From a Refugee Camp to the United States

By Amy

As told to Cliff Williams


Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Amy on March 21, 2024. Amy was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. when she was fifteen. She was twenty-two when we talked.


In a Refugee Camp

Amy’s parents and grandparents fled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in the early 1990s because of “armed conflicts and/or horrendous human rights abuse and persecution by the Burmese military. . . . Thousands of villages, especially in the Karen and Karenni States, were burned to the ground, including houses, religious buildings, schools, belongings, and sometimes even domestic animals.”* Amy’s parents and grandparents settled in Umphiem Refugee Camp in Thailand near the Thai-Myanmar border, where Amy was born.**

“My parents divorced when I was two, and they left the refugee camp so that they could find jobs in Bangkok, a large city in Thailand that is further from the border. My grandparents raised me, and my parents supported me financially along with the others I lived with. My parents never came back to the camp, which I regarded as my home.

“The camp was like a village. It contained bamboo houses that were built by the refugees. When my grandparents came, there were fewer than twenty houses, and when I was little there were about a hundred. Today there are about a thousand houses in the camp.

“The bamboo houses had just one large room. A part of that room was used for the kitchen, and another small part was a Buddhist space, because my grandparents were Buddhist. There were six of us—me, my sister, my two grandparents, and my auntie and uncle. My grandparents slept in their Buddhist space, and the rest of us slept in a different part of the large room.

“The bathroom was outside. It was waterless. But there was a community water pipe where we got our water, and there was a shower there where we showered. There was no privacy at it. The water pipe came from a stream at a nearby mountain, as the camp was located in a mountainous region of Thailand.

“We also got water from the banana trees that grew near the camp. There is more water in the ground near banana trees, so deep holes were dug near the trees, and clear, cold water came up into the holes. Sometimes people used buckets to get the water out of the holes, but mainly underground pipes brought the water to the camp.

“It was jungle living in the camp when I was there—no electricity, no phone, no car, no TV. Each family had been given a small plot of land that was enough to build a house on. Every month, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, gave each family rice, beans, and lamp oil, plus salt and pepper.*** We survived on that plus the fruits and vegetables we grew in the gardens next to our houses.

“Because we were in the mountains, it was cold and windy, and we weren’t always warm. In the U.S., houses have drywall that keeps the wind and the cold out. But in a bamboo house, the roofs are made of leaves, and the walls of bamboo. There are lots of little holes in the walls.

“At night, we slept together in a line on the floor, cuddling each other to keep warm. We had enough blankets and pillows, but we still got cold at times. Our houses were six or seven feet above the ground, on poles, so sometimes we made ourselves warm by making a fire under the house. At least our sides or backs were warm when we slept. We were very careful with the fires so that the houses would not burn down.”**** 


Dreams of Doing Something with My Life

Living in a refugee camp with her grandparents was peaceful and happy, Amy said. “The only thing is that there was no better future. You can’t dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer or business owner some day. You are stuck in a jungle, living in a small house. You go to school until the ninth grade, and then you’re done. You are restricted to the camp, planting bamboo trees and fruit to survive each day. You don’t get to do what you want with your life.

“When I was in middle school, about twelve, people came from other parts of Thailand and Myanmar to teach at the camp for a year. They asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. No one had ever asked us that. I had thought that when I grew up I would just be helping my family financially, because that was the Asian tradition. My grandparents took care of me, and when I was older I would be taking care of them. 

“Those teachers prompted me to start thinking about what else I could do. I wanted to know what it was like to live in a big city. I wanted to learn about lots of things and pursue a career. I wanted to become something more than simply a survivor in a refugee camp. That’s when I decided I wanted to go to the United States.

“It took a long time to get approved to go to the U.S. I had to go through interviews. I had to have health exams to assure them I didn’t have health problems or some disease that would spread to the whole world. They had to be sure I wasn’t an informant for the Myanmar military or some other villainous human. Everything had to be clear.

“My grandparents went to the U.S. first and left me in Thailand with my auntie. I was scheduled to go to the U.S. with my older sister, but two months before we were to go, she found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend. So she was not allowed to go. I was very sad, because I thought I would no longer be able to go.

“At an interview, the U.S. people asked, ‘Why do you want to go to the U.S. so badly? Tell us the reason we should let you go with your aunt instead of your sister.’ I said I didn’t see any future living in a refugee camp. There would be no growth. I wouldn’t be able to own a house some day. I would only be living in a jungle, planning for my next meal.

“I was approved to go to the U.S. with my auntie. That was when I was fifteen. When I got here, I lived with my grandmother, as my grandfather had died earlier.” 


In the United States

Even though living in the U.S. has been stressful for Amy, it has been better than living in the refugee camp. “I was overwhelmed at first. Daytime and nighttime were flipped, so for a time I slept during the day and stayed up at night. In the refugee camp, it was quiet and calm, but in the U.S. it is noisy because of all the cars and televisions. At 6:00 p.m. in Thailand, everyone is in their own home enjoying supper with their family. In the U.S., people are at the park or going places in the early evening. In the camp we had only little oil lamps which we used mostly indoors, whereas in the U.S. there are lots of lights on, inside and outside, after it gets dark.

“I didn’t know any English, not a single word. In Thailand the only two languages we studied were Burmese and Karen.*****

“I was put into the tenth grade. I don’t know why, maybe because of my age. After I was dropped off at the high school, I didn’t know where to enter it because it was so large. After I figured out how to get in, I didn’t know where I should go. I couldn’t ask anyone for help, because I didn’t know anyone who spoke my language. 

