A New American Hero
Shay Reh has been in the United States for only a few months, but is already clearing metaphorical hurdles like an Olympic track star. Corneal scars on both eyes have left him visually impaired, but Reh is excelling in his first job in the U.S. and using his new skills to give back to the country that gave him and his family a fresh start in life.
A member of Myanmar’s Karenni ethnic minority, Reh was forced into exile as a young teenager. He was one of hundreds of thousands making the desperate flight from ongoing armed conflict to seek refuge in neighboring Thailand.
Reh spent the next 13 years in the harsh and crowded confines of a camp that is home to thousands of Karenni refugees living in stateless limbo — unable to reside legally in Thailand or return safely to Myanmar.
“Life in the camp was extremely difficult,” Reh remembers. He says he worried constantly, had difficulty sleeping, and his vision continued to worsen. He yearned for a new start.
His dreams came true last summer when he, his wife and their two young children were offered a chance to resettle in the U.S. — an opportunity only a fortunate few receive. They would be welcomed by the International Rescue Committee in Dallas.
Reh spoke no English and knew nothing about Dallas, but was happy, he recalls. “I didn’t know where I was going, but I had a big smile.”
Upon arrival, Reh met Jim Stokes, an IRC employment coordinator. Stokes arranged a job interview for Reh with the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind, a local charity that provides training and employment for blind and visually impaired residents of northern Texas.
The Dallas Lighthouse had no previous experience with refugees and the interview was no easy task. It required two interpreters. One translated Reh’s native Kayah dialect into Burmese and the other translated the Burmese into English. The man who would become Reh’s supervisor led him to a sewing machine to test his skills. After about thirty minutes, Reh was offered a job and he started a few days later.
Reh is now working full-time making canvas covers for U.S. military entrenchment tools, otherwise known as pack shovels. He moves around the sewing room from machine to machine so fluidly that it is difficult to believe he is visually impaired. Stokes went to visit Reh at work recently and spoke with his supervisor, who reported Reh’s learning curve is “off the chart.”
Reh’s character is as impressive as his technical prowess. “His inner strength and strong will have deeply affected me,” says Stokes. Reh’s co-workers have the same feeling toward Reh, and he has already made a number of friends among them. They help him continue to improve his English and adjust to life in the United States.
With a boost from the IRC, which also helped him schedule corneal implant surgery to improve his vision, Reh has been able to beat the odds and become self-sufficient.
Shay Reh’s ability to support his family is a source of tremendous pride. His wife is also employed and their children are enrolled in Dallas public schools. “I’m doing well in the U.S.,” Reh says. “I am learning every day. I feel so lucky to have my job and am happy to be making my own money. I want to live in the U.S. for the rest of my life.”
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