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Feature Story:

Displaced for the Third Time: Four Refugee Families Forced to Start Over After Fire

Having escaped from ethnic and religious persecution in their native Burma and survived more than a decade in refugee camps in Thailand, four refugee families resettled in Albany were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter once again.   This time they were fleeing from a fire in the adjacent building on Grand Street, where they had only recently begun to rebuild their lives.

The fire started on a freezing-cold February evening, forcing the 10 adults and 15 children—ranging in age from 1-17—to run from their apartments in 14-degreee weather, without having time to put on their winter coats and shoes.  All 25 individuals, although shaken by the experience, escaped unharmed.   Most sought shelter in the nearby homes of their friends, family, and neighbors.  Despite receiving hotel vouchers from the Red Cross, they preferred to be surrounded by familiar faces to help them get through this ordeal, even if it meant having to sleep on floors.

“One of the women who fled the fire said that they are now refugees for the third time—first in Burma, then in Thailand, and now in the United States,” said Debbie Taylor, a volunteer with the Albany Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). “She told me that they were terrified, but they have been through worse.”

USCRI staff and volunteers like Taylor and Carol Bolam, who lives in the neighborhood where the fire took place, immediately started coordinating efforts to assist the displaced families, connect them to the Red Cross, and mobilize the neighbors to help. They collected warm blankets and organized a clothing and bedding drive at the local Grand Street Community Arts center.

“The refugee families affected by the fire were fortunate to have the support of compassionate community groups and volunteers who joined forces to help in every way they could,” said Jen Barkan, Resource Manager at USCRI Albany.

As soon as people from the community learned about the fire, they started inquiring about ways to donate and volunteer.   For example, teachers at the Giffen Memorial Elementary School in Albany collected donations for the displaced families while the students organized a coin drive.  Meanwhile, because one of the damaged apartments on Grand Street had been used as a location to teach English as Second Language classes for the Karen and Karenni families living in the building, the Albany Free School offered its classrooms for this purpose.

There were other ways to help, aside from donating items or money.  “I would be thrilled to do some laundry for some folks!” said neighbor Rose Mitchell, explaining that she didn’t have goods to give but wanted to help in some way. So she volunteered the services of the washer and dryer in her apartment. 

“It was so heartwarming to see how the community has stepped up to help,” said Barkan.  “We’re lucky that there are so many people who want to support refugees.”  USCRI Albany boasts 80 active volunteers at any given time.

The four families from Burma only recently resettled in the Capital Region through USCRI Albany.  One of the families arrived in the United States only two weeks prior to the fire.  They were among hundreds of thousands of people of Karen, Karenni, and other ethnic groups who escaped the Military junta’s rule in Burma and lived for years as refugees in Thailand.

Refugees are people forced to flee their home countries due to war and persecution.  For many refugees who cannot return home due to prolonged conflict and political instability in their native country, their only chance for a promising future is through resettlement in the United States, Europe, or other parts of the world.  The U.S. government invites a certain number of refugees each year to join our country as permanent residents.  Refugee resettlement is facilitated by a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, such as USCRI.  As soon as refugees arrive in the United States, voluntary agencies like USCRI Albany are there to guide them toward becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of their new community.

Update: Two of the four families from Burma have found permanent apartments to move into while the other two are still searching for new homes.

Photos from top to bottom: Refugee families receiving donations; fire truck arrives on the scene; storage space filled with donated bedding and clothing.  

For more information about donating furniture, funds, or other ways to help, contact: info[at]uscri-albany.org

You, too, can help refugees in the Capital Region. Sign up to volunteer today >>

Learn more about USCRI Albany >> 
 
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