Home Again

Creating Community for Refugees in Cleveland

Despite the fact that it had been drizzling all morning, three generations of women were gathered in a Lakewood backyard. Protected from the rain by a small awning, they cooked huge batches of rice noodles with bean sprouts, and piles of fried cake—a Burmese street food of deep-fried onions and bamboo shoot fritters.

The food was for the two dozen people inside, volunteer tutors getting ready for their orientation with Refugee Response, the six-year-old Cleveland-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting Cleveland’s growing refugee population. Tending to the future tutors and setting out food he would normally be cooking himself, were he not the host today, was Thomas Kate, the husband of one chef, son-in-law to another, and father of the third.

In the living room, while the new tutors ate noodles topped with sweet pea leaves and fried cake with sweet chili sauce, Darren Hamm, executive director for Refugee Response, begins in the staccato fashion of someone who speaks in bullet points to make huge swaths of information appear digestible.

“Let’s talk about the word refugee. It’s in the news a lot lately with people fleeing Syria. They’re migrants right now—they’re a refugee once they’re accepted and registered in a second country. A refugee can’t be relocating for work. They have to have fled persecution—of religion, ethnicity, there are several criteria,” he says. “The folks who are at the border in Hungary represent the population of Cleveland. I don’t know if you can get your heads around that in terms of scale. It’s about 325,000 people who are in this migratory snafu.”


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The sheer numbers can be daunting. Worldwide, there are an estimated 19.5 million refugees, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). As of last year, more than half of them are under 18 years old.

Here in Cleveland, Refugee Response serves newly relocated refugees from, among other places, Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma. The Burmese community is made up of more than 100 households, many of them Karen, an ethnic minority from Burma, and Karenni, a distinct group often lumped in with the Karen.

Today Thomas is prepping the new tutors on the cultural differences they can expect from their students’ families. On paper his job is program coordinator, but any time a Burmese refugee in or around Cleveland has a problem, they go to him for help.

“For the last five years, Thomas has played a critical role in all facets of the organization,” says David Wallis, who founded Refugee Response with his friend Paul Neundorfer. The two became aware of the situation facing Burmese refugees after spending time teaching and studying in Thailand near a Burmese refugee camp where they met Thomas.

“He’s become our main conduit into the community. Through him the organization is doing more than just home tutoring and scholarship. On a daily basis Thomas Kate is shuttling kids to school, dealing with a DWI hitting a refugee, taking somebody else to a health appointment,” David says. “I don’t know if he says this to himself, but he is the go-to person for that entire community of Burmese refugees in Cleveland and beyond, like in Fort Wayne, where there’s 8,000 Burmese refugees.”

Since he’s started working with Refugee Response, fewer of Cleveland’s refugees have engaged in secondary migration. When a new refugee is pulled over for a traffic violation, they get Thomas on the phone to help them work through what’s going on. Most weekends people will come to Thomas’ house with that week’s mail so that he can help them sort through what’s important and what’s junk.

Thomas’ relaxed demeanor is misleading, and conversations with him are often very meticulous. Any time he mentions a nonprofit, NGO, relief group, or scholarship, he always mentions who organizes it and where the funding comes from. With so much misinformation about refugees and immigration in the U.S., it’s not surprising that Thomas makes a point to always have his facts straight.

Throughout Burma’s long civil war, Karen and Karenni people fled across the border into Thailand. Thomas spent 12 years in a camp in Thailand, where he met his wife, Whawha, and had two daughters.

“My wife has never been to Burma. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and we met when we studied together. The first time I spoke English was when I was in refugee camp,” Thomas says. “In Burma I can read or write, but I never speak. The government doesn’t want people to be able to speak to the foreigners, to tell them anything the government does.”

The next phase of Thomas’ life as a refugee moved him to the Bronx. Neither he nor his wife had ever lived in a place so cold or so urban, where the green space was restricted to parks and the buildings always leaned in like they were about to topple. New York is, unsurprisingly, not a great place to be a recently relocated refugee. There were many other Burmese families spread throughout the boroughs, but they weren’t centralized anywhere. Community life didn’t exist, and Thomas only saw other people when he went to downtown Manhattan for an office job secured for him by International Rescue Committee.

“It was really tough living in New York City. Everything was expensive. People were not friendly. Here, people are welcoming, the locals are like people in Burma. And New York was all concrete—we didn’t see any trees.”

In December of 2009, David and Paul got a message from Thomas who had arrived in the Bronx. “We asked if he would come and take a look at what we were up to and sent him a ticket,” says Paul. “In January, second time in his life that he’d been on an airplane, he came out to Cleveland. He hung out with us for a long weekend, went back to the Bronx and somehow convinced his wife to resettle again.”

Ohio City Farm feels years and counties away from any city, until you look north and see the entire Cleveland skyline looming across the river. Day lilies bloom at the end of every row, okra pods grow out like the fingers on opening hands, and rows of trellises hoist the weight of Chinese long bean vines.

