When See See, an elderly Burmese refugee, was about to undergo surgery at a Milwaukee-area hospital, she asked her nurse, Sue MacGillis, for a Catholic priest. A chaplain could not be found at that moment, so MacGillis, a fellow Catholic, reached into own her pocket where she carries a holy card with the Blessed Virgin Mary on it. What happened next caused MacGillis to form a “powerful spiritual connection” with See See – last names are not used in Burmese culture. The elderly woman caressed the card, kissed it and took it into surgery with her, MacGillis said.
While caring for See See and spending time with her family, MacGillis came to understand the plight of Milwaukee’s growing Burmese refugee community, and was compelled to help.
She has reached out to more than 60 families, including 200 children, with the help of St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Therese Parish, Milwaukee, where MacGillis was a longtime member. Now a member of St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls, she remains active in the St. Vincent conference that has “opened their arms to the Burmese refugees,” she said.
Refugees persecuted in own country
More than Burmese 1,000 refugees live in the Milwaukee area, according to MacGillis. Many live near St. Michael Parish but others live in the Bay View area as well as Waukesha. They came from refugee camps in Thailand, where approximately 152,000 Burmese now live, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A large number of refugees are Catholic, MacGillis said.
Many are from the Karen region in Burma, now known as Myanmar, said Becca Schultz, executive director of the Burmese Immersion Project (BIP) in Milwaukee, an organization that assists refugees.
How to help
Donations can be sent to: St Therese Parish St. Vincent de Paul Society-Refugees 9525 W. Blue Mound Road Milwaukee, WI 53226 100 percent of donations go to the Burmese refugees. There is a great need for jackets, coats, gloves, boots, blankets and other cold-weather gear. Many refugees are experiencing their first winter in Wisconsin and do not understand severity of cold months.
“Most of these people are ethnic minorities, despised and hated,” she said. “They left their country because they are a favorite target for military junta (a committee of military leaders) to capture and kill, much like Hitler hated the Jews.” The ethnic conflict has spanned many decades, she added.
Several resettlement agencies assist the refugees during their first three months in Milwaukee. They provide minimum essentials and facilitate work visa procurement, MacGillis said. Each caseworker typically has more than 200 people assigned to them.
“This is why we are looking for more volunteers and assistance to fill in the gaps,” she said.
Burmese Immersion Project offers tutoring
BIP began as an effort to help fulfill the language needs of refugees. What started as twice-weekly English classes quickly blossomed into a tutoring endeavor involving homework assistance and English as a Second Language (ESL) games, Schultz said. The nonprofit organization receives assistance from members of various faiths – Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Muslims and Buddhists, to name a few.
Through BIP, Advent Lutheran Church holds fundraisers, offers ESL classes and occasionally takes up a monetary collection at weekend services. Plymouth Church, United Church of Christ donated paper, ink and other office supplies to BIP.
“I can’t even begin to estimate how many hundreds of dollars that would have cost us,” Schultz said. Chinese Christian Church sends volunteers to help with tutoring sessions.
Volunteers at BIP fund “almost everything out of our own pockets,” Schultz said. Her co-executive director, Bob Heffernan, purchased a 15-passenger van and pays for gas and repairs, she said. The vehicle is used to transport refugees to tutoring classes and special activities.
From hardship to hope
See See, the oldest of five children, knew suffering from an early age. When she was 6 years old her parents died of disease and lack of health care, she said. With the help of an aunt and uncle, she began raising her siblings. She carried her newborn sister on her back in a sling. One day her aunt told her the baby had died on her back.
See See and her husband, Mawt Hai, escaped Burma in the 1960s when her two daughters were babies. They left their village at night for fear of being caught by Burmese soldiers. In pitch blackness, with no flashlight, they made their way toward the jungle, but soldiers followed them so they had to change directions.
Once they reached a modicum of safety in the jungle, they cut down trees to allow sun in to grow rice. After Mawt Hai was bitten by a snake and no longer able to work, See See made rice noodles to sell. They lived in the jungle for two years before finding their way to the refugee camp in Thailand, See See said.
Once in Thailand, she did not want to leave. The prospect of living in the U.S. gave her great pause.
“I argued with my husband. I said, ‘I am a jungle person. I do not speak English. I am not educated. How can I go to the greatest country?’” she said.
Her daughters also wanted to flee, so See See told her husband to go with them alone. But she eventually changed her mind.
