“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Ask Poe Htoo if he’s ever read the American Declaration of Independence and he’ll shake his head no as a smile spreads across his face. He knows it’s something special. He recognizes that word. Independence.
But the 31-year-old Burmese-born refugee hasn’t gotten to that document yet in the hours he spends at the library in downtown Jacksonville studying English and reading about history. He’s had to scale back his reading lately after starting a new plumbing job to support his wife and three sons.
But if you ask Htoo about freedom, he understands. Htoo knows all about freedom now.
Eleven months ago, Htoo and his wife Nee Loh, 28, boarded a plane from a refugee camp in Thailand with their children. More than a day later, they arrived in Jacksonville, a new city in a new country whose language they didn’t speak but whose government promised them refuge from the inhumanity the couple had suffered for decades.
Just like the immigrants who settled in America more than two centuries ago, the Htoo-Loh family came across the world seeking the same freedoms the Continental Congress adopted in its 1776 declaration.
The refugees dreamed of living in a nation governed by the ideals set forth in that document 232 years ago today. They were principles that birthed a democracy, principles sealed – first then and many times since – in the spilled blood of American patriots.
“He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages …”
Htoo was among the more than 30,000 people from the country now known as Myanmar that the United Nations refugee agency said left Thai refugee camps to resettle in other countries since 2005.
Htoo was 5 years old when his family left his native country to flee fighting and oppression targeting ethnic minority villagers. Loh’s family did the same when she was 12. The two met, married and started a family in a Thai camp, making the most of the best living they could expect.
The family of five lived in a barn. They had to trek for clean water. Htoo got malaria. There was never enough to eat. They lived amid filth. Worse still, they grew used to living with fear.
“When we live in Thailand, my wife be afraid of Thai police,” Htoo said, surrounded by his family in their apartment off Philips Highway this week.
“And in Burma, we be afraid about soldier.”
Then Htoo grinned, the joy spreading all the way to his eyes, as the children – 10-year-old Eh, 7-year-old Ah and 3-year-old Eh Law Soe – chewed bubble gum and watched cartoons nearby.
“And here,” he said, “we can go anywhere.”
“They have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
Pinned to two walls of the family’s living room are maps of Jacksonville, one so big it’s taller than the 3-year-old.
Jan Ward, the family’s Catholic Charities caseworker, said Poe Htoo knows every bus route in the city and has a keen enough sense of direction to tell her if she’s about to make a wrong turn when they’re driving downtown.
Ward’s agency is one of a few that helps resettle refugees in Jacksonville. The nonprofit’s specialists greet them when they get off the airplane. They get them settled in housing and register their children for school. They teach them things like how to catch a bus, get a library card, open a checking account, find English classes.
But after a few months, the refugees are expected to embrace their new country’s opportunities and become self-sufficient. Government assistance only lasts so long. There are always more refugees waiting for refuge.
In Htoo’s case, he not only found one job, he quit that job when his paycheck didn’t clear and found a better one, Catholic Charities volunteer Peggy Sidman said.
Sidman, an attorney for Jacksonville’s City Council, has become a kind of godmother to Htoo and his family. She uses her time to do things like take the children on their first movie theater outing. She uses her connections to corral resources to help the family financially.
Sidman said she introduced Htoo to another city official who got him a job interview. That connection turned into an opportunity to work full-time for Comfort Plumbing Inc. Flamur Fejza, who came to America as an Albanian refugee nine years ago, co-owns the company.
“That’s why I’m trying to help him,” Fejza said. “I hope they do well.”
After 11 months of American living, their caseworker said Htoo and his family are.
Another wall of the family’s living room is papered with awards the 10-year-old won at San Jose Elementary School. Among them is a “citizenship certificate” that Eh got for good conduct at school.
“He takes great pride in his work,” his fourth-grade teacher wrote on a report card of mostly B’s, but nothing less than a C. “Eh is making excellent progress.”
“For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Inside the bedroom the Htoo boys share, there is a modest shrine to Buddha meant to bring happy tidings to the children who sleep three-to-a-bed at night.
The two-bedroom apartment is dingy but kept with pride. A dish catches drips from the bathroom sink across from bathtub walls soggy with age and disrepair. There isn’t a dirty dish elsewhere, including the small kitchen where boxes of instant oatmeal line up near bottles of Thai oyster sauce and a 27-quart bin of white rice.
The family has found an Asian food market nearby, but the Htoo boys aren’t shy when it comes to their new tastes.
“I like pizza,” says Eh, the 10-year-old.
“And ice cream,” pipes up 7-year-old Ah.
Then it’s the little Htoo’s turn.
“Me too!” the 3-year-old says, speaking for the first time in more than an hour, and in English, to guests in his family’s home. “Like hamburger!”
As many Americans mark the Fourth of July with a day off from work and some of the those foods, today Poe Htoo will also have a day off.
A day to spend eating and relaxing at home with his sons, before his wife returns from her Super 8 housekeeping job and joins them for their first Independence Day celebration.
They aren’t quite sure what it’s all about yet.
“Freedom, right?” Htoo says. “I cannot explain.”
But really, he can.
Ask him what he wants out of life in America for his family.
“We need to work and study here. We have a job. We have a house.”
Htoo saves this for last:
“Feel safe here,” he says.
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What a wonderful story to illustrate the meaning of the 4th of July and the Declaration of Independence. I, too, wish them well and welcome them as new citizens of our country, and wish to thank Ms. Murphy and the Florida Times-Union for publicizing their story. I am proud to be part of a community that lends such a helping hand to others.
If you wish to offer financial aid to people that are settling here after fleeing oppression and death squads in their homeland, follow the link to the story. Catholic charities is doing some good work.