Continuing a series on the five largest ethnic groups resettled by the RIC in Sioux Falls in the last five years. Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories. Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.
New American Series: The Karen and Karenni (of Burma)
New American Success Story:
Today’s interview was done at the home of Meh Reh and Klaw Meh, a Karenni refugee family who was resettled to Sioux Falls in March 2009. Their daughter, Pray Meh, a graduate of Lincoln High School last year, was also included in the interview.
I asked Meh Reh to tell me about their life in Burma. They are from the Karenni state where Meh Reh worked as a farmer. In 1989 they fled to neighboring Thailand. “Because fighting” Meh Reh said quietly. In the twenty years they lived in Thailand, they were forced to move to three different refugee camps. At their third camp, Pray Meh, their oldest of four children, was born.
When asked what he did in the camp, Meh Reh’s first response was a little laugh and “Nothing,” but after more discussion with his wife and daughter, Pray Meh said her father “Fixed water problems and fed animals.”
I asked Klaw Meh and Meh Reh what they thought when told they would be resettled to the United States. Translating for her father, Pray Meh said, “We don’t have a place to live that’s why we are here.” I asked if they were scared or happy. Smiling Meh Reh said “Sometimes happy; sometimes scared.” Asking Pray Meh if there was any preparation, training, or classes before coming to America, she said they had one week of classes, but was unable to share more details.
On March 5, 2009 Meh Reh, Klaw Meh, and their four children arrived in Sioux Falls. I asked what help LSS gave the family. Translating for Klaw Meh, Pray Meh said, “Teach to go shopping…how to pay rent and bills.” I asked about English classes, which caused Klaw Meh to laugh and say “Four years…four years English class…English very hard.” Klaw Meh, who currently works part-time as a housekeeper for a local hotel, still attends English classes but said, “Sometimes no car, no bus…I don’t go.” Soon after arrival, Meh Reh attained work in a meatpacking company where he has worked for over four years. He also attends English and Citizenship classes at the Refugee and Immigration Center Monday through Thursday and on Saturdays. Their eldest son, Beh Reh, started working at a paper-packaging company two months ago.
During the interview their youngest daughter, who answered she was six years old, bounced around the room, flashing a smile that missed a front tooth, reminding me of my own six-year old niece’s grin.
Answering for her parents, Pray Meh said the biggest challenge in living in America was the language. “Language” Meh Reh repeated after Pray Meh, nodding his head emphatically. I asked if the family felt connected to the rest of the Karenni community in Sioux Falls. Translating for Klaw Meh, Pray Meh said “We do…we feel close to them. We invite…we visit.”
When asked if they feel they are a part of the community of Sioux Falls, “Yes” was the response. I asked Meh Reh what he likes about Sioux Falls. “I like to work…I like English class.” I asked about liking “winter,” which again caused laughter…and heads shaking, “no.”
As I drove away from Meh Reh and Klaw Meh’s home, a mobile home they were able to purchase a year ago, I was smiling, replaying all the gestures, circumlocution, and laughter of the previous hour. This family is brave and resilient, working hard to earn a living and learn the language of their new home. Despite language and cultural differences, understanding and hospitality was felt. It was good for this language teacher to be reminded how much a simple smile can communicate.
Interested in volunteering with the Refugee and Immigration Center and meeting students like Meh Reh? Please fill out our online application here to join us in the work of welcoming!