As she reflected on her long journey, See See said, “When I think about my past, this makes me cry.”
Language barriers exist
As his wife became emotional, Mawt Hai spoke.
“One of my difficulties living in America is that I do not speak English,” he said. This limitation affects him so deeply he avoids venturing out beyond the confines of his neighborhood.
“I just live in the house and go to the neighbors,” he said.
Despite this hardship, he remains grateful.
“The (U.S.) government helps me. In my country the government gives nothing. I want to help the (U.S.) government but I cannot. So I pray for them,” he said.
A shrine humbly but beautifully decorated with dime-store gift bows and ribbons, a common sight in the homes of Catholic refugees, takes front stage in the couple’s living room. Pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Pope Francis are prominently displayed. When celebrating birthdays and other special occasions, they gather family around this area and read Scripture, pray the rosary and sing hymns, MacGillis said.
See See’s greatest hope is for her adult grandson, Nu Ku, to join the rest of the clan in the United States. He is the lone relative who did not emigrate due to lack of refugee documentation.
“He had gone back to Burma and was not at the camp when documents were issued. Documents are issued only every three to five years,” she said.
Landmine takes both arms, eye
Poe Ru came to the U.S. three years ago, followed a year later by his wife, Moo Paw. Their five children include two teenage boys, twin preteen girls, and a 7-month-old baby, Laura. Born in the U.S., “Laura is the only one of us who is an American citizen,” Poe Ru said with unmistakable fatherly pride reflected in his broad smile.
The family escaped Myanmar “because of civil war. I cannot live in my country. If I live in my country, I will be killed,” Poe Ru said. “The Burmese soldiers came to my village and burned the houses and shot the people.”
On his escape through the jungle, he was hit by a landmine, losing both arms and an eye. Grateful to be living in Milwaukee, Poe Ru relishes peace and security.
“I do not feel afraid here. It is safe for me,” he said.
But lingering sadness strikes deep due to family members left behind.
“My parents are still in the jungle,” he said.
Recently devastating news arrived by way of the Thai refugee camp. His mother had died.
Holding Laura close in a cloth sling, Moo Paw expressed frustration with living in a foreign land.
“Not being able to speak English is difficult – at the store, doctor, church,” she said.
But she is grateful for the opportunity her new country affords her family, and often reflects on the difficulties of her former life. Prior to joining Poe Ru in the United States, she would go into the jungle and cut down trees to sell for firewood to make money to support her children.
“I think about life in America. Sometimes I want to stay and sometimes I want to go back to my country to see my siblings and my parents. I miss them. They are not safe, and my mother is very sick,” she said. “I don’t want to explain anything else. It makes me cry to talk.”
Poe Ru’s greatest hope is to learn English so he can become an American citizen, he said. He also wishes for people to know about the civil war in his country so a resolution can be found.
Seeking only kindness
Aung Ko Ko and his wife, Lily Paw, arrived in the U.S. two years ago with their five children. They left Myanmar because they were “scared of Burmese landmines,” Aung Ko Ko said.
While his family was living in their village, Burmese soldiers would often approach to look for enemy Karen soldiers. The villagers would flee to the jungle for safety. After one such retreat, Aung Ko Ko’s family became hungry so he went back to the village to cook. The Burmese soldiers had planted a landmine in the kitchen area while the villagers were away, and it exploded in Aung Ko Ko’s face, destroying his eyes.
“Fortunately, it did not hurt my hands. Only my eyes,” he said. “I have five children. I have only seen two. I would like to know: What is their skin color? Are they light or dark? Are they beautiful?” Aung Ko Ko abruptly stopped talking. Seemingly emotional, he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “It is in the past. It is done. I do not want to say anything else.”
What he wants now is kindness.
“People do not want to be friends with me because I am blind. I need kindness,” he said.
Spirits remain strong
Though the refugees have suffered unimaginable losses, their spirits remain strong, MacGillis said.
“They are most endearing people I have ever met. They are in such poverty. Yet they make it work,” she said. “But they are reluctant to ask for anything. They are trying to be self-sufficient.”
Though it is easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer number of refugees needing assistance, MacGillis said, she chooses to remain focused, motivated by the spirit of the refugees themselves.
“They are humble, grateful, family oriented, and faithful. I’m just captivated by them,” she said. Maureen Boylan