A refugee's journey

The search for a better life leads to Buffalo


Rebel soldiers raced through the village in the mountains of eastern Burma, barking a warning. They saw Burmese troops approaching, bearing rifles and flamethrowers.


Nay Htoo felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder rousing him. Bleary-eyed and confused, the 9-year-old tossed on his one set of clothes, gathered his most prized possessions and rushed out of the bamboo hut he called home.

He dashed into the jungle with a satchel of schoolbooks slung over his shoulder and his puppy – a brown and white mutt no bigger than a football – clutched to his chest. He struggled to keep up with his family and other villagers as they cut a path into the mountains, stumbling in the darkness, afraid to light a torch.

The little boy heard gunfire back in his hometown, the Karen ethnic village of Kwee Ler Shu. At war with the Karen rebel army, the Burmese soldiers shot the livestock and burned the town to the ground.

And so it was, on a sticky summer night in 1981, that Nay Htoo found himself shoved onto the refugee road.

Teak huts in the village Kwee Ler Shu in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“I lived in the jungle, in the forest, in a cave,” Nay Htoo recalled. “I thought that was how life was going to be for me.”

Life proved him wrong.

Click on any photo to view the associated gallery.

A young boy in the village Kwee Ler Shu in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Nay Htoo’s escape that night was just the first step in a three-decade journey – through mountains and villages, to a rebel camp where he learned to kill, to a village where he fell in love, to a Thai refugee camp. Finally, in 2010, Nay Htoo found a home nearly 8,000 miles from his hometown – in Buffalo.

Now 44 and slight but sturdy, Nay Htoo (pronounced Nay TOO) lives in a West Side flat half-filled with used furniture. He supports his wife and three children on a $10-an-hour job driving a forklift. He drives a gray 2007 GMC Acadia with 140,000 miles on it. He devotes his days to work and family and the faith in God that, he said, guided his journey.

Nay Htoo, a Karen refugee from Burma, uses a forklift to sort bundles of paper for recycling at Buffalo Recycling in South Buffalo, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

In the last dozen years, Buffalo has become home to more than 8,300 people from Nay Htoo’s homeland. Most of these refugees, like Nay Htoo, are poorly educated people who fled ethnic or religious persecution in Burma, a resource-rich, dirt-poor Southeastern Asian nation also known as Myanmar. Many, like Nay Htoo, are devout Christians. Others are Buddhist and some are Muslim.

They made their way here as the result of a near-secret diplomatic deal forged by the George W. Bush administration, and because Buffalo’s refugee resettlement agencies invited them to town a decade ago with little notice to the larger community.

“All these people were showing up in church, and everyone was asking: ‘Who are these people? Where’s Burma?’ ” said the Rev. Ray Schooler, former pastor of Kenmore Baptist Church.

Their arrival started as a trickle and became a stream as Buffalo became a destination for refugees from other cities drawn to the new communities springing up on the city’s West Side. Former rebel soldiers in camouflage and Asian women in colorful wraparound skirts called longyis now walk the city streets. Illiterate workers who don’t speak English step up for minimum-wage jobs that are otherwise hard to fill. Now Burma’s ethnic minorities – the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin and others – have their own communities, their own businesses, their own churches in Buffalo. The refugee advocates who brought them here say they have already enlivened the city with new restaurants, businesses and cultural events while slowly settling into America.

Chan Rot, 6, performs a dance during the Mon National Day celebrations at Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Yet this refugee influx came at a cost. Resettlement agencies that welcomed the refugees at first found themselves overwhelmed. Buffalo schools strained to teach students who speak a variety of languages. Haunted by the trauma of being driven from their homes, many refugees never escape poverty, never escape a sense of isolation in a modern city a thousand times bigger than the bamboo-hut villages they fled.

Refugee agencies invited smaller numbers of refugees from Somalia, Bhutan and other countries to Buffalo, too. Just like the newcomers from Burma, they build new lives amid hardship and hope.

As for Nay Htoo, he said his refugee journey was worth every step – because back in Burma, there was only fear.

A villager uses a machete to construct a post for a shed in a village of displaced Karen exiles called Kyout Sat outside of Mae Sot, Thailand, Monday, April 27, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

After fleeing that summer night in 1981, Nay Htoo found himself trapped in the hills with his parents, three siblings and dozens of other villagers. The family took shelter where they could – in a lean-to built out of sticks and leaves, then in a cave. They lived off the rice they brought and whatever they could forage in the forest. Every evening, the family prayed before settling down to sleep in beds made of leaves.

