Drucie Bathin pulls her black Toyota Yaris parallel to the curb on Rosemary Street in east Denver and opens her car door to the frigid December air. Colorado's cold winters are a visceral reminder that she's thousands of miles from the humid jungle of her native Burma, the war-torn Southeast Asian country she left more than a decade ago.
In black heeled boots and a knee-length peacoat, she walks up an icy outdoor stairway and knocks on the door of a low-rent duplex. It's stiflingly hot inside and smells strongly of cooking spices and the sour scent of sleeping people. Two men and a woman sit in a living room decorated with battered furniture and a mattress covered in plastic. A violent, low-budget war movie with subtitles in a dialect of Burma blares from the TV.
Bathin is here about the woman, a middle-aged mother whose mind, it seems, is not right. A few weeks earlier, she disappeared at 6 a.m. No one knew where she was until she turned up on a random doorstep at 1 p.m. the next day. She was taken to the hospital, where a doctor prescribed her the antipsychotic drug Haldol. But the woman and her husband, both refugees from Burma (also known as Myanmar, though the United States government prefers Burma), have no health insurance and speak little English.
Actually, the woman barely speaks at all. It's her husband who explains the trouble they've had filling their prescription to Bathin, who has dragged a wooden kitchen chair into the living room. "Sit on wooden chair is better," she explains. "Sometimes the couch has the bedbug." The man hands her the typed prescription and a wrinkled index card. On it is the phone number of the family's case manager from the local agency that contracts with the state government to help refugees integrate into the United States. Bathin pulls out her Cricket flip phone and punches in the number, but an automated message informs her that it's not accepting calls.
"I look at these people and it's worry me," she says. "There is no support."
Or at least not enough support. Which is why Bathin, a 46-year-old mother of three and the daughter of a late rebel leader in Burma, works around the clock to help the more than 2,000 refugees from her home country that the U.S. government has resettled in Colorado. The bulk of the arrivals are recent. In the past four years, the state has welcomed more refugees from Burma than from anywhere else. In 2010, the most recent year for which complete data is available, Colorado took in 2,367 refugees, up from 2,157 in 2009 and 1,523 in 2008. Of those, 494 — 21 percent — were from Burma.
And there's no sign that the flow is stopping. "With the Burmese, it's an ongoing humanitarian crisis," says Paul Stein, Colorado's state refugee coordinator.
In Colorado, four contract agencies handle the practical details of resettlement. For the first eight months, the agencies help the refugees with rent, groceries and medical bills. After that, they're expected to get jobs and become self-sufficient.
But often, the reality falls short of that expectation.
That's where Bathin comes in. A refugee herself who came to the United States in 1999, she heads the Colorado Rangers Organization, a so-called ethnic-community-based organization, or ECBO, that works on the model of refugees helping refugees.
On October 1, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement awarded a $150,000 Ethnic Community Self-Help Grant to another, more-established ECBO, the Colorado African Organization, to serve as an incubator and big brother to two fledgling ECBOs: the Rangers and the Global Bhutanese Community of Colorado. The grant is split evenly between the two, with a minimal amount of money going to CAO for supervision and training, and it can be renewed for up to three years.
It's an experiment that comes with its own set of advantages and possible pitfalls. The hope is that by the end of three years, Bathin and the leader of the Bhutanese ECBO, who know their communities better than any American ever could, will have soaked up enough nonprofit know-how to strike out on their own, finding their own funding and forging their own partnerships.
Bathin wants nothing more than for that to happen, but right now, she's focused on a more immediate need.
After snapping her phone shut at the apartment, she crosses the room and leans down so her face is level with that of the woman, who is obsessively wiping her eye. She speaks to her in Karen (pronounced kuh-ren), the dialect of the tribe — also called Karen — to which they both belong. Her tone is playful, and she jiggles the woman's knee in an attempt to make her laugh, as if she were a child. The woman smiles.
Meanwhile, her husband pulls on boots and a baseball hat. The two leave the apartment and climb into Bathin's car, which she drives to a nearby Walgreens.
"How much it's going to be?" she asks the pharmacist, handing him the prescription.
"No insurance?" the pharmacist asks.
No, Bathin says. She's surprised when he tells her the total is only $10.68, news she relates to the husband in Karen. It takes several minutes and lots of translation to give the pharmacist the information he needs to fill it; the husband is confused about his phone number and address, and he doesn't know if he lives in Denver or Aurora. After eking out some answers, he takes a seat to wait the requisite thirty minutes.
"If I get another job," she says, "who does this?"
