May 13, 2008

For 18 years, the Maung Chit Aung family lived in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand after fleeing their homeland of Burma. Several of the children were born at the camp where they slept on the ground, cooked over an open fire and endured numerous hardships.

But their lives have changed. Today, the family of seven lives in a furnished three-bedroom apartment in south Louisville. They arrived in the state just weeks ago with only the clothes on their backs and one small bag apiece. They made their way to Kentucky thanks to the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, an organization that partners with many volunteers across the region to help these families become self-sufficient.

The furnishings inside the apartment from beds to bed linens were furnished by the Raggedy Ann Homemakers Club in Jefferson County. The Homemakers organization is part of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

The club of 12 women began working with the Kentucky Refugee Ministries after learning of their work during a Homemakers international education program. At first they helped with welcome baskets for the families and baked goods for a fund-raising event. But club members wanted to do more, said Mary Quinn, president. So in December, they started collecting items to furnish an apartment.

“We were told a family probably would arrive in April,” she said. “(Later), they called and said we have a family for you. It’s going to be a family of seven from Burma. So, we got very excited, gathered all our items together, and one Tuesday morning we arrived at 9 a.m. at the apartment. We put it all together and met them at the airport that night at 10 p.m.

“You feel like you’ve adopted this family and you need to care for them in every way you can,” Quinn said. “They are so appreciative and so kind. They were so scared when they got here as you can imagine. Now, it’s fun, and we’re trying to help them anyway we can. We’re trying to help with learning about cooking and simple things like that we take for granted. They had to learn about electricity and everything in the kitchen. They didn’t know what a refrigerator or stove was – we have no idea.”

Quinn said the Homemakers see themselves now as being their friends and being there for the family if they need them. The Homemakers drop by to check on the family and are hoping to help them with some rent money until they can get on their feet.

The Raggedy Ann Homemakers may furnish another apartment, she said. Once they spread the word that they were planning to furnish an apartment donations from family, friends and others poured in.

“It was easy to do,” she said.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries is a resettlement agency that receives refugees from the U.S. state department, said Elizabeth Kaznak, assistant director. The refugees are legally admitted to the United States and come through two organizations Church World Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Kaznak’s organization resettles them in Kentucky between Louisville and Lexington.

“They are screened by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in the camps, and once it is determined they are going to receive refugee status, they go through our state department and are screened by Homeland Security Office of Resettlement. Then they are approved and come to one of the national agencies and resettle in the United States,” she said. “Kentucky Refugee Ministries resettles between 400 and 500 refugees a year.”

The refugees can come from anywhere in the world where people have had to leave their homeland to cross a border and are living in a camp situation and cannot become citizens of that country or return home.

Kaznak said the Maung Aung family was in a refugee camp for longer than the majority of refugees that have come from other countries.

“They do have some schools in the camp so some of them have learned English but no skills so they are learning for the first time how to get a job, pay your bills…” she said.

The ministry tries to set up each family with a sponsor, meets them at the airport, gives them bus passes, teaches them how to use the bus right away, starts them in English classes, takes them to get their Social Security card, and takes them to a medical clinic.

“We get the kids registered in school and the parents ready to take a job which is something they have to do within 120 days after arriving,” she said. “Our goal is self-sufficiency.”

The organization gets very little funding from the government and depends on partnerships with churches, organizations like the Raggedy Ann Homemakers and individuals.

“The Raggedy Ann Homemakers have been phenomenal,” she said. “We waited for the right family and wanted to give them a nice, big family. The apartment looks so beautiful. They had pictures on the walls, knick knacks and everything matched. And then they keep coming and visiting them. It’s so important for the refugees to have friends here. Somebody who will just come, knock on their door and read with them, talk English with them, take them places. It’s so important for their integration into the community.”

The family’s oldest son, Than Nyunt Sein, studied English in the refugee camp and is helping the Kentucky Refugee Ministries interpret as needed. He arrived a few weeks ahead of the rest of the family and is happy now that he, his parents, three sisters and brother are all together in Kentucky.

He said they are enjoying being able to walk and go where they want without the restrictions of the fenced refugee camp.

“It is very wonderful,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of nice people who like to help us. I feel very peaceful and very glad. (The Homemakers) are very kind, very friendly and have been very useful for us and care for us.”

In the next five years, Than Nyunt Sein said he plans to perfect his English and own his own business.

“We are very grateful,” he said. “We thank the United Nations and our brothers and sisters in America.”

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