended the refugee influx into your state” and warned, “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.”
Numerous studies have shown the positive economic impact of refugees in their new home countries.
A 2017 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found refugees contributed “an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government” in taxes from 2005 to 2014, $63 billion more than they cost in that period. The New York Times published the report after the White House blocked its release, reportedly because it contradicted the claims of anti-immigration hardliners in the administration.
Earnings sent from immigrants to relatives abroad also serve as a major source of what is essentially private-sector foreign aid at no cost to American taxpayers. Remittances sent from the U.S. to other countries topped $148 billion in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
The cuts have also starved resettlement agencies of resources, leading to the closure of roughly 100 refugee offices around the country, including World Relief’s outpost in Boise. Biden has said he wants to set the cap at 125,000 and Finney said he is hopeful the incoming administration will restore the refugee program to a more normal level.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that while a president can raise the refugee ceiling mid-year after consulting with Congress and declaring an “unforeseen refugee emergency,” it could take time for the U.S. to return to its position as the world’s top refugee destination.
“Logistically it could be difficult for a President Biden to increase refugee arrivals in FY 2021 because of the long vetting process for refugees abroad, and because resettlement services within the U.S. have been scaled back, and would have to be scaled up again,” Gelatt said in an email.
Life in Mae La
Bu Hae Gay and Pu Pu were both born in villages in rural Myanmar, then known as Burma, in Karen Christian families that grew rice and raised livestock. (There are no first or last names in Burmese culture.)
The nation’s ruling military junta changed the country’s name in 1989 to signal a break with the British colonial era that ended in 1948. Many members of persecuted minority groups in the country, including the mainly Muslim Rohingya and largely Christian Karen, still call the country Burma in a rejection of the now-nominally democratic government, which is dominated by the mostly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority.
When Burma gained its independence at the end of World War II, Karen leaders unsuccessfully lobbied the British government for their own country. Soon after, conflict between the Karen and the Bamar majority led to fighting that has persisted for decades. Despite a 2015 ceasefire between the government and the largest Karen armed group, Karen civilians continue to face persecution by Myanmar’s military.
“There have been repeated instances of military abuses against Karen villagers, including being shot, stepping on landmines placed around the villages and fields, having property looted, facing sexual violence, and other abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia division at the international organization Human Rights Watch.
Bu Hae Gay remembers being forced by the military to build roads when she was about 10 years old. When she was 16 or 17, she said, she fled with her mother and sister across the border to Mae La, the largest of nine refugee camps in western Thailand.
The camp is home to some 31,000 people, mostly Karen, according to The Border Consortium, an alliance of groups that serves Burmese refugees in the nine camps.
“While the ceasefire has reduced the overall violence in Karen state,” Robertson said, “poverty, deprivation and rights abuses still drive many Karen to Thailand to either seek refuge or become a migrant worker at the bottom rungs of the Thai economy.”
Pu Pu was one of those migrant workers. He was 15 when he left his village to find work in Thailand, he said.
“Ever since I could remember, I was raised as a farmer,” he said through an interpreter in S’gaw Karen. “But there was a lack of food, and also the war was going on and the military came into the village, so we had to flee.”
After moving around doing odd jobs for about 15 years, Pu Pu said, he also ended up at Mae La. The couple met in 2006 when he visited her parents, his neighbors in the camp. Not long after, they married and had their first daughter, 13-year-old Paw Tha Blay.
The next year, Aye Naw Win and Khin Thein, who has been blind since she was young, were approved for resettlement in the U.S., where they would join a small but growing Karen community in Spokane. They said goodbye to Bu Hae Gay, hoping they could reunite someday.
Bu Hae Gay and Pu Pu began the refugee admissions process in 2013, they said. Over the next seven years, they waited, while the resources provided by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, dwindled. They received rations of rice and charcoal along with a stipend for the whole family of 1,000 Thai baht each month, or about $33.
“Mae La and other refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border have been gradually shrinking, with both the Thai government and UNHCR working hard to convince the remaining refugees to return to Myanmar,” Robertson said. “A limited number of refugee families still have an opportunity to resettle to U.S. or a few other … countries.”
The refugee resettlement process is complex and somewhat opaque, with applicants vetted first by UNHCR and again by the government of their destination country, but recent data suggests Christians have had better odds of finding refuge in the U.S. under the Trump administration.
While only some 20-30% of Karen people are Christian – most practice Buddhism – 70% of the 2,115 Burmese refugees resettled in the U.S. in the last fiscal year identified as Christian, according to data from the U.S. State Department provided by the Migration Policy Institute.
