After 19 years in refugee camps, a new home in Lowell
Burmese family first to arrive after COVID-related freeze on refugee admissions is lifted
PAW PYA, spent more than half of her life in Thai refugee camps, longing for a permanent home. Coronavirus tacked another five months onto her wait.
But following the July 29 lifting of a ban on refugee admissions put in place when the pandemic broke out, Pya and her family became the first refugees to arrive in Massachusetts in five months through standard resettlement channels. They’re now getting settled in a Lowell apartment, anxious to build a new life far from the turmoil they were able to finally leave behind.
The 34-year-old Pya fled her native Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and began her stay at Thai refugee camps in 2001 when she was only 15.
Myanmar has been ravaged by a series of civil wars since it gained independence from the British in 1948. The US and the European Union imposed sanctions on the country several times in response to severe human rights violations by the ongoing military junta, which ended in 2011. The formerly socialist nation has struggled to transition to democracy, and ongoing persecution of multiple ethnic groups and religions has led to many refugees being resettled abroad.
Pya, her husband, and children were approved to move to the US in 2019, and the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit that works to resettle refugees across New England, began preparing for their arrival in Massachusetts, a process that can often take up to three years.
The Naing-Pyas were scheduled to arrive this spring, but were delayed because of the freeze on refugee admissions to the United States. The US imposed a temporary hold on refugee admissions in mid-March after the International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of booking refugees on their travel, and the United Nations refugee agency announced a temporary suspension of resettlement travel.
As part of the protocol for refugees in the new coronavirus era, the family had to quarantine in Thailand before leaving and received a training on how to properly social distance, wear masks, and sanitize to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Naing-Pyas finally got to Massachusetts on August 11. Pya’s uncle, Hsar Nee, also a refugee, picked them up at the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport and brought them to an apartment in the Lowell building where he lives. They have to quarantine there for an additional two weeks as part of new regulations issued by the resettlement agency.
Nee said he was “very happy” when he heard his family would finally arrive in the Massachusetts, and volunteered to pick them up right away. As they complete their second quarantine, after traveling thousands of miles to the US, the family has not yet been able to greet in person the rest of Nee’s family — relatives they’ve never met who live in the next apartment. Interviewed through a translator, Pya said she is “excited to meet the rest of the family” on the other side of the apartment wall once the quarantine is over.
Nee hadn’t seen Naing and Pya since 2008, when he was resettled in the US. He said his wife and their children, ages 8, 14, and 16, are thrilled to have family close by.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees conducts a years-long screening process before resettling refugees, and then turns cases over to the US government, which conducts its own rigorous review of those coming here.
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Pya’s nearly two-decade wait in a refugee camp is not unusual. The average stay in such camps is 17 years, according to Amy Marchildon of Ascentria Care Alliance, another resettlement agency. The pandemic has only further delayed refugees’ agonizingly long wait. “There’s sort of a double impact there,” said Marchildon.
Caroline Hanson Rowe, associate director for the International Institute of New England’s Lowell office, said the number of referrals from Thai refugee camps jumped as soon as the ban was lifted last month.
While Pya and her family were the first to arrive to the Bay State through the normal resettlement process following the lifting of the ban, a small number of displaced persons in even more extreme situations were able to come in recent months through an expedited emergency process. A total of 44 such refugees arrived in Massachusetts between March 16 to August 10, according to records from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System obtained by CommonWealth.
Another 93 had arrived between January 6 and March 15. Most of those refugees came from Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, and the Republic of South Sudan. Since the fiscal year began in October of last year, 502 refugees have arrived in Massachusetts.
While the refugee ban is now lifted, the State Department acknowledged there are still logistical challenges to international travel in some countries that process refugees, which is limiting the number of refugees currently able to travel.
Anca Moraru, who heads the Boston program for the International Institute, said the agency is planning for a total of 11 refugee arrivals due this month. Ascentria Care Alliance, is preparing to soon welcome 12 refugees from Ukraine and Moldova.
Massachusetts resettlement agencies schedule flights, and plan for the arrival of families, along with their integration into Massachusetts culture and life. Refugees endure numerous medical examinations that are only valid for a certain window of time. Advocates say that for refugees planning to arrive this spring, most of those exams will have to be taken again, as they have expired.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she’s glad to see the ban lifted because Massachusetts “has one of the most robust refugee integration programs in the world.”
The state’s refugee resettlement numbers in recent years have been limited by new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration. From 2010 to 2016, Millona said, the state accepted 2,000 to 2,400 refugees per year, more than nearly any other state. Last November, President Trump approved a plan to cap refugee admissions nationally at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, down from 85,000 the final year of the Obama administration.
As they wait for the all-clear to venture out from their quarantine apartment, Pya and her family have been given masks, clothes, cleaning supplies and food by caseworkers from International Institute of New England, who have dropped off supplies while remaining socially distant. Next week they’ll have a remote medical visit, and if cleared, will move to a two-bedroom apartment being set up by the nonprofit.“We had heard about the virus, but weren’t as afraid of it there,” Pya said of her family’s time in the Thai refugee camp when the pandemic first broke out. “Not many people were sick — it wasn’t like in America.”