I met Pau Khai at his apartment five minutes away from Aurora University. He was there with his 12-year-old niece, Sang.
Khai, 21, and Sang are refugees from Burma, but don’t call them Burmese.
“We are Chin,” said Khai. In Burma, they were denied healthcare and education and forced to cross the border into Malaysia to even survive. “They did not accept us so we cannot accept them,” said Khai, explaining why they identify with their state instead.
Burma, or Myanmar, was under military rule from 1962 to 2011. Conditions were so bad that 415,670 refugees were scattered across the globe while 62,015 Burmese remain internally displaced according to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, more commonly known as UNHCR.
Aurora is one of two cities in Illinois that resettle refugees. The non-profit organization, World Relief, coordinates the resettlement.
That is how Khai found himself in an apartment in Aurora almost two years ago. He and Sang told their story with cop cars screaming intermittently by their west side apartment.
“From Burma to Malaysia, we had to go illegally. Some by boat or car, some walking,” said Khai. “Some people it takes a month. Mine only took a week,” said Sang, adding, “When I get to Malaysia I was so dirty. My aunt took all my clothes and threw them out.”
There are people in Burma who help others cross the border with a $5,000 catch. “We have to pay back the person who helped us,” said Khai. It takes two to three years.
Refugees also have to pay back their airfare. The UN brings them here, but it is not a free ride. Khai pays $35 a month. Paying off his airfare to the United States will also take several years.
According to Khai, the hardest thing in America outside of the language barrier is finding a job.
For Sang, it is the cruelty of other middle-schoolers. “When you go to school people make fun of you for being a refugee. No one made fun of me, but they told my friend she smelled like stink,” said Sang. “I got in fight for her. One day I said shut up and I was so angry and shake,” said Sang, adding, “Once I speak English very well I can tell them how I feel.”
Many refugees struggle with loneliness. Most are resettled in the same area with other refugees, but as far as Americans are concerned – “we have no friends,” said Sang.
Despite these hardships, they view Aurora as home. Between Burma, Malaysia and America, “here is most,” said Sang, of what she considers home.