From Burma to Burlington: The Story of 'Brings Luck'

By Deborah Fallows

Hai Blu and his wife, True Tender

By Deborah Fallows

This is the story of Hai Blu, whose life story began with unimaginable bad fortune, then turned toward fortune so good that it met the destiny of his Burmese name, meaning “Brings Luck.”

Hai Blu (pronounced like hey blue) is from the Karen ethnic minority group of southern Burma, who had been in conflicts with Burmese rulers for many decades -- including the 1988 uprising against the military dictatorship, which occurred just before Hai Blu was born. Hai Blu’s parents fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he was born, raised,  married, and lived for a total of 23 years. That is the bad luck part. (Below, a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand.)

Then Hai Blu’s luck changed. In a world where there are too many refugees to care for equally, he had many attributes that are attractive to resettlement administrators. Hai Blu received his official “refugee” status, making him eligible for resettlement outside the camp. And even more importantly,  he was young, strong, and stable. He and his wife looked like good candidates to build and be anchors for a new community of Burmese. That is how Hai Blu, his pregnant wife, and their then 5-year-old son became the first Burmese to resettle in Burlington, Vermont, in April 2008.

Church Street Market in Burlington

The Vermont Refugee and Resettlement Program (VRRP), which welcomed Hai Blu and his family, operates out of a small administrative building on the grounds of what had once been Fort Ethan Allen outside Burlington.  They are a stepping stone in the massive, and somewhat confusing international structure of refugee care and processing.  

The VRRP helps refugees through their first 8 months in the US, leasing them an apartment outfitted (as from the warehouse below) with all the basics and providing a small cash stipend (100 – 400$/month depending on circumstances); food stamps; essential clothing; health and dental services; job placement; English classes; and work-life workshops.

A refugee’s travel to Vermont, which begins in a place like the Umpiem refugee camp in northwestern Thailand, where Hai Blu lived, often ends on the last flight in to the Burlington airport—a  late night arrival after an international flight, along layover for immigration processing, and a connecting flight or two to Burlington. VRRP staff whisk the refugees off to their new quarters, run through the mandatory safety checks – how to use the stove, electricity, faucets, toilets, and most importantly, fire extinguisher.

I sat in on such a workshop at VRRP last week, where nearly 20 Bhutanese, who had only been in America from 2 weeks to 2 months, learned some of the cultural rules of working: Get to work on time. Check bus schedules on holidays. Call your boss if you are really sick. Be friendly to your colleagues. Smile. Sit with workmates at lunch, even if language is a barrier. Wear deodorant and clean clothes every day. A few of the people seemed to understand the direct, simple English of the workshop teacher; the rest listened to a translator.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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