Most of Ohio City Farm is run by REAP (Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program), one of the main branches of Refugee Response. When a resettlement agency moves a refugee to a city in the United States., the refugee is given a medical screening, a place to live, and a job. Usually, the jobs available to newly arrived refugees are very limited. There aren’t a lot of jobs designed for people with shaky English who have spent the last 12 to 15 years (the average amount of time spent in a camp while waiting to relocated to another country) with nothing resembling job training. For most people coming into Cleveland as refugees, their only work background is in agriculture. And farm jobs are scarce in cities.

That’s where REAP comes in.

The program is designed to provide a place where a refugee with agricultural experience can make a living. It also puts them in a better position for finding future work by providing an employment history in the U.S., exposure to English, and recommendations.

When David and Paul returned to Cleveland from Thailand, they planned to start a U.S.-based organization to aid the Burmese refugees, but things became complicated when they learned that Northeast Ohio is home to its own sizeable refugee population. Not content to just volunteer, they wanted to find out what local refugees needed most and to deliver those services. So they organized a huge study, and found that what the communities most wanted was educational support and job opportunity, and 85% of the people they spoke to had an agricultural background.

From there, Refugee Response was born. The three main objectives—tutoring, scholarships, and employment through the farm—aim to satisfy what Cleveland’s refugee communities identified as their biggest needs.

Currently, nine farmers from Africa and Asia work REAP’s swath of the Ohio City Farm. They grow all the produce staples—carrots, cantaloupes, microgreens—and they’ve received a federal grant to experiment with growing more crops indigenous to the refugees’ home countries. Some of REAP’s biggest buyers are restaurants throughout Ohio City, including Great Lakes Brewing Company, which serves long beans with pumpkin gnocchi.

Common throughout Southeast Asia, long beans do surprisingly well in Ohio. By the end of summer they spool down the trellises like half-meter long bundles of cords. They look like exaggerated green beans, but they’re much crisper, and unlike green beans they’re palatable raw or very lightly cooked. Thomas is an accomplished chef, using long beans and other produce grown at the farm and his own garden to cook huge meals.

Thomas’ appreciation of cooking and growing food started at an early age. “What I like most about working at the farm is it’s very relaxed. You don’t need to have stress. You can breathe fresh air, and work with the farm, and you feel like you make something meaningful. Sometimes when I work in the other parts of the organization, I feel really stressed, but working at the farm you see the land is beautiful, all the vegetables and flowers. You don’t need to talk to anyone.”

Growing up as the youngest son of 13 children, Thomas’s days revolved around farming and going out hunting with his father. They would hike into the jungle near their village, Ywa Thet Doh, dressed in traditional sarongs, a swath of red fabric folded and knotted around the legs, killing birds with slingshots. His parents’ farm was successful for the area, selling mostly rice but also vegetables like peppers, okra, tomatoes, rosa leaf, and long beans.

The Burmese military was concerned that Ywa Thet Doh was too close to active rebels in the jungle. They were worried that the villagers would soon grow sympathetic to the rebels and start secretly aiding them, so they burned the entire village and relocated all the families to a military camp. Thomas describes it explicitly as a concentration camp.

The soldiers gave Thomas and other young men grim work, patroling for landmines. The method for finding a landmine on purpose is the same for finding one by accident. One day, Thomas and a friend were walking on patrol, when a landmine detonated under his friend. Panicked, Thomas took off his sarong and tied it around the wound in the other man’s thigh, trying to stop the bleeding. He called for help.

Three hours later, Thomas watched his friend die, untreated. That was when Thomas, still 18 years old, decided to run.

Word got around that he was leaving, and a handful of people approached him. Altogether, a dozen people fled into the jungle by night, two families and two single men. They were fleeing through the jungle of Kayah, an eastern state that borders Thailand.

They knew if any soldiers saw them, they would be killed, but the bigger concern was the landmines. You can run from soldiers, but against landmines there’s no protection. To avoid both, they stayed off the roads, hiking through jungle where there was enough space for them to pass, but always avoiding obvious footpaths.

After a week of hiking they came to the Salween River, which flows from Tibet to the ocean. Here they could catch small fish and shrimp, which they ate raw, but the river was too wide to swim. Thomas and the other men built a small raft, large enough for about seven people, and they took the party across in two slow, agonizing trips. The current of the Salween was too strong to row against, so they had to ride it downstream as they paddled to the eastern side. Crossing the river alone took an entire day.

After making it past the Salween, they spent another week moving through the jungle. A two-year-old child contracted malaria. Without any medical supplies, Thomas resorted to traditional Karen medicine, but couldn’t stop the disease from moving to the infant’s brain.

At the end of the second week, soldiers found them. There was a moment of panic when they heard the uniformed men shouting at them, but no one in the party could understand what they were saying. They assumed they had stumbled onto a group of rebels until one of the men started speaking Karen. The men were Thai soldiers, he explained. Not only had Thomas and his party made it to Thailand, but the soldier told them there was a camp nearby that had more people like them. He could bring them there.