In 1951, several countries gathered at a United Nations convention to discuss the millions of Europeans displaced by World War II. The meeting produced a definition: a refugee, the countries decided, is a person who left his or her country "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." They drew up a set of guidelines for how the European refugees should be resettled and established an agency to do it. In 1967, the document was expanded to include refugees from all countries and conflicts. But only a handful of countries accept them. The United States takes the most, followed by Australia and Canada. President Obama decreed that the U.S. would accept up to 80,000 refugees in 2011, a number that fluctuates from year to year. Refugees are legal immigrants who are allowed to work in the U.S. and eventually become citizens. In 2010, 16,665 refugees from Burma arrived in America, second only to the number from Iraq.
It could be argued that Bathin's own path to becoming a refugee began long before 1965, when she was born. There are eight major ethnic groups in Burma, each with its own dialect and religion. From 1824 to 1948, the British ruled Burma. The Christian Karen tribe was loyal to the British, fighting alongside them when Japan invaded the country during World War II. But when Britain evacuated the country in 1948, a civil war erupted, and the largest group, the Buddhist Burmese (or Burman) seized power. For decades, the Karen fought for autonomy, but the oppressive government fought back, its tactics growing more and more brutal as it attacked not just rebel soldiers, but Karen civilians as well. In 1989, the ruling military junta changed the name of the country to Myanmar, a move not recognized by the resistance. Recently, Burma has taken baby steps toward reform. A nominally civilian government, albeit stacked with military leaders, replaced the junta in March. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last month, praising the country's "flickers of progress" and saying she hoped they'd continue.
Bathin's father, Saw Ba Thin Sein, was a leader of the Karen resistance, serving as president of the pro-democracy Karen National Union. Since he was hiding in the jungle, though, Bathin didn't meet him until she was five years old. Her mother was under house arrest in their village because of her husband's position. Whenever she snuck out to see him, she came back pregnant, subsequently caring for all five of her babies alone.
One day, Bathin's mother told the children they were going to visit another village. But when they got there, they didn't stop. They walked all night, Bathin clutching her uncle's hand for support. "You can't even see the star in the sky, it was so dark," she recalls. "I didn't bother to open my eyes. I just closed my eyes and walked." Eventually they reached a tiny hut made of bamboo and leaves. Her father was waiting for them.
From there the family was smuggled deep into the jungle, where they established a camp for the resistance. Disease and hunger were rampant. A sturdy child, Bathin learned to face fear: the fear of hearing tigers roar at night, the fear that their camp would be attacked, the fear that she felt when her mother, hallucinating and physically poisoned by a baby that had died in her womb, demanded she burn all of their clothes.
When Bathin was twelve, her father was called back to the rebel headquarters, a city of sorts built into the jungle that served as the political stronghold of the Karen. There she attended a proper school for the first time. But it was an oft-interrupted education. Every few months, the students were forced to tear down and move the school when the Burmese army, set on destroying the Karen, got too close. "Our boys, the high-school students, will have to carry the gun to defend the school," Bathin says.
The career options for women were limited to two — nurse or teacher — and Bathin chose to become a teacher. At twenty, she married the son of another resistance leader and had two children: a boy, Len, and a girl, Mu. From there, she climbed the ranks of the Karen Women's Organization and the family lived well. Len and Mu had babysitters, cooks and drivers. Their grandfather had a TV that played Charlie Chaplin movies.
All of that changed in April 1995, when Burmese soldiers seized the jungle city, torching the houses and shooting the villagers. "When you start hearing gunshots, the first human instinct is to just run," says Mu, who is now 23 and has since changed her name to Mulania. The family fled across the border and into the Thai jungle, leaving all of their possessions behind. Len remembers that the only things his mother had time to grab were a Bible, a bottle of water and a few crackers. They hid from the army, starving and sick with diarrhea, until they were forced to run again. And again. And again.
Divorced from her abusive husband, a taboo decision, Bathin raised her children in refugee camps on the Burma-Thailand border and then in Bangkok, where she applied to be resettled in a different country. Two and a half years later, in 1999, she got word from the U.N. that she'd be resettled in Connecticut, a place she'd never heard of, sponsored by a church group there with ties to her father.
"I was so depressed. I don't want to leave my country," Bathin says. Even though she'd spent her life running, she knew this time would be different. This time would be for good. "When you were in Burma, even if you live in Thailand, you can feel that you can sneak back in. But if you are too far, like the other side of the world, you already know this is harder than before.... This is the feeling of exile."
She and her children arrived in Connecticut in October, the first refugees from Burma the small town of East Lyme had ever seen. "I was just blown away that a young woman with two kids could come over here as a refugee and start all over again with nothing," says Louise Lynch, who met Bathin at church. "My prayers were, 'Thank you, God, for the wonderful world,' and her prayers were all about the sorrow she'd seen," Lynch recalls. "She'd come out refreshed at the end of it with the strength to soldier on."