All the while, Karen villagers lived in fear that Burmese soldiers would find and kill them, recalled Nay Htoo’s aunt, Jar Twer, one of six people who confirmed details of Nay Htoo’s journey.

As weeks passed, Nay Htoo’s cousin caught the flu and died. The family buried him in the hills above his wrecked village.

Once the summer rains ended, Nay Htoo’s family hiked eastward and forded a river into Thailand.

And over the next few years, Nay Htoo and his family hopscotched from village to village, sometimes in Thailand, sometimes in Burma, depending on where the Karen rebel soldiers said they would be safest.

Farmers back in Burma, his parents struggled in this world where they couldn’t set down roots. So at age 13, Nay Htoo took his first job, picking corn in Thailand. After his older sister Mu Je married, he moved in with her and her husband in a village in Burma because his parents could no longer support the full family.

Mu Je, right, the sister of Nay Htoo, and her family mingle with other villagers inside a home in the village Kwee Ler Shu in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. Nay Htoo's nephew, Ler Say, is second from left. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“She fed her brother before she fed her own husband,” Nay Htoo recalled. “That’s how much she loved me.”

Nay Htoo hated this vagabond life, hated that his education ended when he fled Kwee Ler Shu after second grade. As soon as he was old enough to join the Karen National Union rebel army, he did.

“I hated the Burmese army so much,” Nay Htoo said.

He learned to fire hand-me-down weapons that were older than he was. He remembers being scared the first time he fired an AK-47. In his first firefight, he and his comrades spotted a squad of Burmese soldiers approaching. Nay Htoo took aim, fired and saw his target fall to the ground.

Nay Htoo was 15 years old.

Sher Da drills with his KNLA unit in the jungle near the mountaintop outpost Ka Neh Klep in a remote area in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Haunted by its history, Burma remains a sum of parts that is less than whole.

For most of the second millennium, Burma was a Buddhist land, cobbled together from various ethnic tribes and ruled by a series of monarchies. In the 19th century, it fell to British expansionism. Western missionaries then seeded Burma’s mountainous borderlands with Christianity; ethnic minorities rose and fell in political favor.

And so it went for more than 100 years, until World War II brought new chaos. Leaders of a Burmese nationalist movement aligned with Japan to try to wrest control from Great Britain, then reversed allegiance when Japan would not support Burmese freedom. Only after the end of the war, in 1948, did Burma gain full independence.

But independence did not bring unity. Ethnic minorities, denied the promise of autonomy, took up arms, launching the fledgling democracy into a series of civil wars.

The harder the minorities fought, the harder the Burmese government fought back, especially after a 1962 coup left the nation with a military dictator who was bent on “Burmanization” – a policy ridding Burma of ethnic identities.

Nay Htoo was born into this world. His aunt, Jar Twer, recalled that Burmese troops burned Kwee Ler Shu the first time a few years before Nay Htoo was born. The villagers rebuilt the town, only to see the soldiers return on that night in 1981 when Nay Htoo and his family fled. And Kwee Ler Shu was just one of hundreds of villages the government troops burned in the 1980s, forcing tens of thousands to flee for Thailand.

Pro-democracy riots in 1988 thrust Aung San Suu Kyi – the daughter of the assassinated freedom fighter who led the fight for independence – into prominence and then, at the hands of a new military regime, into years of house arrest. The next year, the new government revived the nation’s ancient name of Myanmar, hoping to calm ethnic tensions in a nation where minorities consider the Burmese the enemy. Aung San Suu Kyi – now the symbol of a repressed democracy – won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released in 2010.

Slowly, under pressure from the U.S. and other democracies, the military has eased its grip on Burma and granted open elections. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept the elections last year; she is barred by law from serving as president, but rules from behind the scenes.

The Karen and other ethnic groups have signed cease-fires, but tensions remain. Places like Kwee Ler Shu remain so isolated that several people interviewed there didn’t even know who Aung San Suu Kyi is.

In such areas, “the Burmese army is still seen like a foreign occupier,” said David Steinberg, author of a book on modern Burma.

That’s because wartime memories, like those of U Tin Soe, linger. U Tin Soe served in the Burmese army several decades ago. Now in his 70s, he recalled that when his unit approached an ethnic stronghold, the soldiers would ask village leaders to cooperate. If they refused, the troops would light their flamethrowers.

“We would burn the whole village,” he said. “I feel comfortable talking about this because it is the truth. It was jungle law.”

U Tin Soe in the study of his home in Myawaddy, Burma, Sunday, April 26, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

By 1995, the Karen rebel cause looked hopeless. Every firefight – for Nay Htoo, two dozen over 15 years – meant more lost ground.

