Burmese translator helps refugees find their way
Like every other woman in her community, Paw Htoo weaves her own clothes. Give her bamboo and she can build a house. Hand her a baby and she will cradle him to sleep with whispered coos. What sets her apart from her immigrant neighbors are skills she alone came to possess. The 24-year-old can stand outside of her family’s home on Clifton Boulevard, in the heart of Lakewood’s newest ethnic community, and point out the first of three buses that will ferry a neighbor to a job.
She can even talk to the bus driver and translate his gruff response back into Karen (KAH-rin), her native language.
What she cannot do is “help everybody at once,” she said at the end of a long afternoon. Still, she tries.
Paw Htoo is the interpreter for a thankful but bewildered people from a faraway land. Resettlement counselors thrust her into that role soon after she arrived in Cleveland last summer, breathless and wide-eyed, after 23 years in a refugee camp in Thailand.
She had achieved something special in the jungle camp on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma. Thanks to Christian missionaries, she finished high school. More remarkable, she learned English.
That is why, as she strives to fathom a city unlike any place she has ever seen, she must also explain it to her Burmese neighbors. Paw Htoo, whose first name is her full name holds a position unique to a refugee community. She is the translator still learning the language, the guide unsure of the terrain.
Her slender shoulders seem to broaden with the burden.
“I like my job because I think I can help my people,” she said. “Coming here, this is a great opportunity for us.”
Paw Htoo and her family came out of the world’s long-running civil war. The mostly Christian Karen, an ethnic minority in Burma, have struggled for autonomy for more than 60 years.
The war came to their mountain villages when Burma’s military rulers launched an ethnic cleansing campaign, driving tens of thousands of Karen into Thailand.
Paw Htoo was 4 months old when her parents slipped her across the border with her older brother. She grew up with seven brothers and sisters in the bamboo huts of a U.N. refugee camp called Mae La.
Despairing that Burma’s rulers would ever accommodate minorities like the Karen, the Mon and the Chin, the United Nations recently began sending willing refugees to accepting countries. Akron welcomed its first Burmese families in 2000 and the community there now numbers 700 to 800 people.
A newer community in Lakewood numbers about two dozen families. Paw Htoo’s was among the first to arrive. A two-day trip across a dozen time zones brought them to the sparsely furnished, bottom half of a double on July 17, 2007.
“It was amazing,” Paw Htoo recalled. “I cannot use all the stuff in my house.”
She speaks softly, in the cautious English she learned in the camp. Her olive skin, a wide, round face, and black hair are classic Karen features. So is the shy smile and the sudden, happy laugh.
When caseworkers with Catholic Charities’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services heard her English, they hired her as a translator. Paw Htoo, who also speaks Thai and Burmese, recently went to work for Asian Services in Action as a translator and cultural guide in Lakewood’s Burmese community.
She also attends classes full time at Cuyahoga Community College. The days are packed.
On a recent afternoon, she climbed three flights of stairs to the top of an aging brick apartment house on Clifton. Her colorful cloth handbag, which she wove herself, held bus schedules, maps, appointment books and other people’s mail to be read and deciphered.
She pushed open a door without knocking and walked in on a Karen family of seven. Children squealed and swarmed around her. Their mother, Moo Paw, sat listlessly in a chair.
She survived a refugee’s odyssey but not unscathed. Her husband is dead. Doctors say she suffers post traumatic stress.
Paw Htoo knows only that the meter is running. Like all refugee families, Moo Paw’s is entitled to six months of minimal government support: food, housing and English classes. After that, she’s on her own.
There are some Karen working at a food company sorting vegetables, Paw Htoo tells her. She will try to get her an interview. It’s on the East Side of Cleveland, “Two buses over,” she explains.
Want to help?
Catholic Charities is looking for “mentor families” to help newly arrived refugee families adjust to life in Northeast Ohio. It also needs clothing and furniture to furnish homes and bicycles to speed newcomers to work.
If you are interested in helping, call Stacy Dever at 216-939-3708.
Wearing colorful tunics traditional to the Karen, Paw Htoo pedals a small, battered bicycle from house to house on Lakewood’s east side. She escorts people to City Hall for marriage licenses and into hospitals to begin to interpret the health care system.
Resettlement experts say her impact will be broader than she imagines. Their interpreters, typically young women targeted for English lessons in the refugee camps, play a critical role in the new world.
“They eventually become a community leader, because they know what’s going on better than anybody,” said Goran Debelnogich, the resettlement coordinator for the International Institute of Akron.
His Karen interpreter, Sunday Moo, is now a student at the University of Akron.
Paw Htoo, whose name means “marigold,” the flower, also dreams of a four-year college. She wants to be a nurse. But always, there is work to do. She and her father, a dishwasher at the Cleveland Skating Club, support the family of nine.
Her cell phone rings frequently. The questions are unceasing. The answers sometimes weeks, months away.
In the apartment of a recently arrived Karen family, the mother handed Paw Htoo a food item her 7-year-old boy had brought from the refrigerator.
What is it? The mother asked. Can the children eat it?
Paw Htoo said she did not know.
It was a package of cheese.
She sat with Paw Kee and Tha Dee on the living room’s hardwood floor, surrounded by their four young children. She gave them this advice:
“Go to school. Every day. Miss nothing,” she said.
“When you use money, write it down. You’ll learn what things cost,” she added. “I learn a lot every day.”