Longform

Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

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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."

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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.

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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