Catholic Charities Community Services, Immigration

Bae Reh

Photo: Ed Ou/The New York Times

Bae Reh, his wife, Moo Pro, and their children arrived in New York City in March.

The New York Times
December 11, 2010

Burmese Couple Build Life in the Bronx


Bae Reh and his wife, Moo Pro, were raised on a five-mile-long patch of land they were not permitted to leave, except to gather leaves to fortify the bamboo huts in which they slept. The couple had no knowledge of the outside world. They had never heard of America and certainly could not find it on a map. There were no newspapers, just a magazine and a television station, both operating under strict political control.

It sounds a little like a scene from North Korea. But Mr. Bae Reh and Ms. Moo Pro, both 27, did not grow up there. They are refugees from Myanmar whose parents fled to a camp in Thailand to escape a government that drafted citizens at random and forced them to commit atrocities against their own ethnic tribes.

“We were told to fight, or to pay not to fight,” Mr. Bae Reh said through an interpreter.

He does not remember life before Mae La, the largest of nine camps along the border in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Ms. Moo Pro arrived with her family when she was 12.

Although they were out of reach of the oppressive military regime, their life was not ideal. The Thai government did not allow refugees to work outside the camps. The United Nations provided sugar, beans, rice noodles, charcoal for cooking — and, once a month, a protein, usually chicken.

Unable to study beyond high school or to work in any other capacity, Mr. Bae Reh and Ms. Moo Pro were drawn to teaching and lead a United Nations classroom housed in a tent. Ms. Moo Pro taught kindergarten, and it was there, presiding over 20 5-year-olds, that her future husband fell in love with her.

“She was so patient,” he said, stealing a glance at his wife. They both giggled. They had two children at Mae La: Khem, 1, and Sukanya, 5.

In 2007, the American government began admitting some of the refugees. After a two-year investigation ensured that Mr. Bae Reh and Ms. Moo Pro had no health problems or messy political entanglements, they arrived in New York in March.

Freedom brought its challenges. They had never paid a bill or made a bed.

“They didn’t even know where to put stuff,” said Onita Misa , the family’s case manager at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven beneficiaries of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. “They put food in the cabinet with detergent,” she said. “I had to start with the A B C’s: ‘Here is the toothbrush, here is the toothpaste.’ ”

The organization was enlisted to help after being alerted to the family’s plight by the State Department’s Reception and Placement Program. Ms. Misa found an apartment for them in the West Farms section of the Bronx; it is below street level at the end of a dank outdoor hallway. The Neediest Cases Fund provided $900, which paid for their first month’s rent. Ms. Misa filled out the rental paperwork and bought the essentials.

“It was amazing for them, compared to the camps,” she said of the modest apartment, where the two children sleep in the only bedroom and their parents sleep on the couch. The couple’s wedding photo dominates a wall in the living room: In it, Mr. Bae Reh is wearing blue jeans and a sports jacket over an untucked shirt, and Ms. Moo Pro has a youthful smile.

The only clothes they wear now are donated or bought for them from thrift stores. They have never been to Manhattan.

Ms. Moo Pro said she wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. “But how can I go there?” she said through an interpreter. “I don’t even know how to get there.”

Until she learns English, she is essentially unemployable. Mr. Bae Reh travels only to his job in Brooklyn — he makes $7.25 an hour as a packer at the 4C Foods Corporation in East New York.

Money is extremely tight, but they are happy to be here. “If they go back home, they will go to jail,” their interpreter, the Rev. Anastasio Tarsio, said. A refugee himself, Father Tarsio said that though they were better off in New York, they yearn for Myanmar. “All the refugees, they want to go back if Burma gets democracy,” he said.