Finding Refuge in the Heartland — Life in a Refugee Camp

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) — 50,000 refugees are expected to be welcomed into the United States before September 2017.

And while this number may seem substantial, between the U.S., and other major welcoming countries, less than one percent of the world’s refugee population will have an opportunity for permanent resettlement.

Furthermore, a number of those who do not find a home are commonly stuck in a refugee camp after fleeing persecution or war.

“A refugee can live in a refugee camp for a decade or more, waiting for safety,” Program Development Officer for the Refugee Program at Lutheran Family Services, Lacey Studnicka, said. “And then refugee resettlement can become an option.”

For Lah Htoo, a Burmese refugee who was placed in Lincoln in 2016, life in a refugee camp was a 14-year experience.

“My husband was having issues with (tuberculosis). We didn't have the money to get the medicine, so my husband moved to Thailand and then he stayed two years,” Htoo said through a translator. “After that, he went to pick up the family and after that he said we could stay together in Thailand.”

Htoo spoke about her journey from her home country of Burma to a refugee camp in Thailand in 2002.

The story included being separated from her husband for an extended period of time, being split up from her daughters, and finally, reuniting in another country.

The process of even making it to a refugee camp can be dangerous and difficult, and according to Studnicka, once the decision is made to flee, there is no turning back.

“They’re essentially giving up the hope of returning home,” she said. “They are saying, it’s not ever safe for me to return home and I am giving up the hope of returning home and I’m having that moral courage to start my life over in a brand new country, for the safety and sake of my family.’”

With an ill husband and five children, the camp soon became a temporary home for Htoo and her family. However, conditions were far from ideal.

“We had to stay there at the camp, we couldn't go out, just stay,” Htoo said. “They provided food, like rice and beans.”

"When they’re in refugee camps, they’re in a barbed wire camp," Studnicka added. "They are not citizens of the country they’re in, they cannot work, they do not have a path to citizenship, they are there for safety. They are there so they don’t get killed in their home countries. It’s a very desperate life. There’s food rations that are giving out. Often times it’s not complete."

Htoo left Thailand and came to Lincoln with her five children, but without her husband, who passed away in the camp in 2015.

The transition has been difficult, but after a lengthy stay in unfavorable living conditions, certain aspects of life in America stand out for Htoo.

“It's totally different, because here we have enough food, we have a place to live,” she said. “In the refugee camp or Burma, we didn't have enough food, we didn't have a safe living place.”

Htoo’s children range in age from 13-22, meaning most of their lives were spent in the refugee camp in Thailand.

In turn, the adjustment to Lincoln presented challenges.

“When they came here, the place, the nature, is different,” Htoo said. “They feel like it's not our place. They are feeling down. They didn't want to come here.”

However, Htoo, and her children are slowly adjusting to their new life.

The youngest sibling currently attends Culler Middle School, while two attend Lincoln High School.

The oldest pair are currently attending the Pine Ridge Job Corps in Chadron, Nebraska.

Currently on a path to citizenship, Htoo explained that outside of a few challenges, she and her family are ecstatic to be in Nebraska, saying, "life is much better in Lincoln."