Saturday, December 22, 2012


 The snow is beginning to fall in Denver. I’m on Christmas break from school, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have had more time to spend in my neighborhood, getting to know the parents of the youth I connected with over the summer, eating Burmese food, and my latest task… teaching English.

They came into my life and swept me off my feet. From the first moment I saw them, I knew that I would come to love them. They are a brand new family, and I was part of the team that would help them acclimate to life in America. The family of four had been living in Malaysia since they had fled Burma in 2008. Their two boys are bright and outgoing.  When I met them on their first day in America, they had made friends with all the boys in their apartment building. It helps that the boys can speak close to perfect English. Their mother is quite and loving as she provides for her family. The father has a wide smile, an easy laugh, and a leg which as been broken for two years. He was injured in a factory accident, and never had his leg fully heal. He walks with pain and a noticeable limp. I’m worried for them. What will happen when the agency discontinues their monthly financial support and he is expected to find a job? This is where the English comes in.

Our team figured that if he could speak good English, he might be able to get an office job and avoid the factories where you are expected to work 10 hours on your feet. A few of us got together and made a plan to help him learn. Surprisingly, he knows a lot. He can read and write perfectly, he just needs some practice with pronunciation and sentence structure. It has become part of my morning schedule to arrive at their apartment and sit practicing words that I never found difficult until I saw it through the eyes of an ESL speaker.

Rice and Rise.
Right and Ride.
Bleed and Breed.
Bled and Bred…. AND Bread.
Some words that are so hard to pronounce include swear, swore, and swum. Something about those SW’s.

I have learned a lot about their precious family through these English lessons, and each day I grow to love and respect them more. I find that they are probably blessing me more than I bless them. When I sit in their apartment, I literally feel like there is nothing else in the world that matters as much. I want the boys to be happy and healthy, and I want the parents to feel comfortable and full of joy. I want so much for this family.

The other day I decided to stop by their house and surprise them with a Christmas tree. I wish you could have seen their faces as they knelt around the tiny tree, feeling the branches and smelling the fresh pine scent. They were so excited to have a real tree in their house! As they tried to pay me for the tree, I insisted that it was a gift. When I left, I thought to myself, “That is probably the best gift I will give or receive this year.”

tiny elf tree brings so much joy :)
My sweet family!

I am going home next week to visit my family and friends, but I have a feeling that each morning when I wake up I will feel a pang in my heart for my little family, and I will say a prayer for them, and eagerly await the time that I sit with them and talk about the difference between rice and rise.

Little Karen boy, Johnny, Ling Mo and Ling Hoan (left-right)

Monday, November 26, 2012


Monday is becoming the day that pulls my heartstrings and gives me a reality check. Today I took a trip to the food stamp office to help one of my Chin friends re-apply for food assistance and medicaid.

I got to know her family over the summer, and was there to help register her two daughters for school. I was listed as their emergency contact and kind of became part of their small family. They've been in America for about 4 years and the girls have settled into America, but the mom is still having trouble adjusting. She is a single parent, and works 10 hour days to provide for her family. She was only able to attend English school for one month before she had to start working. Because of this, she has never really been able to settle into the culture. As we walked arm in arm to find an internet source to pay her electricity bill she said to me in Burmese, "Katie it is not easy for me to live here. It is so cold. I can't speak English. If I want to go somewhere I can't even tell the taxi driver where to take me. In Malaysia I could speak the language and I had a good job. Why is it so difficult here?" I couldn't help but to agree with her. It was 30 degrees outside, much colder than I am used to, and I inched closer to her, just to be a presence supporting her.

We went to the food stamp office and waited for 2 1/2 hours before our number was called. We talked while we waited. She shared with me how she hasn't been sleeping very well (she works from 4 pm-2 am). She has so much responsibility as a single mom, and no one to support her. Tears came to her eyes. She leaned her head against my shoulder and I put my arm around her, feeling honored that she trusted enough to cry and share her troubles with me.

The paperwork was turned in and the appointment made for her interview. As we drove home, I stopped at a pho restaurant and we had lunch together. As we continued on our way, she found out that she had been laid off from her job. They had too many workers, and didn't need her anymore.

I take a lot for granted. The roof over my head, my car, a drivers license, health insurance, a job that pays me well, the ability to speak English, the university education I'm receiving, the familiarity with American culture, parents who support me and pray for me... the list goes on and on.

