One Refugee Shares his Journey from Harm to Home
At IRC’s recent October events, one refugee resettled in Oakland gladly shared his story of how he came to the US and the success that he has seen through his hard work and determination. For those that missed his speech, here is his story:
My name is Noe Noe but my birth name is Juler Wah. I am a member of the Karen ethnic group from Burma. One of my earliest memories, from when I was only 5 years old, is of running from my village to hide in the jungle when Burmese soldiers came. They were hunting for Karen rebels, members of the Karen Union Army – my father was a doctor who served with them.
Because I was Karen, I wasn’t allowed to go to school in Burma. I wasn’t allowed to learn our ethnic language or sing our national song,
In February 1997 – I remember it was a Thursday – all the Karen villages in our township were attacked. A battle broke out in our village, and Burmese soldiers came to my house. They found two of my uncles there, and beat them and kicked them, then tied them up. Later other soldiers came, and they killed my uncles and two other villagers, right in front of my house.
That was the start of a six-month nightmare. Burmese troops were everywhere, forcing villagers to work for them, threatening us, demanding food and money. Once when my mother refused to give the last of our food to two soldiers, they slapped and kicked her and stole all our food.
Late one night, some Karen rebel soldiers arrived at our house. One of them was my father, but I didn’t recognize him – I was now 11, and hadn’t seen him in 6 years. He announced that we were all leaving, right away, that night. I didn’t know where we were going, we all started walking east, toward the border with Thailand.
It was then that my father gave me my nickname, Noe Noe. It means “baby,” because I was the youngest in the family. He told me to use it because soldiers hearing my real name might realize he was my father.
My family and hundreds of other villagers made this journey. It took us 2 weeks on foot, and we ran out of food along the way. We were starving by the time we reached a refugee camp just across the border in Thailand but none of my family died.
My father did not stay, he returned to Burma. But I remembered what he told me and when I was asked my name, I said Noe Noe, and so it became my “official” name.
So, in August of 1997, I became a refugee. I didn’t know it then, but I would spend 11 years in that camp. It was safer, yes, and I was able to go to school, which made me happy. But living in a camp is like being a bird in a cage, without freedom or opportunity.
In 2008, I applied to go to the United States, and in June I finally left the camp that had been my only home for so long. IRC workers at the camp helped arrange my flight. Even though I had thought about it for a long time, arriving in such a new and very different place was a shock.
I had so much to learn. Everything was new. But, as I was promised, the IRC was there to help.
IRC had arranged for housing and food to get me started in the U.S. My caseworker, Igor Radulovic, helped me apply for a Social Security card, taught me how to open a bank account and take the bus, and so many other things that Americans know about, but I did not. And just 3 months after I arrived, Igor took me to a job interview. I didn’t expect to get the job, but the very next day he asked me to stop by the IRC office and told me I got it!
I went to work at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Alameda, starting as a basic worker. But the company offered many opportunities to advance. I worked hard, and I progressed quickly. And this summer I was promoted to general manager, running my own restaurant!
This really is a land of opportunity, and I have so many to thank for it. I thank God, for letting me survive and come to America. Then of course my mother and father, for taking me out of Burma and having faith that their children would find a better future, even as refugees.