I Now Pronounce You Home
Mya* and Kywe* were born and raised in Burma. They met in Sunday School and grew up together.
About ten years ago, Mya and Kywe got married. Only a few months later, they began planning a way out.
They won’t say what finally convinced them to leave their homeland. Was it the constant threat of human trafficking? Of forced labor? Of rape? Was it the violence or poverty? They won’t say.
Kywe got out first. He was able to stowaway on a train. He worked in India and Thailand and saved up some money. He learned three new languages. He became a great cook. He missed Mya.
The details of Mya’s escape are less clear. Kywe was able to send for her from Malaysia with the money he’d saved. A group of militants in Thailand fighting the junta smuggled her out of the country. But how they smuggled her, she will not say.
All she will say is that a group of refugees leaving before her hid in the back of a truck. When they were found, the Burmese military burned the truck to the ground, killing about 100 people, including children.
Kywe and Mya lived for four years in refugee camps in Malaysia while they sought asylum anywhere they could get it. But they wanted to go to the United States the most, and especially to a big city like New York or Chicago or LA where they could find work and make enough money to have a child.
After years of applications and interviews, Kywe and Mya were accepted as refugees into the United States of America. They flew in through Newark.
Today Kywe and Mya are settled in a small city apartment. They have had huge problems in finding work. Even though Kywe speaks four languages, English is not one of them. Mya can speak some English, but without a car she can’t make it all the way to the neighborhood McDonald’s, who might hire her.
They both miss bicycles. “Life was easier in Burma in some ways,” Mya told me, “when we could ride our bicycles wherever we needed to go.” In her new city, drivers do not watch out for bikers, and the distances are often too far to make on bicycle anyway.
They also miss their homeland’s food. Mya wants to open a restaurant and cook her family’s Burmese recipes. Kywe wants to mix in a little Indian food and maybe even some Thai.
The rent and utility costs are almost too much to bear. They are looking for roommates. Preferably other refugees with whom they could start a little community and cut costs together.
Many people don’t realize that refugees in the United States do not receive government handouts. They do get some aid upon arrival, and help finding an apartment and even a job. And they get food stamps for a few months. But everything outside of charity – even their flight to America – is on loan. They have to pay it all back.
What’s even more amazing: they all do. Refugee payback rates vary by city and situation, but are extremely high. They want to learn English and get employed quickly, and they act like it from the first days they get here.
I ask Mya and Kywe what their most immediate needs are. They smile. They need work; they need about $650/month to cover their rent and utilities. And they add what they consider not a need but a want: a car.
Mya and Kywe are not romantics. They don’t hold hands or kiss in public. They smile but answer vaguely when you ask about their courtship. Void of sentimentality, Mya mentions to me one more thing they want right now. They want to have a baby.
The couple looks to be in their forties, and tired at that. They have spent the last ten years trying desperately to get to a place where they could raise a child in peace, not worrying about him or her being burned alive in a truck by militants.
They have learned new languages together, waited on each other countries apart, and lived in houses and tents and apartments, all to see America, where they could have a family.
Married couples who make it through the refugee experience together are a rare and lucky bunch. Just next door to Mya and Kywe, a Somalian widow raises nine children on her own, with no knowledge of English and no discernible time for steady employment.
When determining someone’s refugee status and whether or not to grant them entry to the United States, single-hood plays a part. Unmarried or widowed mothers are considered to be in special need. Single women without protection are at greater risk in the camps.
Married refugees have help. They have a friend.
Homeless, they have a home.
(*names have been changed)