I was sharing with one of my customers about the refugees and my future goal to move to Burma.
"Why would you do that? Why would you put yourself in danger like that? It sounds miserable." He sounded almost disgusted.

We have so much. I have so much. How can we not give our time, energy, and resources to help people who need it when we have been given more than we need? With each day that I spend with someone from the refugee community, this truth deepens in my heart. I cannot deny them.

Monday, October 29, 2012


I don't even really know how to start this one.
I just really want to curl up in my bed and cry. I'm not exaggerating. It was all I could do to hold back the tears on the hour long drive home. But, if they're not crying, why should I?

Let me start at the beginning. I've been learning a lot more lately about the kind of work my refugee friends do once they get to America. It's kind of all the dirty work. Cleaning hotel rooms. Doing laundry. Working in freezing cold meat factories. The kind of work that wears your body down. The kind of work where you stand for 10+ hours for minimum wage. The kind of work that you're doomed to for the rest of your life because you have no opportunity to learn English to create something better for yourself.

So today I was able to see first hand the beginning steps in the process of brand new refugees getting a job. I don't exactly know how I ended up involved in this, one of the ladies I've gotten to know asked if I could go and help her nephew fill out a job application. I agreed, knowing that paperwork is hard to do, and anyone who can speak even a word of Burmese is useful. I arrived this morning at her house to find nine other people, ready to apply for the job. So, we split up into three cars and began the drive to Longmont.

The bread factory is always hiring. I wasn't even sure what they did there, but I knew that a lot of refugees work there, and they seem to always be hiring. I also know that people from Burma are often targeted and harassed by the other employees (mostly other refugees and immigrants from Africa and South America). Knowing this left a bad taste in my mouth, but these people had families to feed, they needed a job as soon as possible.

When we arrived, each person received an application and what followed was five hours of helping each person fill them out. Since the job is guaranteed, the company just needed their information and proof of legal right to work. As I asked each person questions, and filled out their paperwork, my heart grew heavier and heavier.
A single mom, younger than me, never been to school, with a one year old daughter at home. Has lived in America for two months.
A husband and wife, seven children, they've been looking for work for four months.
A single dad.
A middle aged woman with an elementary school education. No husband. Four children.
The list went on and on and I knew that there was so much more to each story than I was hearing. Their villages plundered. Family members killed before their eyes. Fleeing their home country in order to survive. A long stay in a refugee camp. Moved to America. Thrown into a foreign culture. Desperate.

We watched the orientation video together. The monotonous task of putting bread into a cardboard container. Icing a cake. Saran wrapping a box. Putting expiration stickers onto the plastic covers. The video made clear, "These tasks will be done for 10 hours straight." Can you imagine doing the same thing over and over and over for 10 hours? While being ridiculed by your co workers? While knowing that your children are at home alone? Their faces were blank as they stared at the screen. I knew this could not have been the future they dreamed of, but what choice did they have? At least here in America their children had the chance of a future. It was too late for them, but at least they could help their children.

On the drive home, I talked with a man who had come here via Malaysia and Mexico from Burma. He had lived in Florida for 5 years, and just two years ago was able to call his wife and their 6 children to come be with him. They just moved to Denver two months ago, hoping for more job opportunities and lower cost of living.

"Are you happy with this job?" I asked him.
"No." He replied, "But I don't have a choice. I have six children. All I need is a job that is steady, where they won't lay me off after a month."

I dropped them all off where we had started. The nine of them needed to figure out how they would get to work each day. I don't know exactly what they're going to do. They might pool their money and buy a van, or maybe try to convince one of their friends who has a car to drive for them.

I exchanged phone numbers with a lot of them, and told them to call me if they ever need anything. For the couple with six children I volunteered to go to their house a few nights a week to make sure everything is okay and help the kids with their homework. The husband and wife will be working everyday from 4 pm to 2 am. Even though the oldest is 18 years old, she is still in high school, and my heart breaks to think about those kids being home alone every night without their parents.

I wish they could just go Home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


My friend Ler Pway and I woke up early this morning. It was chilly outside, probably 38 degrees F. We hopped into the 15 passenger van and took off for Denver International Airport. Once we got there, we parked, and headed inside towards the ticket counter. After waiting in a ridiculously long line, we were granted escort passes and waited for another 45 minutes to get through security. We constantly checked our phones, the flight was due to land at 9:40.