Karen people made up 40% of those refugees, with the majority-Christian Chin ethnic group comprising another 33%. The mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, whose persecution by Myanmar’s government has captured headlines since 2017, made up just 15% of those refugees, according to the State Department data.
“There’s no disputing that being Christian has been an asset for the Karen competing for scarce slots in the rapidly shrinking pool of refugee admissions to the U.S. under the Trump administration,” Robertson said. “Playing favorites like this based on religion, and thereby undermining principles of equality and need-based response, is just another part of the unacceptable devastation the Trump White House has inflicted on the U.S. refugee program.”
“Certainly Karen refugees need support, but so do many other refugees around the world.”
First snow in Spokane
Since landing in Spokane, the family is facing a new challenge: Adjusting to life in a new country in the middle of a pandemic that has upended so much of normal life, including the work World Relief does to help refugees settle into their new communities.
They promptly began a mandatory quarantine in the East Central house they will share with Aye Naw Win until they find their own home.
“I feel thankful for having family here,” Bu Hae Gay said. “I’m scared to go out. I’ve been told to quarantine, which I did, and I think it’s safer.”
“Since we haven’t gone out much, the only thing I know is that it’s colder than I’m used to,” Pu Pu said.
Their quarantine ended just in time for the family to see their first snow on Oct. 23. Win Lay Oo, 8, wasted no time in running out into the falling flakes and proved to be a natural snowball maker.
Inside the house a day earlier, the family’s 79-year-old matriarch was still getting used to being surrounded by more grandkids.
“I’m happy,” Khin Thein said in S’gaw Karen. Waiting 13 years to reunite with her daughter, she said, “was very difficult.”
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the well-oiled machine that is World Relief’s resettlement program. The organization provides a wide range of services in the first 90 days, World Relief case manager Jackson Lino explained, with additional support after those three months for those who need it.
“It’s changed a lot,” said Lino, himself a refugee who came to Idaho from what is now South Sudan in 2001. “It’s a lot harder to meet with people in person.”
A few weeks after they arrived, a World Relief staffer dropped off an essential tool: a laptop. The only problem is that three kids and their parents all need to take online classes and none of them had ever used a computer.
“Social distancing is a hard thing to do when you’re trying to teach someone how to use a computer,” Lino said. “Can you imagine that? Especially not knowing the language.”
“I want somebody to come and teach me instead of talking to that thingy,” Bu Hae Gay said, laughing. After Aye Naw Win’s son showed his aunt how to use the trackpad, she said, “It looked like he was massaging the computer and things popped up.”
Over the next few weeks after their quarantine ended, World Relief staff and volunteers helped the family get Social Security cards, open a bank account and enroll the kids in school. One day, a volunteer stopped by to show them how to ride the bus. World Relief also has cultural ambassadors, including S’gaw Karen speakers, who understand the trauma and other challenges facing refugees .
“There’s a lot of culture shock, a lot of learning how to navigate and how to feel certain things,” said Lino, who was 12 when he arrived in Boise. He has been working with refugees in Spokane since 2013.
“Personally, I felt overwhelmed,” Lino said, “but having really good volunteers really made a difference. … I can very much attest to that, because I was the product of a really good volunteer team that really took our family in.”
The next order of business is for World Relief’s employment department to help the adults find work. Lino said that’s a relatively easy step.
“We have really good relationships with a lot of companies that are eager to hire refugees,” he said. “They come and they want to make a good living for themselves and for their families, so regardless of the job they’re given, they put 110% into it.”
Pu Pu, who recently started English classes on the computer, said he wasn’t sure what he would do for work, “but I’m willing to do any kind of job.”
Starting school amid the pandemic is another challenge. Saw Albert Htoo, a 26-year-old Karen refugee who came to Spokane from Mae La 12 years ago, works with the family as a home health aide and interpreter.
In the refugee camps where Albert – he adopted an English name to help Americans avoid confusion – grew up, students wore uniforms, so when he got to Spokane he went to Kmart and bought a white button-down shirt and black slacks, thinking the outfit would help him blend in at school.
“It was really hard,” Albert said, though he can laugh at the memory now. “Everything was new.”
It also takes time to learn the American way of expressing things, Albert said, but he can see how happy the family is to be reunited.
“My culture, they are not talkative and they’re really shy,” he said. “As a former refugee myself, I have had to learn to open up and talk more freely. Some of the words they don’t say, but I can feel it.”
Adapting to life in Spokane during the pandemic won’t be easy, but Albert said refugees know how to deal with adversity.
“Especially with COVID, everything is just hard,” he said. “But it’s not the first time we’ve had to survive.”
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