As usual, Bathin didn't waste time. She soon started taking English and GED classes and worked a string of low-paying jobs — at a daycare center, a Motel 6 and a Burlington Coat Factory — as she improved her English. College came next, and in May 2008, Bathin graduated with a history degree from Eastern Connecticut State University, the same school her daughter was attending. Her favorite class was poetry writing. One of her poems reads:
Day in and out the invader dictator comes to conquer her land/He burns the children in midday sun and slaughters the father and son/She hops as fast as a calf with her head band white scarf/He seizes her on the shoulder, and drags her down on the ground
By 2008, more refugees from Burma had come to Connecticut, and Bathin had a part-time job at a resettlement agency. She also had another child, a boy fathered by an American man from whom she is now separated. But budget cuts at work forced a round of layoffs, and after traveling to Burma and Thailand for the funeral of her father, who died of an illness shortly after Bathin graduated from college, she decided to move on.
Stein, Colorado's refugee coordinator, had launched a nationwide search for someone who could communicate with the state's influx of refugees from Burma and teach them the basics of living in the United States. It was an attempt to avoid the cultural and educational missteps the state had made with previous refugee groups.
"We had very few Burmese with any English capacity," Stein explains. "An American couldn't have done this position. A recently arrived Burmese couldn't have. We needed somebody who had a foot and a head in both worlds." Drucie Bathin, he decided, was perfect.
So, as she had countless times before, Bathin packed up and moved.
Bathin is petite, with sweeping bangs and straight black hair that she pulls back. She laughs easily and warms up quickly, not hesitating to lock arms with a near stranger and share secrets, though it's plain that she withholds the most private details of her life. Her phone rings constantly — a jarring, jangly ring — and she keeps her conversations short, hanging up without saying goodbye. She speaks hurriedly, rarely pausing for questions or further explanation. To be fair, she does a lot of explaining — about the horrors in Burma and the hardships of surviving in a strange new place — and it often seems as if she's eager to get past teaching people what's wrong and on to making it better.
For the first three years she was in Denver, Bathin worked as a "community educator and navigator" for the state. Her job was to look at the whole picture: How can Colorado help the refugees from Burma — who should never be called "Burmese," Bathin insists, since that refers to a specific ethnic group, the group that has oppressed, raped and murdered many of the minorities — transition to living in the United States?
But often, the refugees called on her to help with the nitty-gritty. She was one of the only people in Colorado fluent in English as well as the Karen and Burmese dialects, and their requests to her were small-picture: Help my child register for school. Help negotiate with my landlord. Help me find a job. Most of the refugees here live in apartment buildings on either side of the border of Denver and Aurora, within spitting distance of East Colfax Avenue; a few are managed by nonprofits, but most are run by landlords willing to rent to people who may never have lived in an apartment before but who, for at least eight months, are guaranteed to make rent. Many refugees look for jobs as housekeepers or dishwashers, or, if they can arrange transportation, in the meatpacking plants in Greeley. Getting better jobs largely depends on their English skills, something most refugees from Burma lack, though they're offered free classes. Those who live in Denver send their children to special programs at three public schools, including South High.
"It's very difficult to maintain a distinction between being an educator and being a case manager," Stein says. Bathin, he adds "had frequent requests, demands, pleas for her time that she generally answered, but it takes its toll. She was on demand 24/7. That's not the role we wanted her to be in, but it's hard to transition."
Bathin can't help herself. "These are my people," she says. She works seven days a week no matter what. "We keep going because they need help, because they are one of us."
But doing so often means sacrificing time with her children.
"The way I see myself is just like my dad," Bathin says. "My parent and I were never together.... My dad was working hard and we were separated.
"I have so much love for my people. Giving your time to the people is taking away all of your time and your energy," she adds.
Her two older kids have gotten used to it.
"I've come to the realization that my grandfather was a very important person, and because she is a woman, she had to work harder to get his approval, his attention," says Mulania. She and her brother are close, and both moved to Denver last year to be near their mother and six-year-old brother.
Len, who is 26, cuts in. "I think she kind of wants to hold on to the whole image, but also the importance of the grandfather, and she wants to carry on that torch kind of thing."
"She's the only one in her family that is doing so," Mulania adds, "but to the point where it's like, 'Mom, well, you need to separate your family life from your work, work, work,' and I don't think she knows how to do that yet."
"She kind of combines them together, I think," Len says.
"And to be honest, I've accepted that," Mulania concedes.