That camp was Maesu Rin, the largest refugee camp for Burmese in Thailand. Thomas was shocked when they arrived. He never realized that the violence was more than a local problem in Ywa Thet Doh, but here were 26,000 other Burmese refugees, almost all of them Karen.

Refugees built their own homes on the two hills that made up the camp, but the nearby river would flood every season and wash away houses and gardens. There was nowhere else to go though because the Thai government would arrest any refugee outside of the camp who didn’t have a permit.

Resentful of housing refugees at all, the Thai government also didn’t allow the Burmese to attend universities. Thomas learned English through what schooling there was, but there was nothing available in the camp beyond a GED. But Thomas and a dozen other students from different camps managed to get fake documents and passports so they could attend Rangsit University, where officials quietly looked the other way.

David Wallis was teaching English at Rangsit when Thomas turned in an essay detailing his flight from Burma. When he read it, David thought, “This guy has an extraordinary imagination.”

That essay spurred David and Paul, who was teaching at another Thai university at the time, to meet with Thomas to learn about the situation of Burmese refugees in Thailand. Thomas persuaded them that, if they wanted to learn more, they should really make the 12-hour drive north with him to visit the camp.

“You parked a distance from the camp and it was a hike up and through the jungle to a back door, away from the main gates and guards,” says Paul. “Then we surreptitiously moved around after dark. We’d hide in one of the bungalows and wait, meeting the students after hours. We walked through the camps hunched down so officials wouldn’t see us, we couldn’t talk or laugh because our intonation was different.”

“In many camps we’ve been to in Nepal and other countries,” Paul adds. “Refugees have the chance to leave the camp and immerse themselves in the local economy. There’s commerce and some kind of training going on. For the Burmese camps, they’re behind barbed wire. If you asked a kid in one of those camps where food comes from, they would say, “From UNHCR.”

During and after his tenure at Rangsit, Thomas led many similar treks for foreigners to bring in aid and work with students. “We had to hide students with teachers, and bring foreigners into the camp through the jungle. We would stay there one month, then travel back to the city so they can take care of their visas.” Then he adds, in a nonchalant tone as though we haven’t been discussing hiding people in jungles and sneaking them past soldiers, “So it’s difficult to have the foreigner be a teacher.”

The Thai government was actually very resentful of the international attention and aid they saw lavished on the Burmese refugee camps, while Thai poverty was largely ignored. “They railed against NGOs working and teaching in those camps for years,” says Paul.

“The new generation after me, they were not allowed to study higher than grade 10,” says Thomas, “The Thai government didn’t want people becoming educated enough to compete for jobs. We had to hide the schooling.”

So, risking the ire of Thai officials, Thomas built a school—literally, built one—and became a teacher at the Karenni Further Studies Institute. By early 2009, he had adjusted to life in Maesu Rin, and planned to stay indefinitely. He had earned a degree, met and married his wife, Whawha, started a family, and had a small garden. He was also spending most of his time working to improve the lives of his fellow refugees.

“I didn’t want to be selfish,” he says now, “I got lucky.”

The news has been hard to watch lately. Thomas’ daughters have been asking him a lot of questions about the refugee crisis in Europe, and he explains to them how similar it is to their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. When he saw the video of a Hungarian camerawoman tripping a Syrian man as he ran with a child in his arms, he was overwhelmed, “I could not stop from crying.”

As of September, Cleveland has officially settled its first two Syrian families. While the gears of international resettlement usually take more than a decade to turn, the conflict in Syria has completely changed the game, and many countries are speeding up their intake process.

When a refugee arrives in the United States, they’re put on a fast-track to citizenship. It normally takes a new refugee five years to get a green card, and Thomas is finishing the paperwork to receive his now. But even though he’s poised to officially become a U.S. citizen, some ghosts from the Thai camp still haunt him.

Among the refugees he knows, there’s always an irrational fear that if you don’t blend into the background, someone will punish you. It’s something that even he struggles with, though he knows logically that he’s safe now, out of Burma and away from the camp. But it still takes effort sometimes to stand up in front of people, to talk to a room full of strangers, eager to help refugees arriving in Cleveland.

“I don’t want to frighten anybody,” Darren says as he lays out for the new tutors the gravity of the work they’ll be doing, “but we’re working with individuals who have been persecuted. That does cause long-term stress and sometimes post-traumatic stress. So you need to keep an eye on what’s going on when you’re with the families. I don’t expect any of you to solve those problems, but I want you to know we can help very quickly and there’s a great support network.”

It’s hard to imagine two places more different than a rural, eastern Burmese village and Lakewood, Ohio. Small touches can make a new place more like home. Sometimes those touches are overt, like speaking only Karenni at home, or more discreet, like the Karenni flag in a living room corner. But community does more than anything else to make a place home, and through Refugee Response and outside of it, Thomas has helped to turn Cleveland’s refugees into a community. Thanks to REAP, refugees can recapture tastes and ingredients they thought they’d lost when they came to the U.S. Bite by bite, whether it’s whole roasted fish with ginger or stir-fried noodles with long beans, Cleveland will start to taste like home.

To learn more about the Refugee Response, visit TheRefugeeResponse.org.