Longform

Local refugees from Burma would be lost without Drucie Bathin

Page 6 of 7

On an unseasonably warm Saturday in December, Bathin circles a group of twenty teenagers who are rehearsing a traditional Karen dance to perform at a New Year's celebration in Kansas. The teens are loud, hungry and boisterous, and it takes some coordinating to pick them up at their homes and shuttle them (with Hae's help) to a sparsely furnished Aurora apartment. Inside, the air is thick with the smell of cooking rice. As one adult sears turkey in a wok with hot chiles, Bathin wraps long, traditional skirts around the girls' skinny jeans and corrals the teenagers outside to practice.

"The youth, they never get together," Bathin explains. "There is no place for them to get together. So when they get together, they talk, talk, talk! Like, oh, my God!"

On a strip of concrete between the parking lot and a playground, one of the two dance teachers keeps the beat by smacking an empty cookie tin with a stick. The dancers begin singing a song they wrote, about the tribes coming together. Bathin translates some of the lyrics: "If you have unity, if you dare to come, we will wait."

The teenagers' feet are constantly moving, almost as if they're stepping on hot coals, as their arms and hands make a series of intricate swoops and twirls. Throughout the eight verses, they change formations from a V to two lines, then back to a V.

Bathin inspects their movements like a drill sergeant. If she sees a floppy arm, she straightens it. If she spies someone not singing, she points at them and makes a talking motion with her hand. At one point, she admonishes a boy for wearing his black jeans slung so low she can see his white boxer shorts, grabbing at his waistband and eliciting laughter from the rest of the group.

This is the second year she's played chauffeur and chaperone for the youth dance group, and she explains that some of the teenagers who participated last year didn't come back this year. "They don't think it's cool. They think they are too old," she says. "They don't know it's good to keep the tradition."

As the kids practice, Denver police detective Phouratsamay Chanthavong, who goes by P.C., pulls up in a black SUV. A refugee who came to Denver from Laos in 1978, P.C. understands the need for activities to keep kids busy. He volunteers for an Asian youth mentoring program and often intervenes when young refugees get in trouble with the police, mostly in defending themselves from American teenagers who pick on them. "I see myself in these kids. I feel for them," says P.C., who arrived in Denver when he was nine years old and now works on Mayor Michael Hancock's security for the Denver police. "They could go easily the other way. Very easily."

P.C. is one of several people Bathin has met through her natural gift for networking. She's relentless, never missing an opportunity to make a connection and not shy about asking for help. The Rangers is an official nonprofit, and while one of the Americans she's recruited to serve on the board works on preparing applications for two sub-grants — one for youth activities such as dance and soccer, and another for leadership training for the tribal heads — Bathin works on making miracles with no money.

Three days before Christmas, she and Hae stopped by a Denver police station to pick up two trash bags full of toys. The donation was coordinated by a community resource officer in the gang unit. He and Bathin connected after she attended a forum hosted by Mayor Hancock, at which she spoke on behalf of a group of refugees about their worries that the youth may turn to violence.

The week before found her sitting around a kitchen table in upscale Highlands Ranch, discussing the possibility of opening an Asian health clinic with a retired banker, a pastor, the CEO of the Asian Pacific Development Center and a nephrologist. All have Asian roots, and they called on Bathin to learn more about the health problems faced by the recent refugees from Burma. "The big issue I see is we have refugee go to the clinic and then they refer to a specialist, but they don't go because they scared," she told them.

A week before that, she got word that three refugee families had run out of food. Their eight months' worth of food stamps had expired, and they either didn't understand that they had to reapply or didn't have the English skills to do the paperwork. So Bathin took that on, sorting through the refugees' ID cards, pay stubs and utility bills for the required information, and meticulously filling in each bubble and line. In the meantime, she called Jack Johnson, a retired schoolteacher from Elizabeth and the head of the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network, a Christian organization that works with refugees here and overseas.

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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