By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 30, 2008
Nicholas Laepi huddled in the jungle under a plastic-roofed tent for shelter, living as a refugee. A trip to obtain medicine for his family from an insurgent army had put him in the crosshairs of the Myanmar military. Facing forced army service, he fled. The journey by bus, on foot, by boat took him nearly a month to find safety.
Today, Nicholas and four others who are from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, live together in a modest gated apartment complex in metro Atlanta and are making a life here for themselves.
“In Malaysia, they are (treated) just like a dog. Since America help us, accept us, we are valued people,” said Nicholas, as Myint Thawng translated. Myint, his housemate, is also a Catholic Charities translator and former refugee.
This group of young men who arrived in the summer of 2007 started an upswing in the number of refugees handled by Catholic Charities Atlanta. This year, the number of refugees to be resettled by the nonprofit has doubled to nearly 170. The influx is challenging the staff as they scramble to find apartments, organize trips to the health department and start job searches.
“We just really work hard. You don’t do this job because of the money, the status. You do this because you love people. It is a real tax on the system,” said Frances McBrayer, the director of the resettlement program.
To handle the influx, the staff of four and one Jesuit Volunteer Corps member in the resettlement office added an additional caseworker, a translator for refugees from Bhutan, and two social worker interns from Georgia State University.
‘They’ve Gone Through So Much. They Are Survivors.’
Nicholas and his housemates were some of the first refugees Catholic Charities Atlanta settled last year when they helped 80 people.
The United States admitted some 41,000 refugees in 2006, the most recent annual figure available. The government calls a person a refugee if he or she has been forced from home and crossed an international border for safety and has a well-founded fear of persecution in their native country because of their race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion.
In 2007, 1,617 refugees were resettled in Georgia.
Catholic Charities Atlanta is assigned the refugees by and receives financial support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the national organizations approved to assist refugees by the U.S. State Department.
The resettlement workers are under an intense time crunch to help the newcomers adjust to the American lifestyle. About three weeks before an arrival at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport comes the first word that a refugee is coming. It triggers an apartment hunt, along with a search for donated furniture. In the first days here, the refugees learn safety tips and how to ride public transit. They are handed a cell phone with important phone numbers programmed in ahead of time.
The resettlement program relies on public and private money. It costs the government initially about $800 to pay for a refugee’s rent, food and other necessities. Private donations contribute an additional $300 in cash and donated goods. Recently, the program teamed up with Target.com to start a refugee registry, which is similar to a wedding registry with essentials to start a new life in a new country.
Refugees are expected to be financially self-sufficient within six months of arrival, although some extra help is available after the deadline. Catholic Charities Atlanta boasts a 92 percent success rate in helping refugees to stand on their own feet within six months, McBrayer said.
“They are always eager to learn things. They’ve gone through so much. They are survivors. They see the opportunity to start a new life for their family,” she said about the success rate.
Fear Of Authorities
Burma, which is about the size of Texas, has been ruled by the military for more than 40 years. In response to the repression, some 203,000 people from Myanmar have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The military rulers in Burma made life fearful for Nicholas and the others. As members of the Chin ethnic group, they are Christians in a country predominately Buddhist.
These refugees lived in camps on the border in Thailand or Malaysia for years. They left their country before pro-democracy demonstrations last fall and before Cyclone Nargis hit in May.
They worry about their families. The men do not communicate with their loved ones back home. Sending a message or money risks unwanted attention from the government.
Life in Malaysia for the refugees was hard too. The government views them as illegal migrant workers, not refugees fleeing a military dictatorship.
They had little protection. Robbers stole from them, and police raided the camps. If they find work, it is in the construction industry, where pay is spotty, if at all. Living in the jungle, they squeeze dozens into a tent covered with a plastic tarp.
In Duluth, their apartment is furnished with secondhand furniture. One wall is decorated with photographs of friends and scenes from Malaysia. Two guys share a room. There is a TV and a computer.
Their lives now revolve around English classes twice a week and a Baptist church that hosts worship services for the Burmese on Sunday. They worked at a metal recycling company until recently when they were let go despite praises from their old boss.
There have been many surprises about living here. One is the variety of races of people they meet.
“In the U.S., I have a lot of friends, like Spanish and a lot of black people. I never thought I’d have many colors of friends,” Nicholas said.
Refugees settled by Catholic Charities Atlanta, January-September 2008:
Source: Refugee Resettlement Office
To help settle refugees, go to the Refugee Registry at Target.com: www.catholiccharitiesatlanta.org/donate/target.htm.
The refugee resettlement program of Catholic Charities Atlanta is subsidized by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.