HURON — Lah Maypaw Soe, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, came to the United States with three small children and her sights set on building a brighter future for herself and her family.
Now more than 10 years later, Soe is using what she learned and experienced on her own journey to help other refugees as chairman of the local Karen Association.
“I was born in Thailand but was not a Thai citizen,” Soe said during the Beadle County Republican Women meeting Monday night. “I’m in U.S. and now am a citizen,” she said. “Now United States is my country, and I am so proud of it.”
Soe spent 13 years living in a refugee camp in Thailand, where food was scarce and living conditions primitive. Leaving the camp meant risking arrest by the Thai police who patroled the area daily.
“When we live in a refugee camp, we lost hope,” Soe said. “All Karen family who come to us have low nutrition because not enough food in camp. That is part of the refugee life. We do get some education. Can say what name is, how old I am.”
Teachers, who were educated themselves in the refugee camp, can earn $20 a month, teaching classrooms of up to 50 kids.
“Year by year learn more English,” Soe said. “Myself, when I came to U.S., could speak just a little bit English.”
Refugees living in the camps have been accepted by countries like Sweden, Norway, Australia and the United States. Soe said she applied to go to Australia, mainly because it was closer to Thailand if she changed her mind, but her application was not accepted.
“Then I lost hope again,” she said. “I said, that’s okay, I will live here until I die. A few months later now it’s U.S. accepting. We have to apply, take a test, interview, fingerprints. Ask lots of questions you have no idea about. Luckily I pass, I thank God for that. I prayed so much. I don’t want to die in refugee camp. Send me someplace to see my future.”
The interview process was held in a community about a three to four hour drive from her refugee camp, and that was the first time she and her children ever rode in a car — a trip that left them all suffering from motion sickness.
“Next month my name is on the list to come to U.S. I thought everything would be free,” Soe said. “They said they will buy plane ticket but I will have to pay back in three years. If didn’t pay it back, then they make credit look bad. What does credit mean, I didn’t even know.”
When Soe arrived in California, which is where a friend was living, she thought the homes must belong to kings or queens.
“I look at all the houses, I don’t know how to sleep on a bed — I live in a bamboo house,” she said. “How will I clean it? How will I cook in this stove?”
Her first meal, which they left in her refrigerator, was chicken and bread. “I can’t even say in English where is rice,” she remembered.
“When come to U.S., nobody teach you that you have to line up in a line for something and you have to make an appointment,” Soe said.
Her second day in California, Soe said one of her kids was sick. Her friend told her to board a bus and go to the hospital.
“I line up with my three kids, carry one here, one here and the other here,” she said, pointing to her hips and legs where one child stood. “I see the lady and she just look at me. ‘Do you have an appointment?’ I don’t now what appointment means. I was crying.
“Nobody look at me or care about me,” Soe added. “In my country when cry, people try to help.”
She was finally advised to pick up some Tylenol at the drug store — another challenge.
“I don’t know how to read,” she said. “I walk in and see one American lady. I try to ask her to help, she thought maybe I homeless asking for money, she kept walking very fast.”
Soe said she just kept following her, with three kids in tow, until she grabbed her hand and placed it on her child’s head so she could feel the fever.
They only lived in California for eight months because expenses were so high.
“We have to move to another place,” Soe said. “I have a friend who just moved here to work for Dakota Provisions. I move here in February 2009. The reason I move here is I really want to see snow. In America movie, all the snow is so beautiful.
“The first day we arrive we got a really high snow,” she said. “Me and my three kids jump in the snow, play and eat — make snow cones — all we can eat.”
She poured herself into the English as a Second Language class offered at Cornerstones, and in three months she could speak a little bit of English.
“I never go to high school before,” Soe said. “I work day by day. I say I’m using my broken English. I’m proud of myself I can speak English. I’m proud of myself I can share my story with other people.”
In 2010, Lutheran Social Services made plans to help a number of new Karen refugees moving to the community, and Soe knew she could be of assistance.
“I said I can speak English a little bit, I can help you,” she said. “They hire me as a case worker and interpreter. Pick them up at airport, find an apartment, help them get Social Security card. It’s a challenge for one who works with the refugee.
“Next step as a Karen, our culture and your culture is different,” Soe said. “When I talk to you I have to look at your face. My culture, if I look at my parent’s faces when they spoke, my face would be slapped.
“Shake hands, that’s okay, but hugging — they go home and husband says why are we fighting, if not knowing the American culture,” she added.
The struggle to adapt to a new culture and language can be daunting.
“They feel really bad and don’t know what to do anymore,” Soe said. “See lots of suicide. One guy, he just hang himself. He write a very sweet note to his family. I tell family why don’t you tell me earlier. If have depression I can help him.
“They have no idea,” she added. “We are still in the learning process.
“Talk about Democrat or Republican, we have no idea,” Soe said. “Everybody said Democrat is free, but we have no idea what they do. We need someone to go into community and explain to them how we can work together. Nobody teach us as a refugee.”
Soe said their instructions coming into the country are to apply for citizenship, be a good citizen and don’t break the law.
“That’s all they teach us, other than that we have to learn everything on our own,” she said.
Soe talked about the younger Karen generation and the problems they have experienced with drugs, and the desire for the latest iPad, the iPhone, designer clothes.
When her daughter began asking for all those things, Soe decided it was time for action.
“I take her back to refugee camp,” Soe said. “She want iPhone, good shoes, good clothes. I take her back and she said, ‘Why no shoes?’ I told her if you live in the refugee camp this is what your life would be.
“For me to teach my kids something, I know if I talk to them like this, who will listen,” she added. “I take them there to see with their own eyes.”
One way Soe and the Karen Association are hoping to channel young energy and enthusiasm is by holding classes after school to teach youth about their culture, the Karen language and the ceremonial dances.
“The reason I open the Karen Association is I want to help,” Soe said. “And I know if I no stand up, who will help my Karen people?
“The person I ask the most is Rhonda Kludt, she is like my mom, my best friend,” she added. “I open Karen Association and help everyone who needs help. We fix so many problems.”
Since arriving in the United States and earning her own citizenship, Soe has been helping others gain citizenship. Last year, she helped 23 young people take citizenship vows.
People in the community can help by contacting Cornerstones Career Learning Center and volunteering to go over the citizenship questions and information they need to be familiar with to pass the test to become a citizen.
“After we come to U.S., within seven years we all have to be U.S. citizen, afterward they can be deported,” Soe said. “For kids the fee is $1,170, it’s a lot. You can take a test only two times, then you have to apply and pay the fee again.”
One of the first things Soe did after earning her own U.S. Citizenship was change her name to include the last name of Soe.
“When I became a U.S. citizen all my family became Soe,” she said. “Soe means first family who came to U.S.”