From Burmese Refugee To U.S. Citizen: An Iowan’s Story

Photo: UNHCR from Burmese refugee camp, showing how many family members and age order

By Claudia Thrane

February 18, 2020

Every day as I drive through my neighborhood, on autopilot most times, my mind is busy thinking of everything I need to do that day. I’m focused on my own little world and am usually in a hurry.

During the nice weather months, I notice this man walking most every day; he looks older and his walk is slow yet steady. He catches my eye because of the way he is dressed. His clothes are unique and colorful, a wrap around his waist, I think, and what looks like a turban from a distance.

I have seen similar outfits before and arrived at the conclusion that he was from Burma.

Sometimes I wonder how this man, this neighbor, ended up here in Des Moines, Iowa, and how he feels about the terrible cold weather that usually shocks most immigrants like me. I miss seeing him in the winter months. He became my point of reference for what little I knew about refugees from Burma.

There are many intersections among new Iowans, but it wasn’t until recently that I had the chance to learn more about this community of refugees. I reached out to a nonprofit in Iowa that works directly with them, the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC).

This organization for refugees and by refugees has become the authority in the state when it comes to many refugee groups, helping guide them in their new home through advocacy, education and community development.

I was introduced to Grace, a young lady with welcoming and kind brown eyes. I must confess that as I heard her story, I was brought close to tears as I learned the details of refugee camp life. As we talked about her journey, I was reminded of the ongoing injustice in this world, but more than anything, I felt love for this stranger that shared her memories with me. I admire her courage, strength and beautiful heart.

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Grace’s parents are from Burma (now Myanmar) in Southeast Asia. They fled from the nation’s ongoing conflicts in 1989. Her parents escaped Burma with what little belongings they could bring with them and headed to the border of Thailand seeking refuge. They ended up in one of eight refugee camps established there. Grace was born and raised at the camp until her family obtained asylum in the U.S. when she was 14 years old.

“Living in a refugee camp is like living in a cage,” Grace said. “You live in very poor conditions. No electricity, no running water, limited health care and education, and even though people want to work to provide for their kids, they are not allowed to go outside the camp.

“Every month you have to wait for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) to bring food supplies,” she recalled. (UNCHR is an international agency with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.)

“The UNCHR would provide food based on the number of family members. It usually was not enough, and we had to make it last for the entire month,” Grace said.

She recalled her family lived in “bamboo huts” with a roof made from leaves and kids running around barefoot. Their diet consisted mainly of rice and some vegetables.

“My worst memory from living in the camp was that we were always hungry, there was never enough food,” Grace said. “We never had breakfast, so we had to wait until we got back from school to have our first meal. We all wanted to go home as soon as possible so we would have a chance to eat, because otherwise we would be at risk of not eating at all because one of your siblings would eat our food

“Since there’s so much poverty in the camps, some refugees would sneak out to work, but that was risky and dangerous. The armed Thai police would chase them, beat them and put them in jail.” she said

“My dad went out of the camp a few times to work to only make about $5 a day. Life, it’s hard in the camp, so people are desperate to get out of there.”

Despite the harsh conditions in the refugee camps, people did not want to go back to Burma because “the Burman regime destroys people’s villages and kills them,” Grace said.

When asked about how she got to the U.S., she explained that the process took about three years, several interviews and medical exams until finally a petition was accepted or approved. Grace said once refugees are accepted there is some education on basic information about America, including something as basic to us as what an airplane is and the way people live here.

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Grace’s parents and their five kids arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, in August 2007.

“Someone picked us up at the airport and took us to our new apartment. They didn’t say anything, just dropped us off,” Grace recalled. “There was food in the fridge, but our parents kept telling us to drink lots of water so we would get full and not eat as much because they didn’t know how long that food would last. It sounds funny now, but it was very scary at that time.”

She said her parents had food stamps and help with health insurance, but they didn’t know what the cards were for or how to use them. They didn’t know how to go to the grocery store and it was hard to communicate since there were no other refugees around and they didn’t know the language.

Grace said staff from the refugee agency would show up to take them to the doctor for their shots and take them to the Social Security office to fill out paperwork. Refugees receive public financial help for the first 90 days when they arrive; after that, they are on their own.

Her dad was able to get a job at a meat packing plant while her mother stayed home to take care of the kids. They did not have a car for the first three years, so her dad carpooled with other people from work.

The Htee family arrived in Iowa in 2013. Grace’s uncle on her mother’s side was already living here and convinced them to move.

“Iowa welcomes refugees,” she recalled her uncle saying.

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Grace graduated from Hoover High School on the north side of Des Moines, then went on to Des Moines Area Community College for two years. She wants to further her education and attend the University of Iowa, but that may have to wait since she’s now married and expecting her first child.

Grace works at EMBARC as a health navigator, a work ready navigator and, most recently, as a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps coordinator.

RefugeeRISE (Rebuild, Integrate, Serve and Empower) was launched in 2015 and is funded with state and federal funds. Its focus is on increasing economic self-sufficiency, job readiness and community engagement of the refugee communities it serves around the state. Up to 70 Refugee RISE AmeriCorps members complete a Refugee RISE service term each year, creating a tremendous economic and human capital impact throughout Iowa. RefugeeRISE members will return to the state Capitol on Feb. 25 to advocate for additional funding for this important program.

Grace’s work is in contrast to what her family encountered when they first arrived in the U.S. She is now an important resource for new Iowans and is proud to be part of EMBARC’s mission. She talks passionately about her job, helping refugees from different countries like Myanmar, Sudan and the Congo.


She has taught families about the health care system, conducted mock interviews and connected employers with refugees. Grace’s excitement and passion about this great organization is contagious. I want to learn more and share my findings with others about what these resilient people do to help each other.

Members in this community are becoming citizens at a high rate and are interested in the political process. Grace became a U.S. citizen in 2016 and caucused for the first time this month, along with many other refugees and minority groups.

EMBARC has a growing focus on leadership development and civic engagement. Before the Iowa caucuses, staff members took part in trainings related to presidential elections, dealing with the media and the caucus process. In addition, there was a satellite caucus held at Karen Baptist Church in Des Moines. (Karen are an ethnic group that is mostly Myanmar and Thailand.)

I’m moved by Grace’s beautiful and strong soul. I admire her humbleness and gratitude for their new life in this country.

Our time together was about to end, and we took pictures together. We became Facebook friends and promised to stay in touch.

I was curious about her name, Grace. She belongs to the Karen ethnic community and her birth name was HteeEh Say. She later changed it and told me, “I thought of my family’s journey from Burma to Thailand and by the grace of God I made it to the U.S. My name is now Grace Say.”

Her name fits her perfectly.


By Claudia Thrane
Posted 2/18/20



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