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.
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.
Hai Blu quickly landed a temporary job at the Autumn Harp lipstick factory, where he worked in packaging and labeling. Factory work, a VRRP counselor told me, is attractive to refugees for its good pay, reliable hours, and sense at the end of the day, of a tangible product, like boxes and boxes of lipstick. And employers quickly come to appreciate the reliability, determination, work ethic, and appreciation of refugees as workers.
But there are often two problems: factories are located in areas hard to reach by public transportation, and the work can be temporary. A perfect example, Hai Blu was up and out by about 5AM each morning, to walk and ride the bus to work; he was laid off after 3 months.
Then Hai Blu got another lucky break. He was hired as a dishwasher by Benjy Adler. at a fast-growing, hip creperie in Burlington, called the Skinny Pancake. Reliable dishwashers are hard to find, but as Benjy Adler described, they are a critical foundation in the restaurant hierarchy. If the dishwasher doesn’t show up, then it’s the manager or the owner who has to step in. Hai Blu quickly moved up the ranks (3 or 4 different people told us about Hai Blu; he is something of a rock star in Burlington) into the role of food processor, which means he works in the bulk preparation of Skinny Pancake ingredients. Jan 28, 2014, says Hai Blu, will be the 5 year anniversary of his working at Skinny Pancake.
Hai Blu and his wife now own a car, which they both can drive, and they are studying for their citizenship tests. When Hai Blu’s wife passes her test, I would guess she could become the first American citizen with the name of True Tender. True Tender Htun was named by her mother, who worked with UN staff in the refugee camp, and she picked up a certain flair with English. True Tender, like her husband, lives up to her name; she struck me as a gentle, brave, and strong person. True Tender said she often cried when they first arrived. Now she is in preparatory studies to become a nurse.
Their 10 year old son is in 5th grade in public school in Colchester, just over the Burlington line. His grandmother, True Tender’s mother, also named him: Dazzling Diadem, which is a name to live up to. His parents report that Dazzling is doing very well in school, and gets invited to birthday parties.
Their 5-year-old son was born shortly after his parents' arrival in Burlington. His grandmother was not around, so his parents named him: Lawmu Kaawthaw Blu. His given names reflect, I believe, his parents’ simple awe in finding themselves in Burlington: It means “New and Happy Place.”