Portrait of a woman

Refugees in the Heartland

The Ethnic Minorities of Burma (EMBARC) spoke at the Refugees  in the Heartland conference April 4-6 at the University of Iowa. EMBARC is a non-profit based in Des Moines with the mission of “helping refugees expand their world of possibilities through advocacy, education and community development”. EMBARC’s Mu Law and Thway Paw represented the refugees of Burma in Iowa at the conference by speaking on a panel about their experience becoming refugees, living in refugee camps, and resettling in the United States.

Mu Law had to leave Burma because of the conflict in the country. The Burmese government and the multiple ethnic groups in Burma were at odds. Families were forced to pay money to the government, give up their lands, and fathers and brothers were forced to be porters for the army.

“We had to take seven days to reach the camp. When our group was on the way we had many difficulties. We had to eat poor food. One day on the way the man who went ahead met the Burma army and he made us stop and we hid under the tree in the bush for about two hours until the army passed. The army would have killed us if they had seen us”, said Mu Law.

Her family had dealt with death already-her Uncle was killed by the Burmese military. Many fled the country to refugee camps along the Thailand border. Life in the camp was extremely limited, physically and mentally. Mu Law was in the Karenni refugee camp. Barbed wire fences lined the camps.

“We were not allowed to go outside of camp because we are not Thai and we didn’t have a Thai ID because we were not allowed to become Thai citizens, even though we lived there for 10 to 20 years. A lot of us did not have Burmese IDs either, so its like we did not have an identity, which made things very hard”, said Mu Law.

Resettlement is the next step, a rare and difficult opportunity. Those who lived in the refugee camps have great trouble acclimating to the United States. The camps did not have modern facilities such as electricity or running water. No one drove cars. Medical care and schooling were extremely limited. Resettlement is starting all over again. Many do not know English, how to drive, how to ride a bus, how to deal with a medical emergency, go to the doctor, how to pay bills, what to do with American food, register their kids for school, and the list continues. They are given 30-90 days of assistance from a refugee resettlement agency. The agency will find an apartment for the single or family arriving and furnish it thanks for the donations. Part of this assistance involves a case manager who will help the refugees apply for social security, find job assistance, ESL classes, and hopefully a volunteer to help them learn how to ride the bus.

“A woman I know has three children. One of them is disabled-she’s 13 but has the capabilities of a 1 year old. She came with her husband but after 6 months her husband passed away. She has to be with her daughter 24-hours. She does not have time for her other two kids, to even do things like going grocery shopping. She does not know resources to help her daughter. One time she went to the hospital for her daughter. They told her that her daughter’s brain was damaged and she needed medicine. They used a phone interpreter but it was not clear for her. There are many languages spoken from Burma, and interpreters use the wrong language a lot. So, she did not know where to get the medicine because the interpretation was not clear”, said Mu Law.

This is a brief look at the situation for many refugees from Burma. EMBARC is working to build self-sufficiency in the refugee population, and has a valuable skill set to do so as an ethnic based community organization. EMBARC is made up of refugees from Burma, offering a unique ability to understand and truly achieve the opportunity for refugee families and communities to thrive in Iowa.

I interned with the Iowa Department of Human Rights during the summer and fall of 2012. I was fortunate to become involved with EMBARC and have remained a volunteer.

We all need to challenge how to make things better.


I encourage you all to attend EMBARC’s next community event on April 27th, 2013, “Embrace a Cause with EMBARC”. The event will feature culture, art, and food from Burma. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. and performances will be at 6:00 p.m.

All proceeds from the event will be used to sponsor summer activities for refugee youth from Burma.

Purchase tickets at www.embarciowa.org-$25/$30 door