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a Karen refugee in Portland, Oregon

Second Life

A teenager’s real 7,500-mile journey from a Southeast Asian refugee camp to Southeast Portland.

BY BETH SLOVIC
Willamette Week, July 16, 2008

Like most other teenagers at David Douglas High School, Me Me Aye wants to go to college and get a good job. One of her prized possessions is a pair of Jackie O-style sunglasses with giant no-name gold logos from the Stop-N-Go Market.

The similarities with most Portland teens end there.

Until four months ago, 18-year-old Me Me Aye (who has no last name) lived in a refugee camp just over Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, in a bamboo hut without electricity, plumbing, or a bed. She also lived with the terrible knowledge that she could be killed just because of who she is in Myanmar—the Southeast Asian country her parents call Burma and the place her family once called home.

“People are dying still,” says 35-year-old James James, a Portland friend of Me Me Aye’s family who lived in the same refugee camp. “Nothing changes in the jungle.”

Me Me Aye is Karen (pronounced Ka-REN), an ethnic minority from Myanmar persecuted since at least World War II by the Burmese, then the Myanmar government.

Now, thanks to a change in U.S. policy that eases the immigration path for Karen in refugee camps, the group’s numbers are increasing both in Portland and other big U.S. cities.

In 2006, Southeast Asians accounted for 3 percent of Portland’s new refugees. But by 2007, the number of refugees from Myanmar alone climbed to nearly 140, bringing Southeast Asians’ total to 17 percent of that year’s new refugee population—a second wave of the Southeast Asian refugees who began landing here in the late 1970s.

Anecdotal evidence suggests most of the new refugees are Karen. Their numbers could one day eclipse those of Portland’s largest refugee group—those from the ex-Soviet republics. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of new refugees from those ex-republics dropped from 61 percent to 33 percent, according to the nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Despite these shifts, a few things are universal in Portland, home to the country’s 12th-largest refugee population—an estimated 35,000 people, or about one in 16 residents.

Like the nearly 1,000 other refugees who arrive in Portland each year, Me Me Aye is struggling to learn English. She speaks in chopped sentences and confuses words, calling tortilla chips “cookies” and electricity “fire.”

But she’s slowly growing accustomed to her new life–the one assigned to her by international and U.S. officials when they picked Portland as her destination. “I have freedom,” Me Me Aye says.

Transformations like hers—from refugee to Portlander—are changing Portland’s neighborhoods and schools.

Me Me Aye landed at Portland International Airport with her parents and younger sister March 28. She spoke next to no English. She had less than $10 in Thai currency in her possession.

Her parents carried three books: a Bible, a Christian songbook and an English-to-Karen dictionary. But more important to them was their white plastic shopping bag. In it:all their documents granting them entrance to the United States. More than a suitcase, it was a life preserver.

“They cling to that bag, because they know that their lives are in there,” says Lutheran Community Services’ Cheryl Vogel, who greeted Me Me Aye’s family at the airport four months ago. To say they were tired and slightly bewildered would be an understatement. Vogel still recalls the family’s haze.

But like other new arrivals, Me Me Aye’s family was thrown immediately into urban America with all its traffic and baffling conveniences. Vogel took them to their new home, a tucked-away apartment complex in outer Southeast Portland, a modern and more livable response to 19th-century tenements for earlier immigrant generations.

She showed them how to run a bath, use the oven and adjust the heat in their new, sparsely furnished apartment (secured by the Lutheran agency, the family’s sponsor, for $625 a month). The next day the family received their first $50, an initial gift from the U.S. government, which provides monthly support to refugees for their first eight months here.

Me Me Aye’s parents, May Win and Lar Ber, say they barely left their home their first two weeks in America. Eventually, however, they had to begin the daunting task of venturing outside. Eventually, they will have to get jobs because their monthly support will run out in four months. Eventually, they will have to repay the U.S. government the thousands of dollars for their plane tickets from Thailand.

At times, however, the process is Kafkaesque—May Win and Lar Ber had to take a class to learn how to ride the bus. But they had to ride the bus to get to the class, they said through an interpreter.

The cultural conversions taking place across Portland are more visible in the city’s schools—the new Ellis Island, multiplied many times over. That’s especially evident at David Douglas High School, the “Home of the Scots.”

At least 62 languages are spoken at the high school, and flags from 50 countries hang from the cafeteria ceiling to represent some of those languages. Nearly one in five of the 3,000 students is still learning English.

It wasn’t always that way. When Denise Riesenman arrived 13 years ago to work as a guidance counselor, the school had fewer than 100 students learning English, she says. But almost all of those students had had some education in their home countries. “We didn’t used to see kids who didn’t even know numbers,” Riesenman says.

To get to school, Me Me Aye—who did attend school in Thailand—walks past landmarks that characterize Southeast Portland’s shifting landscape, from the new (a tienda selling quinciñera garb and shops selling calling cards to Africa) to the old (an adult gift store and a Pizza Hut).

The faces of David Douglas students correspond to those landmarks. Sixteen percent of students today are Hispanic. Ten percent are considered African American, in large part because of the inclusion of Somali and Ethiopian teens.

Walking with two girls from summer school this month, Me Me Aye carried on a conversation that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. One girl is from Somalia. She is 15, dressed in a brown head scarf with sequins, a blue hoodie and a brown skirt that reaches to the ground.

The other is wearing skinny jeans, blue high heels and a white V-neck T-shirt pulled over stretch lace that reaches to her neck. She has long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, bangs, and glittering stones in her ears and on her fingers. She’s 15 and from Afghanistan. “How are you?” the Afghan girl asks Me Me Aye, who responds with a new phrase from her English lessons.

“Over the moon,” she says.

FACTS: After Congress enacted the Patriot Act, Karen who were associated with anti-Myanmar-government fighters were barred entry to the U.S. because of the Patriot Act’s “material support” provision. Considered overly broad because it barred families not associated with the fighting, like Me Me Aye’s, the ban was altered to provide an exception for the Karen in Thai refugee camps under authorization from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in May 2006.

Web Extra: Slideshow
Find this story at www.wweek.com/editorial/3436/11235

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