Once through security, we scanned the screens for our flight. Nothing.
I checked the paperwork.
"They should be landing at 9:40"
I called the case worker.
"oh no! their flight lands in Denver at 4:15. They land in Los Angelas at 9:40" She said.

Dejected, Ler Pway and I went back through the airport and got into the empty van.

The Karen family of 8 was in America, but we were just in the wrong place to greet them.

When I got off work later this afternoon, I went straight to their house. The were kids playing in the front yard, and various Karen neighbors gathered around. I went inside and saw that their two bedroom home was spacious and freshly painted, a nice change from the dirty, cramped apartments I've seen lately. The house was empty, but luckily I recently had someone donate a lot of furniture, rugs, and towels so I was able to supply a place to sit and some other goods.

I sat with the mom and we talked a little bit in Burmese. Can you imagine a cross continental flight with six children? Going to a destination where you have no idea what will happen? The strength of the woman next to me was astounding, but she was bone tired, you could see it in her eyes. As we sat together, two or three other Karen families entered, greeting each other warmly and bringing traditional Karen food for the new family. The mother explained to me that they had all been friends in the refugee camp. They hadn't spoken for ages, but now they were all together again. The warmth and love that filled the room was overwhelming, and I felt tears coming to my eyes.

Yes. This family is in a foreign land.
Yes. They have no idea how to get around, or how to speak the language.
Yes. Life here will be difficult.
But, they have their friends who can help them. They have a Karen Church community to support them. And you can believe that I will be there to do whatever I can to encourage and love this beautiful family.

Pray for Denver. Pray for the refugees here. Pray that we Americans will open our hearts and homes to the foreigners in our land. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I'm stuck in a crazy dichotomy right now. I go to to work at an expensive restaurant where people are picky and will send their food back to the kitchen if it's not perfect. It's a place where the staff are seen as lower class citizens and not worthy of eye contact or basic manners. It's kind of funny, because just an hour before I clock into work, I'm in what feels like a different world.

Hundreds of refugees find themselves in America every day. They come from war torn countries, places where they are no longer welcome, and no longer safe. They've spent years in a refugee camp, and await the day when they will be resettled to America, Europe, or Australia. Late Wednesday night, a Karenni family from Burma arrived at their final destination, Denver, Colorado. They were picked up from the airport, and driven to the home of another Karenni family who had been in America for three years. This pushed the count to 12 people living in a one bedroom apartment. When I met them on Friday afternoon, they were still jet lagged, shy, and obviously frightened of white people. The mother had come alone with her three young daughters. I was simply told that "she did not have a husband". Maybe he was killed by the Burma army, maybe he had never been around, or maybe he was simply missing. Whatever the reason, the woman was much too introverted to tell me more about it. 

They had a case worker, a man who spoke Burmese, the only Burmese speaking social worker the organization has. He is in charge of over 300 cases, and more are being added to his plate everyday. As I sat on the floor of the bare room, the family seemed oblivious to any information regarding the future of the woman and her children. They didn't know what was going on, when the case worker would return, or even where their next meal would come from. Their cupboards are bare. They have half a ziplock bag full of rice and four eggs in the fridge. I sat on the floor and asked what they needed. They said blankets and clothes to prepare for the coming snow. 

I was told the story of a Shan family who arrived on Monday evening. A man, his wife, and their young son. They arrived in Denver at 11:00 pm and their case worker dropped them off at their apartment in the rough part of town. Right off Colfax, a street infamous for it's gangs, prostitution, drugs, and frequent deaths. The family spoke no English. Their case worker gave them a check for $100 and the directions to the bank via the bus. As the family sat in their apartment, they heard the yelling and fighting of gangs right outside their window. The mother cried. This was not the America they expected. 

I wonder what would happen if every American were to take a refugee family under their wing. Think about the difference it would make to them. Instead of being foreigners, alone and without guidance, they would have someone who cared for them, checked up on them, and helped them to navigate American society. It is so difficult for me to go from this life in the refugee community to the expensive shopping mall and restaurant where people are so apathetic. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. I want to take them to my neighborhood and force them to walk through the cramped apartment buildings, to see the need, the mass numbers of foreigners who live in their city. Maybe there will come a time when I can show them this side of Denver. Tonight I shared with my boss about where I had been just a few hours before. I saw the passion in his eyes, the anger at how little the refugees have. He was stirred to make a difference. He had been enlightened to the cause of 10,000 people who had come to America for shelter. 

