After languishing in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border for 10 years, Karen refugees are suddenly being admitted to the US thanks to the waiver of a clause in the Homeland Security Act. There are about 130,000 refugees in the Thai border camps. The expectations and anxieties of the refugees as they contemplate a move to the US are funny, touching, and inspiring.
The settlement of Tham Hin is in a picture-postcard location, nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling green hills.
But to its residents, it is little more than a prison. The majority of the community have been living here since 1997, unable to leave the confines of the 16-acre site.
Tham Hin is one of nine refugee camps along Thailand’s border with Burma. It houses more than 9,500 refugees, most of whom are ethnic Karen who fled persecution from Burma’s military.
Unable to apply for Thai citizenship, yet unwanted elsewhere, these people have been stuck in legal limbo in the overcrowded camp while the international community decided what to do with them.
Finally, after nearly 10 years, they are being given the chance to move abroad. Several hundred have already left, but now whole groups are being resettled – mostly to the United States.
“I’m going to New York,” said 27-year-old Doris Htoo excitedly, as she prepared to the leave the camp on Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to seeing a place with snow.”
“I really want to see cowboys in real life, because so far I’ve only seen them in films,” said 26-year-old Thalay Moe, who is heading for a new life in Texas.
The reason these refugees are finally being given asylum is that Washington has recently waived a clause in its security laws to allow them in.
Under the original Homeland Security Act, which bans migrants who have had any contact with armed rebel groups, almost all the camp’s inhabitants would be ineligible because they lived amongst the Karen rebel army, the Karen National Union (KNU), while they were in Burma.
“The law that was passed has caught people who were not intended to be caught,” she said.
The refugees of Tham Hin are the first to benefit from the waiver, and Ms Sauerbrey made it clear that any residents who wanted to come to the US would now be welcome.
“Within the next year we hope to bring thousands from Tham Hin, and also begin processing Karen refugees from the other camps,” Ms Sauerbrey said, opening the door for many of the 130,000 refugees elsewhere on the Thai-Burma border.
After so many years of waiting, most of Tham Hin’s residents are looking forward to saying goodbye to their rural prison.
The settlement is chronically overcrowded. The ramshackle bamboo huts are sandwiched together down narrow alleyways, and each family has a living space of just five square metres, creating sanitation and health problems.
Denied job opportunities or interaction with the outside world, the refugees have little to do except wait for food handouts, a situation which concerns Daniel Zu, who has been one of the camp’s leaders for most of its 10-year history.
“The psychosocial problems are increasing here as the years roll on,” he said. “People are less responsible because they’re used to being dependent on others.”
While most of the camp’s residents are now planning their new lives abroad, there are some who still face legal hurdles.
Despite the waiver, hundreds are still barred from the US because the change in the law does not exempt those who had direct contact with the KNU – including Lincoln Khya, whose father named him after former US President Abraham Lincoln.
“I’ve been rejected because I’m classified as a terrorist,” said the 86-year-old, whose only crime was to do six months of compulsory KNU military training decades ago.
A minority of residents want to stay in the camp, to be near their loved ones over the border in Burma, or because they are unsure how they will adapt to life on the other side of the world.
“None of my family has gone abroad yet,” said 40-year-old Ma Tim Thaung. “I’d actually rather stay here as it’s near my homeland. In America I wouldn’t know how to do anything, and I can’t speak the language.”
Aid agencies are working with the refugees to overcome some of these fears, and prepare them for life abroad.
The refugees are provided with clothing for cold weather, and taught about basic aspects of Western life that other Americans take for granted – such as convenience foods, sit-down toilets and road safety signs.
There is a lot to learn. “Most of these people are not even used to the concept of doors,” said Hans Becker, from the International Organization for Migration.
The refugees of Tham Hin face many challenges ahead, but Daniel Zu is confident they will make the best of their new lives.
“The nature of the Karen people is that, even in the middle of a storm, we try to smile,” he said.
“My own dream is to achieve success, so I can help other Karen people,” he said. “Maybe I’ll try for Kofi Annan’s job one day.”
But that is all in the future. His first challenge will be to leave the confines of the Thai valley where he has been languishing for the last decade.