Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Honoring a Burmese refugee's life cut short



It wasn't just Htee Kin Paw's struggle with alcohol or homelessness that made Jill Peckenpaugh want to help. It was the Burmese refugee's smile and that of her 6-year-old daughter.

"When she wasn't suffering from medical and alcohol challenges ... she was a bright, cheery girl," said Peckenpaugh, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants' Albany field office.

The help from Peckenpaugh's agency and dozens of others, and that of community members, wasn't enough. Paw died on Nov. 30, a month short of her 24th birthday. Her body was found by another homeless person at the World War II Memorial near the State Museum, State Police said.

An Albany County coroner's autopsy determined she died of chronic liver disease.

Memorial services for Paw will take place at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Meyers Funeral Homein Delmar.

"There are so many people that helped her that had hoped for a better life for her and kept trying to make that possible," Peckenpaugh said. "They're wanting to honor her short life."

Paw was born in Myanmar and lived much of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand. At the age of 9, she had her first alcoholic drink, she told Peckenpaugh.

"It's not a common practice, but sometimes in refugee camps children are given alcohol," Peckenpaugh said.

Paw, her husband and their daughter came to Albany a little more than a year ago.

They separated, and her husband, who lives in Rensselaer, had custody of their daughter, Peckenpaugh said.

When Paw wasn't under the influence of alcohol, she was very lively, Peckenpaugh said. "She loved to dress up fashionwise and smile and play."

Paw would take secondhand clothing and make outfits out of them, she said.

But Paw's alcoholism and medical issues prevailed.

She was in and out of shelters, and her addiction burned many bridges, Peckenpaugh said. "Chronic addiction does that."

Paw was often accompanied by a man who was like an older brother to her, she said. This, along with the alcohol, kept Paw from staying in shelters, which are not co-ed.

"I can't think of any case where more social service agencies helped," Peckenpaugh said. These included the Albany and Rensselaer departments of Social Services, Albany Medical Center, the police, Equinox, the Homeless Action Committee and the Buddhist and Karen communities. "Many individuals and many social service agencies really went the extra mile for her and despite our best efforts ... some people just need more help."

Still, Peckenpaugh wishes she could have done more to help.

"I can't believe that I couldn't get her inpatient alcohol care and get her to turn things around so she was the happy smiling wonderful gal that we all know she was," Peckenpaugh said.

kclukey@timesunion.com • 518-454-5467 • @KClukey_TU

How to help

Donations are being accepted to help refugees in the Capital Region

Monetary donations can be set to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at 991 Broadway Suite 223, Albany, NY 12204, or call 459-1790.

USCRI also is looking for blankets and outerwear for winter.

For more information go to www.refugees.org.