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Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

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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.

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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.

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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