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Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

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.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar