Lutheran Congregational Services expects to resettle 50 people by Oct. 1 and to double that number next year.
Poet Emily Dickinson wrote that "Hope is the thing with feathers" but Mu Kpaw would tell you that it comes with a U.S. passport. At a picnic Sunday for refugees resettled in the Lehigh Valley, 36-year-old Kpaw employed little of the intensity you might expect when he told his story of fleeing civil war in Myanmar and living at a Thai refugee camp for 14 years.
But that could be because at the gathering in Macungie he was surrounded by people with equally dramatic stories who had escaped from religious persecution in Iraq or endless war in the Congo or other man-made cataclysms. What they all had in common is that they got help from Catholic Charities or Lutheran Congregational Services in resettling in the Valley. Lutheran Congregational Services took over the local U.S. State Department resettlement program from Catholic Charities last year and expects to resettle 50 people by Oct. 1, according to program officials. And next year, they're hoping to double that number as they expand with help from area churches, according to The Rev. Dennis Ritter, executive director of the Lutheran group.
Kpaw was born in the Karen region of war-torn Burma before it was renamed Myanmar. When attacks by the Burmese military came too close to his home, his parents sent him and a brother to a refugee camp in Thailand when Kpaw was 15. "A lot of land was taken away, a lot of houses burned down," he said. For the next 14 years he would live in a 20-by-20-foot house with a dirt floor, go to school, marry and have three children, all at the camp he was not allowed to leave. The family survived on two meals a day of rice, beans and fish paste. Then in 2006, the U.S. government allowed some refugees from the camp to immigrate and his family jumped at the chance.
They got help from Catholic Charities and Bethany United Methodist Church in Wescosville finding jobs, housing and other necessities. For five years Kpaw has been working at Lutron processing orders on computer. He lives in a Lower Macungie Township townhouse with his wife, Lily Grace, and children, Novellin, 15, Steven, 11, and Sarah, 7, who are flourishing in East Penn schools. For all this he said he is so grateful to the U.S. government for letting them immigrate and to Catholic Charities and Bethany church for helping them resettle. "When we got to the United States, our life is started," Kpaw said. "My kids all feel the same way. They have hope. I always encourage my kids that here, from kindergarten, you can be your hope to be something. In the camp, you cannot." It was religious persecution that drove Lina Yako and her husband, Fernas, from Iraq.
The Yakos, who are Christian, left Iraq after Fernas' family in Baghdad received a threatening letter telling them to convert to Islam or leave the country. "When they received the letter, they had three days to leave," Lina said. "And they left everything behind." They took it seriously because they had relatives who had been killed after receiving such threats, she said. After two years as refugees in Turkey, the Yakos arrived in Allentown in June 2010. Marla Sell, the lead caseworker with the resettlement program, helped them get an apartment, find work and navigate the various bureaucracies of American life.
"We faced a lot of difficulties — the culture shock — which is normal, I guess," Lina said in nearly flawless English. "I couldn't understand why we need to pay insurance. But now I understand and I think it's a great thing. I wish we had that in Iraq." The Yakos have a 2-year-old son, Albroen, and Lina took a job as a case manager with refugee resettlement program helping people the way she was helped. "It feels great and I can understand the people that I'm working with," Lina said. "We think it's going to be a great future for my son," Lina said. Recently, her husband was at a Best Buy store and was asked by a sales person where he was from. Without skipping a beat, Fernas said, "Allentown."