By Fatima Baalbaki
To Law Ba, his bachelor-style Gladstone Avenue apartment is luxurious.
“We have furniture and lights,” says the 30-year-old man. “And a fridge and stove.”
An OC Transpo map of Ottawa is tacked on the wall above the living room sofa and beside it, an illustrated guide on how to dress for winter.
Compared to where Ba came from, Ottawa is bigger and more lavish – and colder.
Last summer, Canada announced it would accept 810 refugees from Burma, also known as Myanmar, as part of its Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program. Ba, his wife and two sons were among the 150 refugees who have settled in Ottawa.
For the 14 years before that, Ba, his father and seven siblings – and later his wife, who he met and married at a refugee camp – have been living in camps along the Thailand-Burma border.
The family of Karens left their native country in 1992 when the Burmese military attacked and burned their village.
The Karen is a minority ethnic group that has faced severe government persecution ever since clashes broke out between the Burmese army and a separatist group called the Karen National Union.
The Ba family found themselves in Thailand’s Mae Kaw Kah refugee camp, built on a mountainside forest that was vulnerable to mudslides during the rainy season. Ba’s life there was filled with one horror after another: floods that carried away 30 people, cross-border attacks from the Burmese military.
He and his family were never safe.
“Many of us missed our home and wanted to go home, but we couldn’t because our village was destroyed,” says Ba, who was among 150,000 Karen who fled the persecution to Thailand’s nine refugee camps. In total, two million people left Burma for neighbouring countries.
When international NGOs came to the camp to invite the refugees to immigrate, Ba jumped at the chance to enlist himself and his family. He remembers the day he learned that they were coming to Canada. He says he was very happy.
“When the immigration people asked me which city you want to go, I said ‘Anywhere is good for me,’ ” he says.
Ba arrived in Ottawa last September with his wife and their two sons, four-year-old Zorro and one-year-old Karro. His father and most of his siblings also came to Ottawa. One of his married sisters settled in Vancouver with her husband’s family.
“When I arrived in Canada the first thing I felt was free,” Ba recalls.
He says he feels like he fits into his new neighbourhood, where there is a large population of southeast Asian immigrants. What impresses him the most about Canada is its multiculturalism.
“I was most surprised that many people from different countries are living together in peace and I compare this with my country and I don’t understand why we have civil war for 60 years,” he says.
As for the change in weather, Ba says he expected it.
The resettled Karen, many who spent their entire lives in refugee camps, attended a three-day orientation session before arriving in Canada. There, they learned about Canada’s winter, hospitals, schools and legal system – all completely foreign concepts.
Many refugees had not seen anything outside their camp for years. Refugees do not have the right to leave their camps, not even to work.
Some refugees Ba knew worked illegally and were jailed for a month when Thai police caught them.
But most were completely dependant on outside aid to feed their families.
Ba, however, managed to find work as a teacher at one of the refugee-run schools.
“I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to learn. Many students wanted to go to university or college but didn’t have the chance,” Ba says.
“We were always so sad. We did the same thing every day,” he recalls. “Many people who live in refugee camps are upset because they don’t have a chance to do a lot with their lives. People come and feed them.”
The Burmese Border Consortium, a local NGO, provided refugees with food rations. Twice a year, every adult would receive one kilogram each of yellow beans and a flour-based nutrition mix and 750 grams of fish paste, in addition to oil, sugar, salt and chilies. They would also receive monthly rations of 15 kilograms of rice.
Teachers such as Ba, who were paid the equivalent of $30 a month, considered themselves fortunate to be able to buy vegetables, eggs, pork fat or chicken bones and skin as occasional luxuries.
Ba’s family owned no
furniture. In their one-room
bamboo house, they slept on mats and sat on the floor.
At night, their only source of light was candles. They cooked outdoors on charcoal fires.
The family lived at the Mae Kaw Kah camp for a decade before Thai authorities decided it was too close to a national park and closed it down. Along with 15,000 refugees, they moved to the Mae La Oon camp in 2004.
Landslides there were so bad that refugees often sought permission from the Thai government to move to flat land during the rainy season.
When Ba learned that he and other refugee families would be financially supported for one year in Canada, he says he was thrilled
Under the government’s Refugee Assistance Program, families are given money on arrival for winter clothing and school supplies in addition to monthly cheques for rent and grocery bills.
Ba says adapting to life in Canada has not been easy. His family has relied heavily on the Burmese community for help.
Kyaw Moe, the co-ordinator of the Burmese Community Services of Ottawa, says many families need volunteers to visit them regularly to listen and translate their phone messages, take them to the bank or accompany them to parent-teacher meetings.
Moe says the government assistance program needs to be more generous.
“I don’t want to complain because the government has already done enough, but it provides very limited resources to the refugees.”
For a family of four, the maximum rent allowance is $602 a month, according to the latest figures. Ba rents his small apartment for $650, exceeding the allowance limit.
He lives in Centretown, where the Burmese community
is based and rents are generally higher.
Moe says families end up using grocery money to complete their rent and bill payments.
The cooking pans supplied to the families are of such low quality, Moe says, that they become unusable after only one month. And the blankets they are given are too thin for Ottawa’s winter nights.
Turning up the thermostat is not an option for many because that would mean a bigger heating bill. Many don’t know how to use it.
Despite these perceived shortcomings, the Canadian government earlier this month announced an additional 2,000 Karen refugees will come to Canada over the next two years.
As for Ba, he is now attending English-as-a-Second Language classes at a downtown private school. He takes his older son with him and puts him in day care in the same building.
His wife takes their younger son to school with her. Ba says he considers himself luckier than most immigrants because he can already speak English.
He says he does not know what he wants to do with his new-found freedom, but he is eager to start work soon.
“I can go wherever I want to go, I can change what I want in my life,” he says, smiling.