From Burma to the Valley: A Refugee's Story

Oct 1, 2014

When we talk about immigration, we often focus on the opportunities that attract people to the United States.

Many people, though, come to escape difficult or dangerous circumstances in their home countries.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner has the story of one refugee, and her journey from Myanmar, to the Shenandoah Valley.  It's the second installment of WMRA's special series "Becoming American: Pathways to Citizenship in Virginia."

JENNER: Refugees make up a relatively small part of the immigrant population in our area, but they help make it an incredibly diverse one. Nkhai Nang Bu Tang Bau arrived here in 2010, having fled her home in Myanmar, or Burma, several years earlier.

NKHAI: I left Myanmar to Thailand. I stayed in Thailand about seven months, and then I went to Malaysia. And I lived in Malaysia almost three years.

A person comes to the U.S. as a refugee only through a very specific set of circumstances.

JIM HERSHBERGER: It’s usually people who have had to flee their homes because of war and violence in their homes, they’re living in a refugee camp in a second country and they cannot return.

Jim Hershberger is program coordinator for Harrisonburg’s refugee resettlement office, run by Church World Service.

HERSHBERGER: You have to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the various centers around the world. Then, on that basis, the U.N. refers you to the countries – U.S., Canada, Australia and so forth, there are about 12 of them in the world – who will resettle refugees.

After a long screening process, refugees are usually sent to communities where they’ll find others who share their language and culture. More than 1,700 have been resettled in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County over the past decade – primarily from Iraq, Eritrea, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. With state and federal funding, Church World Service helps newly arrived refugees find housing and employment, enroll their children in school and otherwise settle into their lives here. Another local organization, NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center, has a more open-ended mission to serve as a resource for all immigrants, says executive director Alicia Horst.

ALICIA HORST: For different people, cultural adjustment will hit at different levels. For a person who’s a professional, it might be the fact that you can no longer work in your field, and therefore your identity is definitely challenged.

In Myanmar, Nkhai was an X-ray technician. Now she works in food services at James Madison University. Horst says that, regardless of how or why a refugee came, they face some common challenges.

ALICIA HORST: One would be that people have experienced a lot related to potentially witnessing or experiencing violence. So their sense of security and safety has certainly been shaped by that. And also the sense of having to relocate and the timing often being outside of their control.

NKHAI: First when I came to America, I feel very lonely. I always cry at home. I don’t have friends.

Five years later, she’s adjusting, and thinking about her long-term future here.

NKHAI: I feel very happy right now. I love this country, so I want to be a citizen.

This fall, she plans to apply for citizenship, something that refugees have particular incentive to do because many can simply never return home.

VIKTOR SOKOLYUK: Refugees who come, they’re very grateful to the United States that they are given opportunity to start their life.

Viktor Sokolyuk directs Virginia Immigration Services for Church World Service. Originally from the Ukraine, he came to the United States in 1990 as a refugee.

SOKOLYUK: They’re grateful to have a place to live, a place where they can put their children to sleep safely and wake up in the morning alive. And the reason that many refugees are finding Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley as their home is because they feel welcome here.

As Nkhai looks even further ahead, her ambitions sound remarkably American.

NKHAI: I want to buy a house in Harrisonburg in a good place. And then I support my daughter until she gets a degree and she gets a good job and she can do better in the United States. That is my dream. That is my dream.

This is Part Two of a six-part weekly series on the path to citizenship for immigrants in Virginia.