Longform

Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

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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.

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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