International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The journey of their lives

"Life is good here"

  • Burmese refugees check in for a flight to the U.S.;the IRC will resettle them
  • Ismail Arafat is stamped out of the country by Malaysian immigration.
  • Burmese refugees resettled by the IRC, in the new home, Salt Lake City

Ismail Arafat and Safirah Omar's refugee journey began in 2003 when they left their conflict-ridden native country of Myanmar for neighboring Thailand. From there smugglers transported them south to Malaysia. The IRC helped the young couple resettle in the United States with their baby daughter. "Life is good here," Ismail says. 

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The IRC helps a young Burmese family prepare for a new home in the United States

Story and photos by Peter Biro

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - The airport in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is abuzz with business travelers and tourists lining up at airline counters or hurrying to their boarding gates. At one of the counters, Ismail Arafat, 25, and his wife Safirah Omar, 21, wait anxiously as they prepare to embark on the journey of their lives. The sun has barely risen outside the terminal and the couple’s eight month-old daughter is still asleep in Safirah’s arms. In less than two hours, they will board a plane bound for their new home in the United States. 

“I am a little nervous,” Ismail Arafat admits, as he pushes two weather-beaten suitcases towards the check-in counter. “I have never been on an airplane before.” 
Their destination is Salt Lake City, Utah. There they will be met by case workers from the International Rescue Committee which is helping to resettle the family. Ismail and Safirah’s long journey began in 2003 when the young couple left their conflict-ridden native country of Myanmar, or Burma, for neighboring Thailand. From there smugglers transported them south to Malaysia. 
Life as an urban refugee in Kuala Lumpur proved difficult and dangerous. Ismail and Safirah lived in a grim and grimy apartment block crowded with other refugees. They worked whatever jobs they could find at wages far below what native Malaysians earn. Although the United Nations had recognized the couple as refugees—meaning they could not be deported—and issued them identification cards, they were still constantly harassed by the police.
“I often paid the police two week’s salary just so that they would leave me alone,” Ismail says. “I was always looking over my shoulder.”
Two years ago, Ismail learned about the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, administered by the IRC in East Asia, which assists refugees to apply for permanent resettlement in the United States. Since it opened in 2005, the IRC’s Resettlement Support Center, based in Bangkok, Thailand, has helped some 82,000 refugees from the region gain admission to the U.S. 
After Ismail and Safirah applied to the program, IRC staff members helped them prepare paperwork, facilitated interviews with U.S government officials, and, once they were accepted for resettlement, scheduled medical screening and provided cultural orientation classes.
“It was a long process, but now we are here,” Ismail says, smiling, as his wife and child and two dozen other Burmese refugees, boarding passes in hand, are escorted through immigration to their departure gate. 
Upon arriving at the IRC’s Salt Lake City office Ismail and Safirah  meet with their caseworker who is helping them to  find housing, jobs, medical care and to enroll in English classes. All of the IRC’s resettlement offices provide similar services to help refugees get on their feet during their first months in the U.S. 
“I’m  looking for work every day,” Ismail says. “But it is difficult with the language. In the meantime I am willing to take any job I can get.” 
The couple, meanwhile, is optimistic about their future.
“I hope that I will have a good job, maybe in a shop, and a car and a house,” Ismail says. “But most of all I know we have freedom and that our child will become educated. Life is good here.”

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Photo Essay: Bound for America