Nay Htoo, meantime, led a life of loss. His parents died while he was a teen. His siblings scattered. A childhood friend died in battle.

But then Nay Htoo fell in love.

He was 23, patrolling a friendly village when he met a petite young woman named Hser Hay Moo. They married within a year, only to be separated when Nay Htoo was reassigned, meaning he could visit his wife only once a year. She waited, tending the pigs and chickens on the farm as the Karen people had done for centuries.

In 1999, she gave birth to a girl, Nay Htoo Wah. Now Nay Htoo found himself thinking more like a father than a soldier. His daughter needed him. So in 2001, Nay Htoo left the rebels and moved his family east toward Thailand. They rested in safe houses when they could find them, the jungle when they could not.

In the spring of 2002, they paused when Hser Hay Moo gave birth to a second girl, Nay Say Wah. Eight months later, Nay Htoo strapped his 2½-year-old daughter to his back as his wife gathered the baby in her arms. Together the family entered the jagged mountains between Burma and Thailand.

They lived off the land for a week, making a bed of leaves at night and huddling together on the ground until they fell asleep. Every day, the hike got rougher and the babies crankier. Near the border, the older daughter started wailing.

“She was covered with fleas,” her mother recalled. “They were even coming out of her nose.”

Her parents could do little but pray and keep walking.

Bamboo huts line the hillside at Umpeim Refugee Camp, in Tak, Thailand, Tuesday, April 28, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

In late 2002, Nay Htoo and his family crossed the Moei River into Thailand and arrived at their new home: the Umpiem Mai refugee camp in the coolish Thai highlands, population 18,061.

Umpiem was one of 10 refugee camps in Thailand that at the time housed a total of 125,000 outcasts who had fled violence in Burma as long as 20 years earlier. The Thai government surrounded each of the camps with barbed wire to keep the refugees inside.

Nay Htoo and his wife looked out at Umpiem and saw hundreds of rickety wood huts. Children darted about on dirt paths while adults idled the time away, relaxing on hammocks.

When they arrived, Nay Htoo and his family crowded in with friends in a hut where rain poured through the roof. Then Nay Htoo snuck into the forest at night to steal enough bamboo to build his own 10-foot-by-15-foot shelter next to a communal outhouse.

Nay Htoo landed a job as a security guard. He was lucky to get it. Most people at Umpiem never worked.

Yet life quickly turned tedious for Nay Htoo and his family. Fish paste and rice, again and again. Work, church and boredom, week in and week out, year in, year out.

His sister, Mu Je, visited once a year or so, making the same rugged journey that brought Nay Htoo and his family to Umpiem. Mu Je always brought news from home and the only gift she could afford for the kids: fish she had caught and dried in the tropical sun.

The birth of a son broke up the routine five years after the family arrived in the camp. It also made Nay Htoo wonder if a better life awaited his family elsewhere.

Kelly Ryan, President George W. Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of refugee issues, knew all about the refugees from Burma. She spent the previous decade at the Department of Justice, helping Burmese democracy activists win political asylum in the United States. Refugees from Vietnam and Laos had adapted to America, so she thought newcomers from nearby Burma could do so, too.

Bringing some of those people to America would help fulfill Bush’s goal of settling 70,000 refugees in the United States every year. The U.S. dramatically increased its security checks for refugees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. That meant only 27,109 refugees came to the United States in fiscal 2002. “Muslims were difficult to get into the U.S. system,” recalled Jack Dunford, who ran the charitable consortium that operates the Thai refugee camps. “The U.S. was casting around for new caseloads.”

So Ryan asked the Thai government to allow refugees from Burma to come to America – an idea Thai officials had refused to consider, fearing it would prompt more people from Burma to rush into Thailand. Ryan kept pressing, and by the spring of 2005, she had a deal. The United States would start small, taking refugees from just one camp at first.

The United States also agreed to a key Thai request. The Thai negotiator “asked the United States to pursue the program as discreetly as possible,” U.S. diplomats in Thailand said in a cable to colleagues in D.C. There is no mention of the 10-year resettlement deal in the State Department’s press releases from 2005, no mention of it in news stories that year.

Thai officials later agreed to expand the resettlement program, and the U.S. did the same by easing restrictions on people who had helped rebel soldiers in Burma. Congress further expanded the program in 2007 with legislation that welcomed former rebel fighters like Nay Htoo.

Thanks to those moves, the number of refugees from Burma arriving in America multiplied eightfold in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2007. The influx continued for years, ultimately bringing more than 160,000 people from Burma to the United States.

