Home for Christmas: Burmese refugee family celebrates first Christmas together in Tukwila

In a small apartment on Tukwila International Boulevard, a decorated Christmas tree glows in the living room. On a wall next to the tree, outlined in tiny lights, is a tapestry of Jesus, kneeling in prayer. For the family of seven who lives in this apartment, the tapestry says a lot more about Christmas than does the tree. Led by brother and sister Nga Reh and Tee Meh, and including their mother, Buh Meh, and Tee Meh’s four young daughters, this family of Burmese refugees will spend their first Christmas together again as a family.

Pictured from left

In a small apartment on Tukwila International Boulevard, a decorated Christmas tree glows in the living room.

On a wall next to the tree, outlined in tiny lights, is a tapestry of Jesus, kneeling in prayer.

For the family of seven who lives in this apartment, the tapestry says a lot more about Christmas than does the tree.

Led by brother and sister Nga Reh and Tee Meh, and including their mother, Buh Meh, and Tee Meh’s four young daughters, this family of Burmese refugees will spend their first Christmas together again as a family.

Nga and his grandmother have been here 1 1/2 years; Tee Meh and her daughters have been here since March.

Whatever the cultural differences between the tree in the corner and the tapestry on the wall, Christmas here will be a Christmas worth remembering.

The family is together and safe – away from the refugee camps of Thailand, and the civil war of their homeland.

“She always wanted to bring her family and come here; once she had the opportunity, she took that,” said Simon Khin, founder of the local Coalition for Refugees from Burma, who is interpreting for Tee Meh.

An interview here in this family’s living room is a complex thing: Tee Meh speaks only Karenni, the language of her ethnic group in Burma. Khin speaks Burmese – the national language of Burma – and English. Helping the two communicate is Tee Meh’s oldest daughter, Buh Meh, 17, who speaks Karenni, Burmese and some English, too. It’s a little confusing at first, as is the fact that Buh Meh has the same name as her grandmother.

But smiles and humor make the conversation flow, as does a heartfelt desire to share their experience.

“Back in the village (in Burma) there was no security,” Khin relates from Tee Meh. “The soldiers came and did what they wanted. It wasn’t safe. Whenever there was fighting between the Burmese armies, the soldiers would come into the village and detain and beat up villagers. They (the villagers) feared for their safety and for their families.

“She’s happy here, and not afraid,” he added, listening to Tee Meh. “The only thing she’s worried about is that she can’t yet speak English.”

In spite of the language barrier, both Tee Meh and her brother Nga Reh have found jobs. Nga Reh works in housekeeping for a hotel, while Tee Meh works weaving textiles at a business in Ballard, a job that utilizes skills she already has.

“She loves doing that and gets paid at the same time,” Khin translated. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

This year’s Christmas celebration will involve something from both worlds as well.

In their village in Burma, and in the Thai camps, the Christmas holidays involved prayer and fellowship. Like many Karennis (a Burmese minority) the family is devoutly Catholic. Khin explained that they will attend St. Thomas Church in Tukwila for mass, along with other Burmese refugees in the area. They will participate in the English-language service with assistance by an interpreter.

When asked what Tee Meh would pray for, Khin translated that she wouldn’t actually ask for anything.

“They pray because they thank Jesus Christ for his sacrifice,” Khin said, noting that instead of asking, “it’s more of a thanking.”

Karenni Christmas traditions also involve songs – beautiful songs that the younger people memorize and sing. Back in Burma and the camps in Thailand, groups of young people would go from home to home, singing for their neighbors.

Buh Meh says she likes to sing and Khin expresses hope that perhaps they can organize some caroling.

But then there is the issue of that Christmas tree and what it is supposed to mean. The family really isn’t sure – a friend gave it to them. And, as the younger Buh Meh relates, none of them knows who Santa Claus is.

Does it really matter?

The main aspect of this Christmas will be the fellowship – the joy of having most of the family in one place, out of danger.

“Since she has been here with her family, it is like heaven,” Khin translates from Tee Meh.

Not all of the family, however, has made it to the United States, and that is still difficult. Another brother of Tee Meh’s and Nga Reh’s is still living in a refugee camp in Thailand, as is a brother of the elder Buh Meh.

In an earlier interview, Nga Reh explained that his brother, Lae Reh, is only a recent newcomer to the refugee camp, so he must wait to apply for the refugee status that will enable him to leave for the U.S. It could be years before they see him, and there are no guarantees it can happen.

“I talk to him on the phone,” Nga Reh said. “He really wants to come here.”

Buh Meh’s brother was unable to pass an interview to leave the camp, and so he remains there as well.

But the family is thankful for who they have here, and the promise of a future free of fear.

If things improved in Burma, would they go back?

Khin listens to Tee Meh, who speaks with obvious emotion.

No.

“She doesn’t want to go back anymore,” he said.

far from home

Burma, also known as the Myanmar Republic, is located in Southeast Asia. It is home to a number of ethnic groups with distinct languages, of which the Karenni are one. Burma has been torn apart for decades by civil war, which began shortly after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. Continuing government crackdowns and inborder fighting have resulted in mass migrations of Burmese into the adjacent country of Thailand, where they have been held in refugee camps. With limited medical aid and few if any options in education and opportunities, many Burmese refugees seek asylum in other countries, rather than return to the strife of their homeland.

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