“Finally, I said to someone who looked Karen, ‘Do you speak Karen?’ When he said he did, I asked, ‘Can you help me get to class?’ He asked one of his friends to help me. She took me to an office where I got my schedule. But she left right away to run to her class. All I had was a sheet of paper, which I couldn’t read. And I couldn’t ask anyone else to help because all the students had gone to their classes. Then I saw a number on the paper: ‘Maybe that is the number of the room I have to go to.’ I followed the map of the school and finally made it to class, late.

“I was late to classes the whole first week. The school was so big that I had a hard time finding my way around. I didn’t know where the cafeteria was, and I didn’t know how to ask permission to use the restroom. 

“I gradually learned English by listening to my teachers. I also took English Language Development classes. I learned best when the teachers showed examples instead of just talking and talking. In my last year of high school, I took a choir class, which helped me learn faster because I was speaking words and not just listening to them.

“I went to college after graduating from high school and graduated from it early because I had gotten college credit for classes when I was in high school.”


Working

“When I was in the refugee camp,” Amy said, “my dream was to have a peaceful and financially stable life, making enough money not to worry about my daily living expenses. And now that I have the opportunity to make my dream come true, I have to work for it. I’m not going to say that working has been easy. It has not.

“In high school, I worked as a dishwasher in a Thai restaurant, because I couldn’t speak English well enough to be a cashier or server. I had to run straight to the bus stop right after school so that I could make it to the restaurant on time. I got paid only seven or eight dollars an hour, but I worked six days a week so that I could have enough money to send to my mom, who had moved to the refugee camp in Thailand.

“After high school, I knew enough English so that I could work as the cashier at the restaurant. I also did customer service, picking up the phone and talking to people. I loved doing that. That is when I decided I wanted to become an international flight attendant or hotel manager. I chose to major in hospitality and tourism in college.

“After I graduated from college last year, one of my professors reached out to me to say that she could help me get a job as an international flight attendant. But when I applied, I failed the swimming test, because I can’t swim. At first I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can learn to swim.’ But I am terrified of water. So then I became the owner of the business that manages the restaurant I was working at.

“I was not looking to run a business. I was thinking only about traveling around the world as a flight attendant. But my boss at the restaurant said, ‘Hey, Amy. Do you remember when I asked you whether you wanted to manage the restaurant some day?’

“I said, ‘I do remember that. I was sixteen then, shortly after I arrived in the U.S.’

“She said, ‘I have decided to offer to sell you the business that runs the restaurant now.’

“When she said that, I said, ‘Is that for real? I thought your relative wanted to run the restaurant.’ She replied, ‘No, I don’t want to sell the business to them. I want to keep my promise to you.’

“I said, ‘Give me some time to think about it. It would be challenging, because I don’t have any experience running my own business.’

“I thought about my mom, who had come to the U.S. when I was in college and had tried to get a job. She had applied at a number of places, including a warehouse and Amazon, but they all denied her because she couldn’t read or write English. I thought about the rest of my family, my uncle, my auntie, and my other aunt, none of whom could speak, read, or write English. We were all struggling financially. I thought, ‘Why not run the restaurant and then have my family work at it?’

“That’s when I decided to buy the business that manages the restaurant. I would have them all work at it so that they would not have to worry about applying at other places. It would be a family restaurant. That was eight months ago, about four months after I had turned twenty-two.

“Also, I bought a house with a relative three years ago, when I was twenty. “That was to bring my family together. When we first arrived in the U.S., we all lived in different apartments, which was expensive. But now we all live together in the house—my grandma, mom, aunt, uncle, three sisters, and two cousins. Lots of people! Not like what Americans do. We have a family dinner time, and we have our own yard to play in. I have one other sister, who is older than me and who is still in Thailand. I’m not sure when she can come to the U.S.

“I like keeping myself busy, and I love being productive. So I work a lot. I want to be a good role model for my younger sisters, showing them that when they grow up they can work hard for themselves and their families.” 


I’d Rather Be in the U.S.

“My very first memory of the refugee camp,” Amy recalls, “is waking up in the morning, seeing my grandpa sit in front of the house listening to the news on his radio and my grandma cooking in the kitchen. It was a peaceful life. I liked the people in the camp, who were very humble and grateful for what they had.

“But I am glad I came to the U.S. If I had stayed in the refugee camp, I probably would have ended up married, with kids, staying home and doing nothing. By coming to the U.S., I have had a chance to go to school and learn more languages. I can experience being my own boss in the business I run. I live in a house I co-own, work in a restaurant I manage, and help my own people who came from the refugee camp and who are struggling with English. It has all been a wonderful journey for me.”


Notes

* “Refugee Camps,” Burma Link (April 27, 1915): https://www.burmalink.org/background/thailand-burma-border/displaced-in-thailand/refugee-camps/. “In many areas [of Burma], it became the norm for the villagers to live in a constant fear of the Burmese military coming to their village, terrorizing the villagers, stealing their food, forcing villagers to become porters and mine sweepers, raping ethnic women, and torturing and killing anyone suspected of having a connection the ethnic armed opposition.”

** “Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp,” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umpiem_Mai_Refugee_Camp

*** United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR): www.unhcr.org. The U.S. website is at www.unhcr.org/us/.

**** For pictures of refugee houses built on poles see “Mae La Refugee Camp,” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mae_La_refugee_camp and the link in note one.

***** “Karenic Languages,” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karenic_languages


© 2024 by Cliff Williams

 ________________________________________




About Cliff Williams


Home page