Nay Htoo, at center-right in the bottom of the frame, is among parishioners streaming into the new Karen Baptist Church before the start of the first service, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

In 2007, Nay Htoo put his family on the waiting list for America.

“We just wanted our children to get a better education,” he said. “And we wanted freedom, to live like a citizen in a country, not to be just stuck in a refugee camp.”

The Department of Homeland Security checked Nay Htoo’s background and that of his family, and after interviewing him and his wife, U.S. officials approved their move to America in early 2010. First the family went through an orientation where everyone learned how to flush a toilet, take a shower and use modern appliances. Then they boarded a bus to Bangkok, where Nay Htoo saw his first highway, his first multistory building. He boarded his first plane and, a day later, arrived at his luck-of-the-draw new home: a flat in the Bronx.

Nay Htoo found his new neighborhood near Yankee Stadium crowded with strange people speaking strange languages. The only way to get around was a strange train that traveled underground through a strange tube.

After just a week, Nay Htoo went to the agency that handled his resettlement and asked to be moved someplace smaller, someplace with a Karen community. He wanted to join family in Buffalo.

Instructions are posted in the bathroom at the Huai Kalok Bible Institute in Mae Sot, Thailand, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

For five decades, Buffalo had been a victim of Rust Belt decline, losing jobs, people and hope.

Around 2005, though, Buffalo’s four refugee resettlement agencies joined forces in a plan that would reshape the city: Bring in refugees.

“I can remember conversations among all of us at the time, saying that more refugees would be good for Buffalo,” said Pamela Kefi, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo from 2005 to 2009.

The agencies began resettling more refugees just as the State Department started accepting more people from Burma. In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2006, 75 refugees from Burma came to Buffalo. The next year, almost 400 arrived. Every year since, hundreds of refugees from Burma have resettled here, with 279 arriving in the 12 months ending Sept. 30.

The new arrivals came as a surprise to Byron W. Brown when he became mayor in 2006. The agencies brought the refugees to Buffalo “with very little to no communication with this government,” Brown said.

Caseworker Myo Thant of Journeys End Refugee Resettlement looks up at the arrivals monitor while waiting for a family of Karen refugees to arrive at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Thursday, June 11, 2015. Thant was a refugee himself, who came to the U.S. after being imprisoned by the Burmese government for his political activities. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The resettlements overwhelmed the agencies. Nay Htoo’s niece Hser Gay Moo and her husband arrived in Buffalo with their 10-month-old son in 2009. Jewish Family Services settled the family into an apartment and gave them $40 to buy food, but no one told them how or where to spend the money.

“We were very, very hungry,” Hser Gay Moo recalled. “Three days after that, my husband’s friend came and brought us food. Before that, we didn’t have anyone to call.”

State Department auditors temporarily suspended Jewish Family Services from resettling refugees in 2010 because it was “mostly noncompliant” with requirements that agencies provide refugees with food, clothing and a decent place to live. The International Institute was mostly noncompliant, too. Auditors cited concerns at Journey’s End Refugee Services, while giving Catholic Charities of Buffalo a positive review. All four agencies have since received positive audits.

Despite the rough welcome, things were worse in more expensive cities with fewer refugees from Burma. Word spread among the diaspora about cheap housing, available jobs and a strong support community in Buffalo. While the State Department settled 4,665 refugees from Burma in Buffalo as of Sept. 30, the city estimates there are now 8,350 refugees from Burma here due to the wave of “secondary migrants.”

Muhammad Bilal said he was going broke in San Francisco before finding a new life and steady work in Buffalo. Nelly Moe brought her family to Buffalo from Amarillo, Texas, because “the benefits are good.” Many others, like Nay Htoo, joined family in Buffalo.

Hser Gay Moo holds her 1-year-old son Sher Eh Doh in the living room of their West Side apartment, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. When she and her husband arrived with their older son in 2009, they spent three days without food because they didn't know how to get it. (Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Nay Htoo moved to Buffalo in April 2010, a year after his niece. The Hope Refugee Drop-In Center found the family a flat and signed them up for Medicaid and food stamps.

Nay Htoo found a minimum-wage job at a coffee distributor, unloading 100-pound bags of sugar. A few months later, he took a job as a dishwasher. In 2012, he got a job at Buffalo Recycling, driving a forklift. This year, he took those skills to Pallet Services in Lancaster.

Money is tight. Nay Htoo works a lot of overtime, and his wife works nights cleaning a downtown office building.

