Boo Htoo, Data Support Coordinator and former refugee.
Photo: Nisha Datt, IRC

No Choice but to Leave

Born in the ethnically diverse and politically complicated country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, Boo’s family made the brave decision to cross the border into Thailand in 1982, as the living situation was getting worse by the day. With fights breaking out near their home, human rights violations, and sounds of gunfire going off, they were in danger. Boo was only three years old at the time, and his mother had recently given birth to a baby girl – their whole world was going to change. “I was a few years old, and my parents could not stay in our hometown so we had to move out because of the war that broke out between [certain] ethnic [groups] in Burma,” he shared.  

Scrambling to leave as soon as possible, they collected what they could carry, and set out early in the morning on their long and tiring journey to the Thailand border. Boo recalled, “I remember walking – nobody helped me out. I had my own backpack and I walked slowly and we camped in the jungle during the night time. It took a few days to get to the border - the Thailand and Burma border.”  Days later, they arrived at the border, but were still in fear of getting arrested. Not knowing anyone or where to go added to the uncertainty. Eventually, Boo's family met a few other families from the same ethnic group who they could confide in and collectively decided it would be best to cross the border into Thailand. Erring on the side of caution, the families remained together, and built huts of bamboo sticks unsure how long they would stay. 

A School was Started

“I remember walking – nobody helped me out. I had my own backpack and I walked slowly and we camped in the jungle during the night time. It took a few days to get to the border - the Thailand and Burma border.”

A few months later, more families arrived. Surrounded by a small village, they could look for work and buy food to eat. By this time, Boo was four years old. Before leaving their home country, Boo’s mom was a teacher and she noticed that there were many young children and wanted to start a school. A year later, with some help from members of the Thai community and from strangers who passed by, school sessions began. “We didn’t have books, but we had tablets. We would write on them, write the alphabet… take it home to study. The next day, the teacher will give you something else to study.  It was so fun.” Boo recalled. It was not long after when local NGO’s would hear of this formation of refugees – they visited, and offered additional support. 

“The UNHCR found us and they came in and supplied everything - they delivered food, school and office supplies, and medical supplies,” Boo added.  

Baw Noh Camp Burned Down

The settlement where Boo, his family and many other Burmese resided was officially considered a Refugee camp, called Baw Noh, in the year 1984. It was one of first camps formed in Thailand. Its existence came to a tragic end, 10 years later, as it was burned down by a Burmese Military group. Families were attacked, homes were burned, resulting in death for some. “My older sister passed away and I was 16 years old when the camp burned down – she had just graduated from high school,” Boo shared. He, and many others, suffered from third degree burns, which took months to heal leaving behind permanent scars.  

Other surrounding camps were also attacked, forcing refugees to relocate to another larger camp – Mae La Camp. This camp was the largest camp on the Burma - Thailand border hosting around 40,000 refugees. 

Making The Best Out of A Difficult Situation 

At Mae La camp, restrictions were set not allowing anyone to leave the site. If anyone attempted to leave, they were brought back and punished. “You don’t know anything outside the world - you have no idea what is going on outside, because you cannot go out…so everybody [was] scared,” Boo shared. With her continued passion for education, Boo’s mother began teaching again. 

With the support of a few NGO’s, educators and students were given the necessary tools to run the school. Some even helped with teaching.  Being the son of a teacher, there was an expectation to do well in school.  “Sometimes, when you’re in the class where everyone knows your mom is a teacher, if you didn’t finish your homework you were criticized so I studied very hard because I didn’t want to get embarrassed,” Boo explained. 

“You don’t know anything outside the world - you have no idea what is going on outside, because you cannot go out…so everybody [was] scared.”

This was the new normal for Boo and his family, but along the way, he was able to achieve a few milestones worth noting. He married his wife, they had two children, Boo became a primary school teacher at the camp, and he had the opportunity to attend and graduate from a tech school in Thailand. While having the chance to leave the camp to attend university, there were limitations.   “I had a good GPA  and got to study. I feel like you have to be always aware because you don’t have an identity - you just have an opportunity to be there. So you sit there study, finish your schoolwork and then go home,” he said.  

A Glimmer of Hope

With a green light from the United States in the year 2005, refugees living in Thailand were able to fill out an application for resettlement with assistance from the Overseas Process Entity (OPE). They would go through the process of interviews, medical screenings, finger-printing, which can take up to two years to complete. Boo was unsure if he should apply, because he had not been selected many times before when he applied for admission into other countries. “I applied for many other countries too because I needed to get out of this place. I didn’t want to stay in the camp forever – I was [a] very unlucky guy,” he said. It was his wife, who encouraged him to apply again – to give it another try. He applied for resettlement in Australia and the U.S. with the hope that one would pan out.   

