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Getting Samy Out of Burma

There's no easy way to start a story about a refugee. Say you lead with a sad, familiar tale like this: A military regime,...

There’s no easy way to start a story about a refugee. Say you lead with a sad, familiar tale like this: A military regime, one that’s been engaged for years in the systematic oppression of its own people, eventually drives a long-suffering family to flee. A young son gets separated in the chaos, but thanks to his resourcefulness and good luck, he somehow manages to elude capture and sneak out of his country, alone. His efforts are rewarded with an indefinite stay in a cramped, malaria-stricken refugee camp.

But what’s the impact of a story like that, to most? It’s moving, yes. It generates sympathy, maybe—but does it really sink in? Even a powerful story like this is likely to fall on media-soaked, desensitized ears. Worse, it might be discarded as cliche, however true the story is. How many tragic tales filter through our cable news shows and our RSS feeds every day?

Lead with anything else, though, and you risk being callous—a risk I’m evidently taking here.

So let’s try this:

This is a story about me and an acquaintance of mine named Samy.

Samy is 23 years old. He speaks five languages, wears straight-leg jeans, keeps his black hair short and stylishly cropped, is affable and optimistic, has been trained as a tailor, and currently works as a part-time cook. He’s also a Burmese refugee. I met Samy last summer in Mae Sot, Thailand, while traveling in Southeast Asia. Mae Sot sits right on one of only three border entrances between Thailand and Myanmar. It’s a pipeline for the international heroin trade (Myanmar is one of the world’s biggest opium exporting nations). It’s a hub for NGOs and aid groups concerned with Burma issues. And maybe most strikingly, it’s a purgatory where stateless Burmese refugees can eke out a living while being pretty much left alone by the Thai authorities.

Just north of Mae Sot lies the biggest refugee camp in Thailand. It’s called Mae La, and it’s home to thousands of refugees who have fled oppression, forced labor, or ethnic cleansing enacted by Myanmar’s ruling military junta. Samy is one of them.

I met Samy at the Thai restaurant where he works, and we became friends. Talking over long meals, he told me his background (his English is pretty amazing, considering the circumstances). I’ll get more into his story later, but suffice to say that he fled Burma and now lives in exile in Mae La. He sneaks out of the camp to work in Mae Sot to make extra money to send to his ailing father, who lives, also in exile, in China. Samy’s been stuck in the camp for three years.

Samy mentioned one time that he was trying to find a home in the United States. The truth is, I didn’t think about his situation much after that. We exchanged contact info, and I kept on traveling, and he kept on being stuck in a refugee camp. But we did stay in touch, sending emails back and forth—mostly just exchanging pleasantries—until Samy called me up, months later. He said he was getting nowhere, and making no progress in getting out of the camp. He was worried he would be deported and sent back to Burma. He wondered if I could help.

Yes, of course, I said. But after I hung up the phone, I realized I had no idea whether or not I could. I knew there had to be a way I could do something—the United States accepts some 60,000 asylum seekers for resettlement every year, including thousands of Burmese. There had to be some way to get Samy onto that list.

So, over the next months, I’ll be using this space to document this armchair rescue operation. With the help of NGOs and aid groups, can I get Samy’s resettlement process underway? Can I actually help get him out of the refugee camp? Can I do anything?

As I attempt to answer these questions, I’ll look at the situation in Burma, try to make sense of the labyrinthine U.S. refugee resettlement procedure, and most importantly, tell Samy’s side of the story. He’ll keep us updated on what’s going on in the camps, and what he’s facing to get himself out.

I have no way of knowing how this will turn out; I’m no expert on immigration affairs. But I hope to illustrate what is or isn’t possible for one well-intentioned non-expert to get done through simple force of will and a little internet access.

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