Eventually, the resettlement agencies built up their own cultural and linguistic capacity to help the refugees from Burma, and Bathin's job was no longer needed. "After a couple of years, it was time to re-evaluate," Stein says. "With Drucie's insistence and persuasion, we were able to see the need for moving from helping people navigate to helping people own more control over their decisions and destinies through an ECBO."
Bathin had already founded the Colorado Rangers Organization with the vision of uniting all eight ethnic groups — or nine, counting the Muslims from Burma, which Bathin does — under one banner. (The name is derived from the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group that works inside the country.) If the refugees were going to survive here, she thought, they'd have to leave behind the fighting that chased them out of their country. "Just like you need American people to get involved, you need as many refugee tribes to get involved to solve the problem," Bathin says.
She worked to identify leaders of each tribe: men and women who weren't prejudiced and who "have a heart to help their people." The goal, she says, is for them to "hold hands" and work together to support programs beneficial to all refugees from Burma, such as cultural celebrations, a women's weaving collective and a soccer league for teenage boys who might otherwise spend their afternoons getting into trouble.
She shared her hopes with Kit Taintor, the American director of the Colorado African Organization, an ECBO formed in 2003 to serve African refugees from a wide variety of nations. The timing worked out perfectly: Just as Bathin's job with the state was ending, CAO won the federal grant. The state kicked in nearly $100,000 more to pay the salaries of the new organizations' employees, including Bathin's part-time assistant, a man named Christ Hae who came to Denver as a refugee in 2007. In October, the two moved into a one-room office decorated with a giant Karen flag, a plaque from the Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network naming Bathin a 2011 Asian American Hero, and a framed letter from Senator Mark Udall congratulating her on the award.
Their office is inside a suite rented by CAO, one of the many ways the bigger, more established organization is helping the start-up. Taintor is also in charge of the money; the plan is for the new ECBOs to apply for "sub-grants" to fund programs of their own. "So hopefully, really, at the same time that they're delivering services, [we're] helping them understand how to deliver them here in the States and how to play by the States' rules," Taintor says. "I see our role as being cultural translators for them."
It's somewhat risky for new ECBOs to strike out on their own rather than attach themselves to an already established organization, such as CAO. Starting a new nonprofit isn't easy, but Taintor and others think it's the right thing to do. "Part of integrating is feeling that you have some place of your own, that you have a group of your own," Taintor says. "I really think that the best people to help refugees are refugees. They know the issues. They know the solutions. They know the cultures."
Meg Allen, program director of the Denver Coalition for Integration, which hosts monthly meetings for refugee service providers, agrees. "Could I go into the community like Drucie? Do I have the respect, the clout, the language abilities?" Allen asks. "No. She's the right person for the job, hands down."
Some of the challenges the ECBOs will face are the same as those faced by other nonprofits, not the least of which is funding. The American process of applying for and winning grants can be tedious. It involves gratuitous data collection, writing and patience. "It can be really frustrating and quite challenging for these new communities to understand," Taintor says, "because like us, they want things to happen immediately."
Others are unique to their position as organizations with "a foot and a head in both worlds," as Stein says. "If you looked at all the needs in the community, Drucie would have to walk on water to meet all of them," says Joe Wismann-Horther, who works in Stein's office as an integration program supervisor and has known Bathin since she arrived in Colorado. "She gets close to that. She has to be really careful that she doesn't take the weight of the entire community on her shoulders."
The ultimate goal is to develop the organization to the point where some of that work can be farmed out to volunteers or contractors. But letting go can be hard. "All of a sudden, you are no longer the person on the ground," Taintor says. "You are no longer the person showing up to a new refugee's house and showing them how to clean the bathtub or how to store their food. It is really, really hard to start delegating that to other people, and it's really, really hard to step back and understand that what you're doing by developing programs or overseeing other people is, in the end, more powerful."
"The idea is to grow the organization in a way that Drucie can start to delegate," Taintor adds, "so she's got somebody in charge of the youth — so she's not doing the youth and the elderly and employment, so she's not spread so thin. Because like anybody in the nonprofit world, the other real challenge is not becoming burned out."
But Bathin's not there just yet. Though she hired Hae, who as a male helps negotiate and coordinate with the tribal leaders, several of whom are male and still cling to a somewhat patriarchal view, the Rangers is still largely a one-woman show.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in December, Bathin circles a group of twenty teenagers who are rehearsing a traditional Karen dance to perform at a New Year's celebration in Kansas. The teens are loud, hungry and boisterous, and it takes some coordinating to pick them up at their homes and shuttle them (with Hae's help) to a sparsely furnished Aurora apartment. Inside, the air is thick with the smell of cooking rice. As one adult sears turkey in a wok with hot chiles, Bathin wraps long, traditional skirts around the girls' skinny jeans and corrals the teenagers outside to practice.
