The U.N. operates two refugee camps in Southeast Asia: the official, legal camp in Thailand and the unofficial, illegal, back-jungle camp in Malaysia where significant numbers of children under age 18 are unaccompanied, hoping the Malaysian government won't catch on to their existence and deport them to their violent country of origin.
The fastest-growing group of "unaccompanied refugee minors" kids known as URMs in these camps come from the Karen (pronounced kah-ren) and Chin populations of Myanmar. Some were chased out by May's devastating cyclone; many more fled political oppression and military conscription at their families' insistence.
These teenagers, most of whom are male, may or may not be orphans. Either way, most likely won't get to see their families again.
But what thousands of them will get is a chance for a new life and dozens of them could get a start to that life here.
In 2004, President George W. Bush approved a resettlement of tens of thousands of Burmese, including many URMs, to America. Today, the U.N. is trying to move as many of them as possible, and among 16 target sites across the country is Colorado, where Lutheran Family Services of Colorado is coordinating the effort.
"As soon as we can find families willing and able to take teenagers and keep them in their care until they're 21," says Gwen White, local director with Lutheran Family Services, "we'll get them on a plane to Colorado Springs."
'They've lost everything'
The Karen and Chin represent the fastest-growing group of legal URMs coming to the United States since the 500 "Lost Boys of Sudan" were given protected status in America nearly 10 years ago. Colorado Springs embraced 120 of these refugees. Among the many Lost Boys who've created success stories is local resident Lopez Lomong, a distance runner who qualified for the 2008 Olympics and carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony at Beijing.
Colorado was chosen this time around in part because of its outstanding past record of serving refugees. But today's resettlement numbers are more modest, White notes. Starting this week, the goal is to help 30 URMs come to Colorado, with Burmese enclaves in Colorado Springs and Denver considered to be natural fits.
It's a simple equation, explains Lance Carroll, local caseworker with Lutheran Family Services.
"The more people willing to take children into their families, the more children we can rescue from the camps," Carroll says.
Carroll has worked with URMs from the Congo and with members of the Karen population already settled in Minneapolis. He paints a vivid picture of life for children waiting in the camps.
"They've lost everything: country, family, home, identity. Most of them will lose their native language during resettlement," Carroll says. "Most of them have suffered and witnessed great violence and poverty. If they're lucky enough to get to a refugee camp, they have to wait their turn before they can find a permanent home."
White adds, "Some of these kids can wait in a camp for up to five years."
"Basically," Carroll chimes in, "if there aren't places to settle them, they don't get to come. There is an urgency here."
The "camps," White and Carroll explain, are crowded and dangerous. Pictures (at magnumphotos.com) reveal people piled on the bare floors of whatever shelters, apartments and old cars they can crawl into.
These are not safe havens with rows of white tents that mainstream media often portray.
Lutheran Family Services, a nonprofit that serves people of all faiths, routinely recruits local foster families for children taken from neglectful or violent homes. But the organization has struggled to find placements for the Burmese refugees. The problem, says White, is twofold.
First, male teens are a demographic that often scares away potential caregivers. But also, foster families will not be allowed to adopt the children because their birth parents, in most cases, cannot be located to give up parental rights. They could be dead, imprisoned or "disappeared."
Carroll, however, wants Colorado Springs to know these teens are legal refugees who have been carefully screened and are anxious to be part of a family.
"We're getting the cream of the crop these kids want to come to the U.S., want to contribute to our society, want to succeed," Carroll says. "They're not illegal aliens. They're here on the president's orders, and they won't need to leave America as long as they keep a clean criminal record."
White says the U.N. program's 30-year history shows that nearly 50 percent of young refugees have gone on to earn college degrees, with others working in service industries.
"They give back," Carroll says.
According to White, foster families are only required to give of themselves as parents. She adds, "The Fed will pay for everything else, including basic needs, medical expenses, mental-health care if required, language tutors, training and college."
Becoming a licensed foster parent in Colorado takes at least three months, but children are placed, usually, within days of licensing. Prospective parents submit to thorough background checks and training sessions that teach them how to care for traumatized children. Training for the refugees will include classes on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), attachment and bonding, and grief and loss, as well as the Karen and Chin cultures.
"One thing foster parents must remember is that these children have experienced serious trauma," says White. "Too many families think these kids are going to feel immediately 'happy, happy, joy, joy' to be here. They're glad to be here, but they're in pain. They're going to need time and patience to heal."
Beyond love, of course, parents are asked to give their foster children help with English and with developing social skills for living in the United States. Though the refugees need homes before anything else, volunteer mentoring by caring adults will help, too.
"These children will require everyone's help to assimilate into the community," White says.