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A decade after fleeing, Burmese refugee becomes US citizen

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Originally from Chin State, Burma, Van Lal fled his homeland in 2008, travelling by train and truck through Thailand for 11 days to reach Malaysia. He feared for his life throughout the journey as he was travelling without papers and heard stories of Burmese refugees being captured and killed. For five days he hid alongside animals in the back of a truck, with no windows and very little air.

Van Lal was sworn in as a US citizen earlier this year.
Van Lal was sworn in as a US citizen earlier this year. Photo: Van Lal

Once in Malaysia, Van Lal applied for refugee status with the UNHRC – the UN Refugee Agency. He went through several interviews before receiving approval and the process took some time. Food was scarce and Van Lal lost weight. He was able to find work on a plantation farming vegetables while he lived in uncertainty, waiting for more than four years before receiving the news that he had been selected for resettlement in the United States. He would be reunited with his sister who was living in Atlanta.

The IRC in Atlanta welcomed Van Lal to his new life in 2013 and he has been thriving ever since. Most recently—after more than five years in America—he came back to the IRC to apply for his citizenship. Refugees enter the US on a pathway to citizenship. After one year, they must adjust their status and become permanent residents—or green card holders. After living in the U.S. for five consecutive years as lawful permanent residents, green card holders can then apply for citizenship.

In 2018, the IRC in Atlanta’s Department of Justice accredited representatives:

Completed 861 green card applications

Helped 372 permanent residents apply for citizenship

Van Lal said he chose to come back to the IRC because he trusts the quality of service, adding, “They were always my agency and I felt comfortable to go there.” He was also able to take advantage of the IRC’s English and Computer Literacy classes. Expert IRC staff followed Van Lal’s case from start to finish and were thrilled to congratulate him when he became a naturalized citizen!

When his sister and brother-in-law were ready to apply for citizenship they originally went to a tax preparer from the community because they wanted someone who spoke their language, however there was a question on the application that he was not familiar with. Van Lal decided to contact the IRC for assistance and his caseworker referred his sister to the IRC’s free Citizenship Clinics at Chamblee and Clarkston libraries. The application was reviewed by IRC immigration staff and they were able to correct the errors and send off the completed paperwork.

To learn more about the work of the IRC in Atlanta and for information on how you can get involved with the IRC as a donor or volunteer, please contact Development Manager, Kalie Lasiter, at  Kalie.Lasiter [at] Rescue.org or 678-636-8941.

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