"The youth, they never get together," Bathin explains. "There is no place for them to get together. So when they get together, they talk, talk, talk! Like, oh, my God!"
On a strip of concrete between the parking lot and a playground, one of the two dance teachers keeps the beat by smacking an empty cookie tin with a stick. The dancers begin singing a song they wrote, about the tribes coming together. Bathin translates some of the lyrics: "If you have unity, if you dare to come, we will wait."
The teenagers' feet are constantly moving, almost as if they're stepping on hot coals, as their arms and hands make a series of intricate swoops and twirls. Throughout the eight verses, they change formations from a V to two lines, then back to a V.
Bathin inspects their movements like a drill sergeant. If she sees a floppy arm, she straightens it. If she spies someone not singing, she points at them and makes a talking motion with her hand. At one point, she admonishes a boy for wearing his black jeans slung so low she can see his white boxer shorts, grabbing at his waistband and eliciting laughter from the rest of the group.
This is the second year she's played chauffeur and chaperone for the youth dance group, and she explains that some of the teenagers who participated last year didn't come back this year. "They don't think it's cool. They think they are too old," she says. "They don't know it's good to keep the tradition."
As the kids practice, Denver police detective Phouratsamay Chanthavong, who goes by P.C., pulls up in a black SUV. A refugee who came to Denver from Laos in 1978, P.C. understands the need for activities to keep kids busy. He volunteers for an Asian youth mentoring program and often intervenes when young refugees get in trouble with the police, mostly in defending themselves from American teenagers who pick on them. "I see myself in these kids. I feel for them," says P.C., who arrived in Denver when he was nine years old and now works on Mayor Michael Hancock's security for the Denver police. "They could go easily the other way. Very easily."
P.C. is one of several people Bathin has met through her natural gift for networking. She's relentless, never missing an opportunity to make a connection and not shy about asking for help. The Rangers is an official nonprofit, and while one of the Americans she's recruited to serve on the board works on preparing applications for two sub-grants — one for youth activities such as dance and soccer, and another for leadership training for the tribal heads — Bathin works on making miracles with no money.
Three days before Christmas, she and Hae stopped by a Denver police station to pick up two trash bags full of toys. The donation was coordinated by a community resource officer in the gang unit. He and Bathin connected after she attended a forum hosted by Mayor Hancock, at which she spoke on behalf of a group of refugees about their worries that the youth may turn to violence.
The week before found her sitting around a kitchen table in upscale Highlands Ranch, discussing the possibility of opening an Asian health clinic with a retired banker, a pastor, the CEO of the Asian Pacific Development Center and a nephrologist. All have Asian roots, and they called on Bathin to learn more about the health problems faced by the recent refugees from Burma. "The big issue I see is we have refugee go to the clinic and then they refer to a specialist, but they don't go because they scared," she told them.
A week before that, she got word that three refugee families had run out of food. Their eight months' worth of food stamps had expired, and they either didn't understand that they had to reapply or didn't have the English skills to do the paperwork. So Bathin took that on, sorting through the refugees' ID cards, pay stubs and utility bills for the required information, and meticulously filling in each bubble and line. In the meantime, she called Jack Johnson, a retired schoolteacher from Elizabeth and the head of the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network, a Christian organization that works with refugees here and overseas.
"Hiiiiiii, Jack," Bathin said into the phone, smiling. "It's Drucie."
She explained that the families were hungry. "Do you have any Santa Claus that want to give away the food?" she asked. A member of one of the families, a single mother of three who'd recently returned from a seasonal job picking apples in Delta to find that her food stamps had expired, was sitting in her office. "She is not naughty," Bathin added.
Johnson's organization had a spare $300, and he drove to Denver pledging to donate up to $100 to each family. A few hours later, Johnson, Bathin, Hae and members of all three families were at King Soopers. As the two mothers and one father piled oranges, potatoes, jumbo crates of eggs and huge sides of pork into their carts, Johnson added the prices on his cell phone's calculator. Bathin translated the amounts, doing the math so the families would know how much more they could spend. It was a big to-do for a simple shopping trip, but something Johnson would be unable to do on his own.
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In the checkout line, an overwhelmed cashier held up a plastic produce bag. "These are organic cucumbers," he said to Johnson. "Is that okay?"
"It's okay for now," Johnson said. "Next time," he told Bathin, "get regular cucumbers."
"They don't know the difference," she said. "I will have to teach them."
For now, at least, it's what she does best.