Coming to America

In a rundown refugee apartment complex a new world city is taking shape, and one teenage girl is at the center of it.

By Eric Scigliano June 23, 2009 Published in the July 2009 issue of Seattle Met

THE APARTMENT COMPLEX stands just off a stretch of Highway 99 that used to be the not-so-happy hunting ground of prostitutes, crack peddlers, and the Green River Killer. Back then this road was Pacific Highway South. Now it’s called Tukwila International Boulevard, a name as apt as it is grandiose.

From the outside, the complex doesn’t look much different from any other 1978-vintage motel-style apartments on any airport strip outside any American city: A stark L of ridged three-story boxes. Dented beige aluminum siding. A wide parking lot. A chain-link fence, topped with razor wire.

Around the lot, suspended concrete steps lead to stripped-down one- and two-bedroom units, plain rooms with white walls, popcorn ceilings, beige and brown carpets, and stick-thin mahogany trim. In one of those units lives a teenager named Helber Moo.

Helber (pronounced helba ) is almost 17, but she could pass for 13. She is a little over five feet tall, sturdily built in the way of her people. Her hair is dark and wavy; she ties it in a loose ponytail. She dresses in standard teenage casual: jeans, jerseys, sweatpants, sweatshirts. She wears small crystal studs in her ears. She could disappear in a crowd, save for one feature: her smile, which breaks wide as a sunrise across her broad face.

Until two years ago, the only world Helber knew was the Mae La refugee camp where she was born, just across the Thai border from her family’s homeland in Burma. Now she lives in a two-bedroom flat in the apartments off International Boulevard with her father, Peh Bu, her mother, P’lae Say (pronounced pla say), and her two younger brothers. The living room where they spend most of their time at home is only half-filled with furniture: a worn couch, two chairs, and two coffee tables, one bearing a framed family photo and a small ceramic nativity figurine, the other medicine bottles and a sewing machine P’lae Say is learning to use. A picture-tube television is left on with the volume low, tuned sometimes to wrestling or cartoons, often to a channel that shows news, cooking, and other programs from various Asian countries. People sit as often on the floor as on the couch, and a brightly patterned grass mat is rolled out for children or the infants of visiting friends to sleep on.

On the wall, amid children’s drawings and family photos printed on office paper, hangs a hand-drawn flag with red, white, and blue bands and a red sun rising over a blue sea. The same flag appears in a photomontage with the inscription Kawthoolei —“land without evil,” the homeland of the Karens, Helber’s people. Framed certificates honor Helber Moo for unspecified contributions to Tukwila’s Foster High School and for first place in scriptural recitation at the Seattle Karen Community Church. The last is inscribed to “Halibut Moo.”

Growing up in the camp, Helber had heard tales of other worlds—of the land to the north, Mongolia they say, where her people dwelt in ancient times. Of the great river the Karens followed south until they reached vast, fertile plains, where they dwelt until “the Burmese”—ethnic Burmans, in the anthropological argot—came and drove them into the hills and forests. Of the peaceful village of Kwae Bu, where the soil was rich and the fish plentiful and her parents lived until the soldiers came. And of a land called America, across the sea, where the Baptist missionaries, who brought her people their schools and hymns and Bible, came from.

Next: What life was like in the refugee camp.

{page break}

Helber (in the pink shirt) and her mother (far left) with her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins at the camp in Thailand, just before departing for Seattle.

But the idyll did not last. Thirty years ago, when Helber’s parents were her age, the long-running war between Burma’s military regime and breakaway Karens—who’d fought since 1948 for the freedom they believe they were promised when Burma gained independence—reached Kwae Bu. “The Burmese army came to all the villages in the forest and burned them,” says Helber, translating for her parents. “When they find Karen people, they think they are all in the army and shoot them.” The soldiers press-ganged villagers to serve as porters and human minesweepers on the front lines. They killed Peh Buh’s sister and burned their home.

Helber’s parents joined some 150,000 other refugees in makeshift camps along the Thai border, where Helber and her brothers were born. Life there, the only life Helber knew, did not seem so bad. She had her friends, some from the same village. She played on a volleyball team, though the other girls were taller than she. And she helped support her family, taking the food her mom made—banana flowers and seasoned vegetables folded in rice and wrapped in banana leaves—to sell at school: “My mom was really good cook. All the kids wanted it.” On Saturdays she would peddle Mom’s cooking around the camp. Sundays were for church.

Still, camp life was limbo punctuated by occasional terror. Sometimes the Burmese army just across the border would shell the camp, and Helber and the others would flee into the jungle. Young as she was, she recalls the excitement more than the fear; it was fun to huddle with your parents while the bombs fell.

Helber studied hard, taking nine classes when she was in fifth grade and learning rudimentary English though she had no assurance she would ever get to use it. Many other kids, seeing no other horizon beyond camp life, did not bother. They could attend school but not college; the camp was a dead end. The Thai government, wary of attracting more refugees and unwilling to accept them as immigrants, did not let them work or travel outside the camp.

Helber’s father, Peh Bu, a trim, wiry man with a shy smile, found work cutting trees for a Thai logging operator, but it was risky business. One day he was out gathering palm fronds to cover their roof. The Thai soldiers thought he was poaching timber. They smashed his face with a rifle butt—he shows the scar above his left eye—and slashed his back with a knife.

Next: Helber’s family arrives in America, and Helber helps other refugees assimilate.

{page break} 

Helber Moo in Seattle today.

After 9/11 the United States admitted far fewer refugees—just 27,000 in fiscal year 2002, down from 85,000 in 1999. Nearly none were from Burma (or, as its military regime now calls it, Myanmar), despite the harsh criticism and sanctions the Bush administration directed against the regime. Helber and thousands of other dispossessed people became collateral damage of the Patriot Act, which barred anyone who was associated with or who gave “material support” to a “terrorist organization.” The latter term embraced any group that took up weapons for any reason other than “personal monetary gain”—including the Karen National Union and its counterparts among Burma’s other ethnic groups. “Material support” could mean giving water to a thirsty rebel or sharing food at gunpoint. For many Karens, the KNU was the only government they knew, and their only defense against the army. The circumstances that made them refugees made them ineligible for refuge.

In 2006, the United States admitted 1,323 refugees from Burma; 17 of them were resettled in Washington. Last year 18,139 arrived in the United States and 2,247 in Washington. Today the largest source of refugees entering this country and this state is not Iraq, Afghanistan, or another front-page trouble spot. It’s Burma, a land most Americans know nearly nothing about.

The first words Helber said to Webb were, “I want go college. How much cost it?”

Helber’s family arrived on July 25, 2007—her 15th birthday. The journey had been claustrophobic; they were confined first aboard the bus, then in a hotel at the Thai authorities’ insistence. Bangkok was the first city Helber, peeking through the windows, had ever seen, and she marveled at its glass and steel and concrete. But Helber was too excited to be scared. Seattle was bigger and glossier yet. “I thought, so many tall buildings. I want to help my country grow, to have buildings like that.” She expected to live in a house with a yard to play in, like the ones in magazines and movies. Instead her family found itself at the crowded Tukwila apartment complex. Still, she says, “I was happy, because this was our house.”

She soon gained a valuable friend, Sally Webb, a business veteran and world traveler–turned–volunteer with the International Rescue Committee. Helber, with her English skills and fearlessness in the face of new challenges, would become an essential accomplice in Webb’s efforts to provide the refugees the tools and experiences they needed to become self-sufficient and fit into American society, from a P-Patch and bicycles to computer classes, cultural outings, and wilderness training. The first words Helber said to Webb, soon after she arrived, were, “I want go college. How much cost it?”

This state receives more refugees than all but five others, more than twice the U.S. average relative to population. Nearly all of them land in the Seattle area. Tom Medina, Washington State’s refugee-assistance coordinator, says this reflects a trend that goes back to the late 1970s, when California refused to take in Vietnamese boat people and Washington opened its doors: “We have a very welcoming atmosphere, plus good community support and infrastructure.”

But we also have costly housing, so new arrivals, refugees and immigrants alike, tend to bypass Seattle itself and land in the more affordable towns to the south: Burien, Renton, Federal Way, and especially Kent and Tukwila. The signs of this influx are everywhere. “We speak your language,” boasts the banner above the door of the Bartell Drugs three blocks from Helber’s apartment complex, and proves it in Spanish, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Serbian, Russian, German, Somali, and Samoan. The Valley Harvest supermarket in Kent, near the church where local Karens and Chins gather for services, is weak on American wines but has a great selection of Russian, Moldovan, and Armenian vintages.

Next: A tour of Tukwila—a cosmopolitan vanguard.

{page break} 

Sally Webb and friends at the apartments.

Tukwila, home to Helber’s family, is in the cosmopolitan vanguard. According the 2000 census, 26 percent of its residents were born outside the United States and 32 percent spoke languages other than English at home, about twice the national averages. In 2006 the National Center for Educational Statistics and The New York Times declared Tukwila’s school district the nation’s most “ethnically diverse.” That merely means its student population is almost evenly divided among the four official “races,” white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. Other data are more telling: Two-thirds of Tukwila’s students speak languages other than English—a total of 65 languages—at home.

Tukwila district officials don’t just embrace this diversity, they flaunt it. When I called for information, they insisted on giving a tour. Two hours later, proud principals were showing me (custom press packet in hand) around their attractive new buildings. “We’re all about pictures!” joked Principal Steve Salisbury of Tukwila Elementary, which happened to be celebrating its International Day. He and assistant principal Zak Palsha (a Kenya-born Muslim) swiftly deployed nearly 150 kids wearing a rainbow of exotic outfits and hoisting the flags of their native and ancestral countries.

When the weather’s fair you could mistake the parking lot at Helber’s apartment complex for a village square in East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, or the Middle East—or all these places at once. Women in brightly dyed Somali shawls and Nepali saris hurry past, casting wary eyes at strangers. Middle Eastern men in suits and open collars stride by, deep in conversation. Lean, compact men in T-shirts and striped sarongs stretch and watch the world pass from their landings. And everywhere children of every size and color turn the parking lot into a cross between a schoolyard at recess and the UN General Assembly. They banter, wheel around on bicycles, and kick around a ball with footwork that would make a school soccer coach drool. The cars yield to them.

The tenant roster for the complex’s 48 units reads like a who’s where of star-crossed peoples, some familiar and some far from the headlines: Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Kenyans, and Iraqis, plus ethnic Nepalis driven from Bhutan and unwelcome in Nepal, the “1972 Burundians,” who grew up in Tanzanian camps after their parents fled massacres in Burundi, and the odd nonrefugee tenant from Mexico or Central America. And 15 families—Karen, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine—from Burma.

So far everyone seems to get along, save some Iraqi Kurds who clashed with the Arabs and moved out. The drab walls are free of graffiti, and Juan Martinez, the apartment manager, hasn’t seen any signs of kids joining gangs; the sheer diversity makes it impossible for any one group to claim this turf. Other apartment managers would blanch at a parking lot becoming a playground, says Martinez, a former Mexico City cop who talks like a community organizer. But he thinks it’s an outlet for young energies that might otherwise find unhealthy channels, and an equalizer. “In schools, you used to see kids all separate out into their groups. But that can change if we let them play together.”

Helber enjoys the polyglot parade, here and at school. She dug her high school’s Multicultural Day show, especially the Hawaiian hula dancers. “I want to do that,” she says laughing. “But I can’t move my butt!” Sometimes she hangs out with the Burundians downstairs and uses their computer.

Before the refugees arrived, says Martinez, “it was a nightmare to live around here as a manager.” When his company bought the apartments in 2006, it was infested with gangs and dealers: “The whole parking lot was a drug party. Once the SWAT team came with a helicopter.” Martinez suggested a new “marketing strategy”: to evict the lowlifes and rent to refugees. “They’ve brought a lot of energy, a much better culture. They’re a real asset to the community.”

Next: The trials and tribulations of being a refugee.

{page break}

Martinez gushes about the self-help projects the Somalis, the most established of the refugee groups, are launching: a community center in the old Chips Casino, a day care in another apartment complex. The Burundians secured a grant to rent a farm in Kent. They’ve already started plowing.

Compared to the Africans, refugees from Burma are at several disadvantages. Many come from a barter and subsistence-agriculture economy and know less of modern ways. One family sat in the dark in their new home till someone noticed and showed them how to turn on the lights; they’d never had electricity. When Webb and another volunteer obtained donated bicycles and set about teaching the kids in the complex how to maintain them, the Burundians snatched up wrenches and screwdrivers like old hands. One of the Burmese kids tried to adjust a derailleur with a hammer. 

Parking lot as playground at the refugee apartment.

The Burmese refugees are also divided by language—Chin, Kachin, and Karenni, plus other groups that haven’t arrived here yet and three Karen dialects. Many but not all speak Burmese as a second language. In the 1970s and ’80s, when the United States took in more than a million people fleeing communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, larger concentrations made it easier to field interpreters, build community associations, and assemble grassroots financing for small businesses. “Now it runs the whole gamut,” says Bob Johnson, Seattle programs director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). And the system is swamped. Providing interpreters in every tongue is all but impossible.

And so 15-year-old Helber Moo became a trilingual translator, interpreter, and life counselor of last resort. One evening one of her aunts, who’d wound up here in the complex with her five children after losing two husbands to the war, appeared at the door. Looking puzzled, she proffered a letter. It was from IRC headquarters in New York, informing Helber’s aunt that she was past due on the $2,179 she still owed from the “travel loan” the IRC had extended her family to fly to America. Her “payment history” was being reported to a credit bureau.

Welcome to America, where no lunch is free and everything goes on your credit report. The IRC says travel loans enable refugees to establish credit so they can borrow later for cars and homes. Helber handed me the letter and asked me to tell the IRC that her aunt would pay as soon as she could, but she didn’t have a job and didn’t know when she’d have the money.

Being a refugee is much harder now than it was during the 1970s and ’80s. At first, the Vietnamese and others received open-ended federal financial support till they got on their feet. The inevitable result, says the IRC’s Bob Johnson: “People tended to sit around and not get jobs.” And so a firm cutoff was instituted—first 36, then 24, and finally just eight months.

Next: Helber sets her sights on the future, one step at a time.

{page break}

Today’s refugees are expected to learn English and find jobs in a grueling recession, while laid-off natives scramble for the menial jobs that traditionally went to immigrants. Helber’s father paints fishing boats at a Seattle boatyard, when work’s available there. Her mother, though she’s learned more English than her husband, is still seeking work. Even the educated fall through the cracks: Helber’s Burundian neighbor Tatu Marie-José, a single mother of three, is fluent in English as well as French and Kirundi. In Tanzania she earned a degree in journalism and worked as a teacher until she left for America, where she arrived on July 4, 2007. She’s searched for work since then, finding only about 12 hours a week at one school. The day she told me her story, the Seattle School District announced it was laying off 174 employees. “Many of my students [from Tanzania] are now scattered around this country,” she says. “They call me and can’t believe I’m not working. It is almost easier for the people without education. They’re used to farming and labor. They will try anything.”

Helber doesn’t yet have to job hunt for herself. But as an informal interpreter and community liaison, she must negotiate all the messy business of adult life. One April weekend Sally Webb asked Helber to take five newly arrived refugees to meet the P-Patch director at their patch. Helber called after office hours to confirm the rendezvous. The next day brought cold driving rain. Unable to bicycle in the rain, she and her charges trudged the five soggy miles to the patch. The director, who hadn’t heard Helber’s message, never showed.

Through all the fumbles and lessons learned, Helber keeps her eyes on the future. “I want to be a doctor,” she announced one day. “If I can’t do that I will become a nurse, and I will go back to my country and help my people.” Is that country Burma, where she’s never lived? “Of course!” Silly question.

Still, distractions may beckon. “How much does a doctor make?” she asked later.

The road home and the road to riches are paved with homework. At first Helber found the schoolwork in immigrant-entry classes easy, “like beginning school back home.” Now, for someone still working on her English, regular classes are more challenging. But she deftly turned our interviews into homework sessions. I asked her questions, she asked me questions.