This isn't easy. But, no one said it would be. This isn't easy, but if we all walk together, maybe it won't be as heavy as it needs to be. 
Little Linda, a Chin girl I love to play with 

 Two boys from Burma

Jose and his little brother 

 Nau Naw being silly

 giving rides

dinner at my house

beautiful Denver

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Moving On

Freedom is a wonderful thing.
I am so thankful that in my life right now, I have complete freedom. There is nothing keeping me to any one place, I have every right to go where I want, to do what I want, to be who I want. I guess the truth is that we all have this ability, but most of us are tied with strings that seem imposible to sever. So here's the crux of this post. I'm here in Denver, and I have decided to stay.
My new friends Win and Lin (twins from Burma). They've been in America for about a month.

From the first week of being here, I felt a sense of peace, a desire deep in my heart that if I did choose to stay here, God would use me. So I began to pray for a way to be made, and, like He often does, He knew the desires of my heart and opened the doors.

 VBS with Kant (Burmese), Chipachu (Karen), and Harold (from Honduras) 

As time went on I received confirmation. First, a community of Mon refugees reached out to me and asked for help which would open the doors for me to be part of their lives long term. Then, my job in California was extremely supportive of me transferring to Denver. Not long after this, I received a job offer from the photo company I used to work for. Even though they had already hired for the season, they wanted me to join their Denver team. Next, I received a very specific vision for what I hope will become the glue holding me here in Denver. I sought out the blessing of my parents and the organization that I have been working with this summer. Now, everything seems to be sealed. I'll be starting work next week and will be moving into an apartment in the refugee neighborhood in September.
(Jose and his friend reaping the benefits of the food bank) 

It's amazing how something which started as a whisper and a secret desire has culminated into a web of opportunities. I feel so blessed, so ready to begin this new chapter in my life. I am, however, sad to be saying goodbye to the relationships I've made in Orange County over the past year and a half. I'm kind of scared, but I know that fear is a temporary feeling. There is no place for it here.

If you feel led to pray, I would appreciate it. You can specifically lift up the relationships I've established this summer, that they would continue to grow. Please pray for my housing situation, that God would provide a safe and affordable place for me to live.

Thank you so much :)
(A summer evening at the park) 
(Harold & Ande (From Honduras) with my friend Vincent (from Rwanda)
(Our back to school party) 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Change of Scenery...

As I sit here in this room, the window open, a cool Denver breeze blowing through the window, my mind is racing with thoughts, and a variety of emotions. Joy, sorrow, hope, want. This is blog post is my therapy.

When I told people I was going to Denver for the summer to work with refugees, their reaction was, "Really? Denver? That seems like a strange place for refugees to be." Yet, I've found that refugees often seem to end up in the most random places. The truth is that I often forget that there are white people that actually live in Denver. The neighborhood I live in boasts a sign which says, "Welcome to Aurora, The All American City". Every time I see it I want to laugh because at least 80% of the population of this town must be here on a green card. There are people from all over the world in this neighborhood. It is common to drive down a single street and see business from Korea, Iraq, the Mediterranean, Burma, Napal, India, Vietnam, Africa, etc. It is extremely diverse.

It has been just about a week since I've arrived, but I have already jumped in headfirst. I've been going from neighborhood to neighborhood meeting families, connecting with youth, and praying about girls who I can mentor over this summer. My Burmese language skills are getting plenty of exercise, and even though I left my dictionary in California, so many words have come back to me.

