ICCC students follow their dreams: Burmese refugee recalls life in Thai camps

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Five years ago, Paul Kyaw won the lottery.

But his winnings were not a multi-million dollar Powerball jackpot; instead, they were a ticket out of a southeast Asian refugee camp.

Paul, now an adult English Language Learner at Iowa Central Community College in

Storm Lake, previously lived with his family in a Burmese refugee camp for two decades. Displaced by conflict, violence and widespread human rights violations, about 140,000 other Burmese live in nine official camps scattered across the peninsula nation's border with Burma.

Although born and raised in a Thai camp, Paul recalled his parents' previous life in Burma.

"It was hard to live there," he said. "It was dangerous."

Although reformation is underway in Burma, refugees, some who have lived in the camps for nearly 30 years, are now in a gridlocked situation. Thailand does not want them and Burma will not take them back, which has resulted in confinement to camps, limited work opportunities and few resources.

"When I lived in Thailand, Thai people could go out to find a job, but we couldn't go anywhere," he explained. "We just stayed in the camp, and I tried to learn a little bit at school."

His education included a little bit of math and English, as well as his native Burmese language.

Being chosen to leave the camps was bittersweet---Paul left behind family, some of whom do not want to leave Thailand.

"I came alone, and it's hard to be away from family," he said. "My sister and brother are going to stay there, and my mom doesn't want to come here."

Upon arrival in the U.S., Paul lived in New York, but moved to Storm Lake for a job at Tyson.

He has been learning English at Iowa Central for about a year, and said he finds learning a new language challenging but rewarding.

"I've been learning grammar, pronunciation and how to write stories," he said. "Schooling at Iowa Central is very different (than the camps) but I really like to come here and learn English."

In the future, Paul said he hopes to continue his education and find a better job.

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