They lead a simple life, entertaining each other with jokes and shared stories that leave them both smiling. Neither Nay Htoo nor his wife smoke, drink or go out much. The couple cooks curries and noodle dishes in the 1940s-era kitchen of their West Side apartment, and gathers with their children in the living room to read from the Bible. Hser Hay Moo often reads from the Book of Proverbs because she believes it shows her children how to live.

Nay Htoo tries to give his wife Hser Hay Moo a taste of his noodles as his family gathers for dinner in the kitchen of their West Side home, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Most refugee students struggle, but teachers said Nay Htoo’s children – now 10, 14 and 17 – do well in school.

Nay Htoo and his wife haven’t learned much English, but neither of them recounts the kind of disasters other refugees recall, such as getting lost or not knowing how to call 911.

They spend most of their time with other Karen refugees, but Nay Htoo and his wife said they have come to love America and hope to become citizens.

“Buffalo is a good place for us,” he said. “The family is here, the friends.”

Nay Htoo never returned to Kwee Ler Shu, but his sister, Mu Je, went back with the villagers who rebuilt the town later in the 1980s. She said she never wanted to move to a refugee camp, much less America. She loves her village too much, even if it’s stuck in centuries past, with a horrid history that keeps repeating itself.

Kwee Ler Shu nestles in a clearing, a bone-rattling hour’s drive west of the Thai border on a rutted road that winds through mountains and streams. A couple hundred Karen people live there, in open-air huts built on poles for protection from summer floods.

They make their living in the fields, men and women in colorful wraparound longyis, tending crops in the blistering sun. Pigs, chickens and cattle roam dirt paths. At midday, locals cook over open flames and eat rice, noodles and curries with their fingers.

Mu Je, whose brother Nay Htoo lives in Buffalo, sits on the deck of her home in the village Kwee Ler Shu in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)
A woman uses a machete while preparing a field to seed with corn in the hillside of Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Mu Je’s decision to live her life in this village came at a price. Her five children have only an elementary school education. And they and Mu Je heard a familiar cry on the night of July 10, 2010:


She rushed with the others into the mountains, where she hid in a hole, out of sight of the Burmese troops who torched Kwee Ler Shu for the third time in 40 years.

“We lived in the jungle a long time,” said Mu Je, a round-faced, middle-aged woman in a white blouse and a purple-and-blue longyi. “Many people died because they had no medicine and not enough food.”

When the soldiers left, the villagers returned to rebuild again. They fear it won’t be the last time.

The Karen army keeps an outpost on a mountain near Kwee Ler Shu. Troops stood guard there on a muggy day last year, including Sher Da, a baby-faced boy who said he was 18. Clad in camouflage, with an M-16 rifle slung across his shoulder, he said through an interpreter that he took up arms to protect his people if the Burmese army returns.

KNLA soldier Sher Da patrols in the jungle near the mountaintop outpost Ka Neh Klep in a remote area in Karen State, Burma, Friday, April 24, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A hemisphere away, Nay Htoo said he never thinks or dreams about his days as a boy soldier, although he still worries about his hometown – and especially about his beloved sister, Mu Je. She went to a Thai hospital with stomach troubles in the spring, and luckily the hospital had something she doesn’t: a phone. Nay Htoo and his sister talked for the first time since he left the refugee camp, catching up through tears.

Mu Je is better now, but Nay Htoo said it still hurts to think about her life so far away. Asked about the 2010 attack on Kwee Ler Shu, he hung his head and said: “It’s painful. I know how those people feel, but I can’t do anything to help but pray.”

So every Sunday, Nay Htoo takes the wheel of a church van and drives his family and neighbors to the Karen Baptist Church in a once-abandoned Catholic church off Bailey Avenue. There, he joins hundreds of refugees who came to Buffalo via interconnected events in Burma, Thailand, Washington and Buffalo that brought Nay Htoo here. Together they give thanks.

Family and neighbors climb into Nay Htoo's SUV on their way to church, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. (Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Nay Htoo does the same back in his West Side flat, which is bigger than any home he ever knew in Asia. He decorated a windowsill in the living room with a picture of Jesus and a picture of a cross. Relaxing on a battered recliner, with his wife and children lounging nearby on the barren floor, Nay Htoo explained why.

“My family is blessed by God,” he said.

Nay Htoo, a Karen refugee from Burma, in his west side Buffalo home, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Editor's note:

The Buffalo News is using the name "Burma," rather than "Myanmar," because refugees generally refer to the nation as Burma, as does the U.S. government. Burma's military regime revived the nation's ancient name of Myanmar in 1989 in hopes of defusing ethnic tensions.

In addition, refugees will be referred to consistently by their full names in this series. That is because natives of Burma don't have first and last names: their full name identifies them at all times.