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Helping a Mother from Burma Provide a Better Future for Her Baby

Jennifer Cakir from Cleveland, OH, lends a helping hand to a recently resettled Burmese refugee, a new mom whose family is a world away in a refugee camp in Thailand.  Approximately 140,000 Burmese live in refugee camps in Thailand, having fled on-going violence and human rights abuse by their government.  About one fourth of those refugees have been confined to refugee camps for over two decades.

Jennifer Cakir was feeling a little nervous.  The Cleveland native was driving to Lakewood, OH, a suburb of her Midwestern hometown, for her first meeting with a Burmese refugee who recently resettled in the United States. Lay Lay, 20, whose family still remains in a refugee camp in Thailand, had just come home from the hospital with her three-day-old baby.  Jennifer, 29, volunteered to help the new mom learn English and otherwise adjust to life in America.

As she was driving, Jennifer was wondering whether she would be able to handle such a big responsibility.  She was also concerned that the language barrier would make it awkward and difficult to communicate.  She didn't know what to expect as she rang the bell of the apartment, which Lay Lay shared with three other newly resettled young Burmese women.

Jennifer had recently been laid off and while she was applying for jobs, she wanted to take advantage of the extra time she had to help people in need.  "I was looking for an outlet to give back to my community," she said.  That's when she decided to volunteer for a local nonprofit organization that helps refugees resettle in Cleveland.  The choice was obvious since she had lived overseas and was no stranger to the challenges of integrating into a new place and culture.

Plus, some of her most successful former colleagues were recent immigrants to the United States. "I saw firsthand how successful immigrants can be if they can learn the language," Jennifer said.  "It's the whole American dream."

Jennifer was surprised to learn that many refugees spend 5, 10, or even 30 years or more warehoused in refugee camps.  They must overcome the initial trauma of having to flee to save their lives, often being separated from loved ones.  Then, they are confined to refugee camps for many years with little control over their lives and no idea what the future holds.  After surviving all that, refugees must then start over in a new country and learn a new language and customs.

"I found out that many of the refugees were born in camps and have never experienced running water or electricity," said Jennifer.  "My responsibility as a volunteer was to help them integrate into American culture and lifestyle and become self-sufficient."

Lay Lay was one such refugee.  Her family escaped from Burma to a refugee camp in Thailand, where she was born.

When Jennifer walked in the door of the Lakewood apartment, Lay Lay's three roommates were rushing to get ready to go to work at the local I-X Indoor Amusement Park, while the new mom was trying to breastfeed her infant.

Jennifer jumped right into the action and her worries and concerns melted away.  "There was no time to worry about what to say or do or deal with awkward silences," she said. "I immediately started assisting Lay Lay with the baby."

Lay Lay didn't know what temperature to use for the formula.  She had no one to teach her or offer the kind of support any new mom needs--let alone a new mom alone in a foreign country.  So Jennifer stepped in. She was making sure that all the bottles were sterilized, she ran errands with Lay Lay, and helped her shop for a car seat for the baby.  They even picked up the baby's birth certificate together.

"I saw what kind of life this baby could have versus what her mom had as a refugee," said Jennifer.  "I wanted to do anything I could to help them both succeed."

Jennifer's concerns about the language barrier vanished fast even though the four Burmese women spoke very little English. It turns out, as Jennifer quickly learned, there are other ways of communicating.  "We used our hands and facial expressions," she said.  "I brought chocolate chip cookies to break the ice." It was the first time the four Burmese women, some of whom had only been in the United States for two weeks at that point, had tasted chocolate chip cookies and Jennifer was relieved that they seemed to enjoy her baking.

It didn't take long before Jennifer became like family.  She visited the apartment, which was minimally yet comfortably furnished with hand-me-down furniture, two to three times a week for three months.  "At first, I looked at these visits as a commitment and a responsibility I signed up for," said Jennifer.  "But people start to care for you and you for them and it soon turns into going to visit your friends or family."

The most important goal for Jennifer as a volunteer was to help Lay Lay become independent.  "You don't want the refugees to come to depend on you," she said.  "While it may be easier to just go and pick up something for them, it's important to instead show them how to use public transportation to go to the bank or the post office, or teach them how to drive, so that they know how to do it themselves and become self-sufficient."

One way Lay Lay could achieve independence was by improving her English skills and learning how to use a computer.  The latter proved to be challenging because Lay Lay had no access to a computer.  So Jennifer took the matter into her own hands and posted an ad on Craigslist.org explaining her situation and asking people to donate their PCs.  Given the tough economy, she wasn't expecting to hear back from many people.  To her surprise, she had so many responses she could hardly answer them all.

"It was almost overwhelming," she said.  "I was shocked by how receptive people were to the idea of helping others."  She was able to get two computers, two monitors, a printer and a slew of office supplies, including folders, pens, markers, and scissors.  The gentleman who donated the goods dropped them off himself and even helped set up the computers.

"You should have seen Lay Lay's reaction when the computers arrived," said Jennifer.  "You would have thought it was Christmas!"

As the weeks and months went by, the four Burmese women were adapting quickly to American culture.  "When you looked at them, they looked like young American adults," said Jennifer.  "They still had a strong sense of their culture, and they would occasionally wear traditional skirts, but they quickly picked up elements of American culture and style."

Jennifer's volunteer teammate, Katy Maistros, hosted a dinner at her home in order to give the Burmese women an American-style dinner experience.  They ate pasta, garlic bread, and cupcakes for dessert.  After dinner, they watched basketball and talked about American Idol.

"We taught them who LeBron James was," Jennifer said, referring to the famous Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player. "If you live in Cleveland, you have to know about LeBron James."

The most challenging aspect of living in America for the Burmese women was not knowing when they would see their families again.  But even though they struggled with language barriers, difficulties of getting around, and financial issues, life was so much better in the United States than in was in the refugee camps.

"While from our perspective, their adjustment to life in America may be difficult, they were grateful for everything they had here...their apartment, friends, opportunities," said Jennifer.  "When we talked about their families in refugee camps, they would act very grateful for what they had here.  They felt safer, more comfortable and Lay Lay's child had a better future here."

The volunteering experience made Jennifer feel grateful for what she had as well.  Even during a time when she was a bit down, having recently lost her job, it made her feel good to know that she’s helping someone else.

Three months later, both Lay Lay and Jennifer had some good news to share.  Lay Lay was moving to Minnesota to be closer to her sister, who had resettled there from Thailand.  Jennifer, meanwhile, found a job as a marketing coordinator for a nonprofit organization.  In light of her departure, Lay Lay hosted a goodbye dinner for Jennifer and her fellow volunteer, Katy.  When Lay Lay said goodbye, she hugged Jennifer and thanked her for all the help she had given her and said that she'll never forget her.

"That was a better reward than I could have gotten for anything," said Jennifer.  "That was the best thing that anyone had said to me."

Photos from top to bottom: When Jennifer Cakir was between jobs, she decided to spend her time as a volunteer helping refugees get acclimated to life in the United States. While she misses her family in Thailand, Burmese refugee Lay Lay came to the United States so her daughter would not have to grow up in a refugee camp. Jennifer helped Lay Lay get this car seat for the baby.

You can help refugees like Lay Lay: Take the Stand with a Refugee Pledge >>

Learn more about refugees in Thailand >>

Find out about volunteering opportunities at a USCRI field office or partner agency near you >>

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