After we worked through one binomial equation, she was off and running with the rest. But she puzzled more over her reading assignment: a brief scholastic biography of Anne Frank. She tried to explain the contents to her parents, and an animated conversation ensued, the Karen words occasionally punctuated by “Jew” and “Nazi.” Her parents nodded in sympathy but did not seem particularly surprised at this horror. They already knew some people did horrible things to other peoples.

Helber described more of the Karens’ own centuries-long trail of tears. “The Burmese took away our language,” she said, “but the missionaries kept it for us.” The Baptists built schools and devised a Karen alphabet based on the sumptuous round Burmese characters. And so the Karens could record their history—very much a living history for this 16-year-old girl. “But when Karen people speak their language, the Burmese beat them, and when they see them reading they cut off their hands.”

She recounted how the Burmese enslaved the Karens and made them dig a lake in the capital with their bare hands—picturesque Inya Lake, where troops massacred demonstrators in 1988 and which an overwrought American recently swam across seeking to talk to the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (which gave the regime a pretext to prosecute and imprison her in preparation for elections next year). And Helber recalled what one Burmese military official said several years ago: That in 50 years the only place anyone would see a Karen would be in the museum, behind a glass case.

{page break}

One day Sally Webb called me with a plea: Helber, thanks to her good grades, had been invited to apply to the National Honor Society. But she’d hit a wall with the application, which was due the next day. No one was available to help—would I?

Helber had to write essays detailing the “leadership experiences” and “qualities of character” that qualified her for membership, a task as foreign as writing a Greek ode. The Karens are famously reticent and self-effacing, even as Southeast Asians go. “I have often heard a veteran school-teacher remark that the Karen never puts his best foot foremost,” the missionary and ethnographer Harry Ignatius Marshall wrote 87 years ago. He credited this to a habit of “concealment” that goes with living among more powerful, “volatile” peoples like the Burmans.

What about all the interpreting, the P-Patch and the doctors’ offices, and the waiting on hold to reach the right officials? Peddling food to help support your family in the refugee camp? Coming to a new land and helping so many others find their way? Helber stared blankly. These are things you do, not things you brag about. But okay, whatever it takes. She started writing.

It was getting late in the little apartment off Tukwila International Boulevard. P’lae Say rolled out the mat and eight-year-old Shel Ster curled up in a fleece blanket. On the TV, grinning Japanese fishermen and diners held up marine prizes in a hectic montage. “You know what Japanese eat?” Helber asked. “Fish that’s not”—she blanked on a word—“burned.”

Raw, I said. Not cooked. She filed the term away and grimaced. “Uck, full of worms. You eat that?”

A Korean chanteuse came on the screen, crooning a torchy tune. “I like singing, every kind of song,” said Helber.

I asked if she played a musical instrument. No, she said, adding, as she does at every such question, “I want to learn.” She’d chosen art instead of music at school this year, she said, pointing to a smoothly rendered pencil portrait of a horse tacked on the wall. But they’d sung a song at school that eluded her, and she’d hummed along. Did I know it? “Ohsay can you seee….”

That’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I explained. The national anthem. Almost 200 years old. She gasped—so much older, and younger, than the Karens’ national history, which is ancient though their political nationhood is still, at most, embryonic.

“Star spangle… Write it down,” she said, fishing for a pen. I did my best, forgetting “broad stripes and bright stars.” She watched and mouthed the words and asked about those she didn’t understand. “’O’er…is that ‘our’?”

It’s short for “over.”

“Okay, let’s sing it.” I had not sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” without the cover of a stadium crowd in 21 years, not since I held my sleepy five-year-old daughter atop a stack of hay bales in Maine and watched small-town fireworks burst over the fields. Helber and I started weakly but hit our stride by the time dawn’s early light broke. “Sing it again,” Helber insisted.

“They love to sing and do not grow weary of it, however late the hour,” old Reverend Harry Ignatius Marshall wrote of the Karen people. “One more time?” Helber cajoled, and we sang the tune that drives tuneless Americans crazy again, and again, until we’d sung it as well we could hope to and Helber had the music and the words—most of them, anyway—down. And I realized: Helber and her family weren’t the only ones coming to America. I was, too.

Filed under
Show Comments