While he waited to hear back, Boo was recruited by IOM as a Field Coordinator within the camp. He would notify residents about orientation classes, medical check-ups and screenings and more. “I was an official worker. It’s a big camp, and I collected all the names. This was a very fun job, we scheduled [appointments], we notified them where they were supposed to be and made sure they didn’t get lost,” he said. Since it was a large camp, Boo was given a cell phone to communicate with families and IOM team members and a motorcycle to get around more efficiently. Residents were informed about the process once they received a promissory note, and they were excited, but didn’t know about any of the states and where they were located. 

The Time Has Come

Boo requested his boss to bring in a map so that he could see where all the states were and show it to residents of the camp. Seeing many go through this process – finding out which state they would be moving to, Boo’s time finally came.  He remembered, “my case was moved step by step and I finally got my promissory note stating that I would come to Arizona and I was like, wow… that is so cool – nobody knows what the weather looks like!”  

The year 2007, was when residents began making their way out of the camp depending on their departure date. Boo continued to work with residents to help prepare them for travel. He met them at the bus station and weighed their bags to make sure they were not too heavy and handed them their case files. He would tell them, “don’t open it up until you get [to your destination] – don’t give it to anybody until you get there and see your caseworker.”  

A few months later, in June of 2007, Boo and his family’s travel date was set. Boo thought, “Wow, I am going to leave this place for sure!” He had saved up some money from his work with IOM and asked his boss if he could take him shopping. Not knowing what the weather was like but to be on the safe side, his boss suggested, “you should bring a jacket as it may get cold.”  Little did they know, they would be arriving in Arizona during the hottest season of the year. 

Journey to the U.S.

Boo, along with 30 other families, made the long trip to the U.S. Unfortunately, his parents were unable to come with him as there was a delay in receiving their paperwork. They had a layover in Hong Kong, Bangkok and then L.A before they all went their separate ways on different flights to different states. “Some go to Minnesota and some go to Texas. The 30 families [who were with us at the start] in the end only two families were left – my family and another family - it’s getting scary now, where are we going?! - it was sad, all my friends were gone,” Boo recalled.  

After a three hour wait, they boarded their flight and landed in Phoenix, Arizona in the evening and were greeted by their caseworker from the IRC. They all exited the Phoenix airport and were hit with the extreme heat and immediately removed their jackets! 

About six months later, he gets a call from his mom letting him know that his paperwork was approved to go to Australia where his cousins live now, but it was too late as he was already in Phoenix. Boo and his parents were reunited a year later and they all lived together in the same house. 

An Integral Part of the Team

The next morning, Boo visited the IRC office for a benefits orientation and ended up interpreting the session. Staff at the IRC quickly realized that Boo would be a great asset to the team. “A week after that, I am doing interpretations for caseworkers, employment specialists,” he said. He had a conversation with the Executive Director at the time, and shared that she would like him to assist with interpretations.  

“They enrolled me in the matching grant program and I got cash assistance, they pay rent for a few months and provide you with some pocket money,” he recalled. After saving up, he was able to purchase a cellphone and interpret for clients and staff. This was the start of a long and successful career with the IRC. Boo went from being a client to an Interpreter and a Caseworker, and then a Housing Specialist to finally, a Data Support Coordinator. 

Improvements to the Process

Through working with clients everyday, Boo and his colleague thought of an idea that would make filing paperwork easier for staff.   “…We built out a resettlement form using excel. We put all the forms there: Social Security applications, DES applications, renewal applications – we put all of them together, but it  took us a long time.” The original layout was rejected, but with a few drafts, they managed to get the format right and it was approved. 

Now, as a Data Support Coordinator, Boo assists our staff with data tracking to better serve our clients while maintaining a digital case filling system for program teams. By tracking data for our office, he is able to see the bigger picture – the impact that our teams have made each year, the number of clients we have served, the languages they speak, and so much more! 

Boo has made a conscious effort to raise his voice when it comes to advocacy work on behalf of refugees. He even introduced his family to Colin Powell, Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell when he visited IRC in Phoenix office back in 2007.

Silver Lining 

Having worked with the IRC for 15 years now, Boo has seen changes within the IRC such as the addition of new programs, new leadership, and new offices, but emphasized that these shifts were, “based on the needs of the client – the core principle of the IRC stays the same.” 

Looking back at his journey starting from Burma, he considers himself lucky to get the opportunity to come to the U.S. He shared, “I realized if I had gone to Europe, it would probably be very cold and I wouldn’t be able to handle that!  And if I had a chance to go to Australia, I’d probably have to work harder to get a job.”  

Boo has been a valuable team player in the office over the years and his passion and humor does not go unnoticed. Although working at the IRC was his very first job in Arizona, he couldn’t picture himself doing anything else. “I enjoy working with the IRC, because I get to know a lot of people. I’m not perfect, and am learning every step of the way. This kind of job I have never done before – I have to learn step by step.” 

If you bump into Boo in the office, he will most likely wish you a “Happy Friday!” Thank you Boo for all that you bring to our team, our clients and the IRC! 

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