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Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

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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.

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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.

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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