Last night I went to a home of a Karen family and ended up trying on ethnic Karen skirts and pants. A fashion show of sorts. After the laughter had ended, I sat in the bedroom with the mother and we talked. The Karen people are extremely kind, generous, devoted, and loving, but they are also very shy. They do not talk openly with people they do not know, yet here I was, just having met this woman and she was opening up to me about her past. Speaking a mix of English and Burmese she confided in me. I heard about her childhood, the struggles she had when her mother was murdered by the Burmese soldiers, her marriage and flight to a refugee camp in Thailand, her fear of moving to America, and her feelings about living in Denver. Her two daughters were also in the room with us, and they listened to their mother, never having heard her speak this way before. I looked into her eyes and saw sadness. She looked so alone. I knew that she would very likely never be able to return to Burma.
"The citizens test is so difficult, and I have no time to study. I work almost everyday, and when I get home to need to take care of my children and husband. I cannot study for this test. I cannot even study English."
My heart was breaking with hers. The family members she would never see again, the mountains and rice fields, the neighbors who spoke the same language as her. They live on in her memory alone.

I love this place, I love these people, yet I hate the situations and events which brought them here. I pray for a day when they are free to return home, to be at peace, and be free.


Monday, January 23, 2012

being back.

We sat side by side, the three of us, on the seat of the old, British style Land Rover.

Nart drove barefoot, focused and concentrated on the road, occasionally giving his two cents on whatever was being discussed at that moment.

Daniel and I sat shoulder to shoulder. A feeling of peaceful familiarity hovering over us. It was like the old days. Setting out on a mission, unsure of what we would find. Equipped with bits and pieces of facts about the people we were about to meet and the desperate situation they were in. That's how it usually was in Mae Sot, and the frustrating familiarity of it felt bitter sweet.

We pulled up to the old house on the outskirts of Mae Sot. It was the women protection project of an NGO that was about to be shut down. All of the women who were living there had found a new place to live, a new person to take care of them. All but one.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness of the big room. She sat on the floor, legs crossed, waiting. I had seen her once before. A small, dark woman. She spoke incoherently in Burmese but always had a smile on her face. When she saw me she purposefully started towards me, but instead of standing and walking, she scooted across the floor using her palms and heels. She was in front of me in less than 5 seconds.

"Hello. Are you ready?" I asked her in Burmese.

She nodded, exposing her few teeth in a broad smile.

Her care take arrived at that moment, and with me on her right and the other woman on her left, we lifted her to a standing position and walked her outside.

She took halting steps, unable to put her full weight on her tiny, childlike feet. She staggered backward and forward as we gently inched her closer to the waiting Land Rover. Nart and Daniel lifted her into the back and I watched as they piled all of her earthly possessions around her; a wheelchair, a small laundry basket full of clothes and knickknacks, a rice cooker, a sleeping mat. Suddenly, her eyes looked scared as she realized she was being taken away from her home. I quickly jumped into the back of the truck and sat close beside her. Instantly our hands reached for each other and I felt tears prick my eyes when I felt how small her hand was in mine. Her other hand clutched desperately for my knee and I put my arm around her, holding her close as we began to drive.

Daniel was sitting next to us, speaking to reassure her.

"You will love your new home. Your daughter will be able to come over often to see you."

At the mention of her daughter, Nokia, she smiled broadly and looked at me for confirmation.

"Yes." I said, "Nokia will come to see you whenever you like."

"What happened to her Daniel?" I asked.

"Her husband beat her. I don't know what she did, or if he was just drunk but he came home and beat her. Maybe if she had therapy she could walk again. But the damage done to her mind cannot be healed."

We sat in silence for the rest of the drive and as I held her, I silently prayed for her. As we pulled up to the Grace Family Home, I saw the broad figure of Birdy's mom standing in the doorway chewing the ever present chunk of beetle nut.

"Daughter!" Birdy's mom shouted. "Welcome home!"

Nokia's mother responded, smiling and speaking in excited tones. I felt the warmth coming from Birdy's mom and felt hope. This small woman would be safe here under the care of this strong woman.

Birdy's mom easily lifted Nokia's mother from the truck and helped her towards her new room. Together they unpacked the few belongings from the basket and sat together, talking.

"If you ever need me, just call okay? Call me your big sister. I'm here to help you." Birdy's mom told her. "You'll be so happy here. We have delicious curry, everyone here is loving and kind, and I'm here to take care of you okay?"

Nokia's mom responded with smiles. She met my eyes and I nodded.

It was my last day in Mae Sot, that day, yet I spent it in the only way I knew how, by being time with people who desperately need reminders that they are loved. A disabled woman who had no friends needed someone to just sit with her as she moved from one home to another. I know, it could have been anyone, but I'm thankful that it was me.