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Refugees Deserve to Be Counted, Says Volunteer

Every time Debbie Taylor, 54, drives past the Little Italy sign on her way to Grand Street, she cannot help but smile at this relic from a bygone era. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find any semblance of this downtown Albany neighborhood’s Italian immigrant past. 

In fact, the former Italian hub of the 1950s has undergone a series of transformations and is on the verge of yet another. Since last summer, 17 Karenni refugee families from Burma (now Myanmar) call the Grand Street area home. Not only has Taylor noticed this new addition to the neighborhood, she has also helped record it on a recent visit to the growing community.

For the past nine months, Debbie Taylor and her husband, Kevin, have been visiting Thyia Reh, his wife, Lee Meh, and their five children at their new home on Grand Street. The Karenni refugee family arrived in the United States on the symbolic date of July 4, 2009, after 15 years of living in a refugee camp. Volunteers for the Albany Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), the Taylors have been helping the family adjust to life in their adopted country.

But a recent visit did not consist of the usual reading session with the little ones, helping the school-age children with their homework, or teaching the parents about money and the banking system.  Instead, upon entering the family’s second-floor apartment, the Taylors were surprised to find a small gathering of Burmese refugees from the neighborhood.  Each person was armed with a pen and carefully holding an official-looking letter.

It did not take the Taylors long to recognize the forms in their hands: the 2010 U.S. Census. All too familiar to most Americans, the quick and easy census forms are anything but for the mostly non-English-speaking Burmese refugees. The volunteers immediately popped a squat on the floor and went to work, spending the next hour helping each person check the right boxes and correctly fill in blanks.

Something as simple as writing down one’s birthday can be a difficult question to answer for the Karenni, many of whom do not celebrate or even recognize birthdays, explained Debbie Taylor. Even those who have a basic knowledge of English stumbled on a few questions. Take Steah Htoo, for example. The go-to translator for the local Burmese community was puzzled by the difference between ‘rent’ and ‘own.’ 

“At first I started to fill out the forms for them,” said Taylor. “But then I realized that I needed to show them and explain so that they can learn how to do it themselves.” Steah Htoo and others proved to be quick learners and proceeded to help other Burmese families down the street fill out their census forms.

“We try to encourage all refugees to be involved in the census. They need to be counted,” said Taylor.  “The Karenni group needs to be recognized as well.”

Last year, the Albany field office of USCRI helped resettle about 100 refugees from Burma, many of whom are members of the Karenni ethnic group. An additional 100 Burmese refugees will resettle in the area this year. An ethnic minority, the Karenni (a subgroup of the Karen people of Burma) have suffered persecution and harassment at the hands of the Burmese military junta since the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Tens of thousands of Karenni have fled their homes and sought shelter in refugee camps along Thailand’s border with Burma. Many of them were born in camps and know no life outside of them.

“These refugees have suffered so much and are still such happy people. Always laughing,” said Taylor.  “They have so much less than us and yet they’re doing so well. They want the same things for their children as we do.”

When Taylor first met her, Lee Meh was five months pregnant and had never had prenatal care. The volunteer took the expectant mother to get an ultrasound, asked friends to donate supplies, clothes and a car seat for the new baby, and was present in the delivery room. As was customary, the father stayed at home to watch the other four children.  Lee Meh gave birth to a healthy girl named Debbie Meh, in honor of the volunteer.

Life in America is a big adjustment for Burmese refugees, most of whom have never had electricity, running water, or even something as simple as a door. “They always respectfully take off their shoes when entering someone’s home,” said Taylor, adding with a chuckle, “but they never knock.”

The key to helping refugees adapt to a new and unfamiliar lifestyle is to teach them how to become independent. “You have to teach them how to fish, so they become self-sufficient, happy families,” said Taylor who volunteers a couple of hours one to three times a week. “But I also like to do some fun things with them,” she added. One of the fun activities included taking the parents and their kids to the theater to see their first movie. The children’s passes were compliments of the theater’s owners.

Technically assigned to help Thyia Reh and his family, Taylor took to assisting the two neighboring families as well. “I consider them all my family,” she said. “Helping them is a big part of my life.”
The best thing about volunteering? “You can get as involved as you want,” she said. “If you were to take two hours a week to get involved, you would make a big difference in a person’s life.” 


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