Everything on the walls is crisp and unwrinkled. The white carpet is so clean that it almost shines. It’s not hard to see 41-year-old Nai Ponyar’s work ethic evidenced in every part of his two-bedroom apartment in Carrboro, North Carolina. A calendar with two pens neatly tucked under the eight remaining months of 2015 sits alongside study material for the state driver’s license exam and several pictures of Buddha with prayers in Mon script. Ever proud of his children, printouts of school photos cover the table. His 10-year-old daughter, Mi Htaw Pakaw, smiles charmingly in one portrait while her brother Mehm Lwi Rot poses as begrudgingly as any 6-year-old boy for the camera.
As a young adult in his native Myanmar (Burma), Nai Ponyar farmed rubber to make ends meet. Rubber tapping begins at midnight, leaving Nai Ponyar working through the night till morning. While rubber helped keep him fed, it didn’t allow him any time for other pursuits: “It was the only job. People didn’t improve their knowledge.” Looking for better pay, Nai Ponyar moved to Thailand to build toilets in 1992. He lived in Thailand for five years before he immigrated again; this time he crossed illegally into Malaysia.
He found gainful employment at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia, but lived in constant fear of police and criminals. Officers would frequently visit businesses in search of illegal immigrants. This left Nai Ponyar an easy target. If he were to be robbed or assaulted, he would have no authority to which he could report the crime. Despite his fears, Nai Ponyar was able to live a semi-comfortable life. During this time in Malaysia he met his wife, Mi Nyarn Sorn, who gave birth to their two children.
In 2008, his worst fears became reality when he was arrested for living and working illegally in Malaysia. After spending three months in jail, the Malaysian government deported him to his native Burma. Back in Burma, Nai Ponyar’s situation became dire. The ethnically Burmese government was targeting the minority group he belongs to, the Mon. In fear of persecution, he attempted the journey to Malaysia again. When he arrived in Malaysia this time, he registered as a refugee at the United Nations with his family.
After several years of living as a refugee in Malaysia, Nai Ponyar and his family were finally accepted for resettlement to the United States. Five years after his return to Malaysia, he was on a plane with his family, destined for Durham, North Carolina.
Upon arrival, Church World Service helped Nai Ponyar and his family find an affordable apartment in a safe location, enroll in public schools and cover living expenses while they adjusted to life in a new country. One month after arrival, Nai Ponyar and Mi Nyarn Sorn enrolled in a CWS employment program that encourages self-sufficiency and provides skills training. After less than four months, the family was able to cover their own expenses and support themselves in a country they had only seen in movies the year before.
These days Nai Ponyar keeps busy. On a typical day he drives his children to school, drives his wife to work, attends a local English language class and goes to his full time dishwashing job. Political instability and economic hardship would have made this life hard to come by in Burma: “We’re lucky to be here. Now in Burma there’s no more rubber.”
The future looks bright for the young family. Nai Ponyar and Mi Nyarn Sorn aspire to work hard, and in the future to send their children to college. “When we want to improve our lives, no one is going to do anything for us,” says Nai Ponyar, knowing that his journey has been one of determination, bringing him to where he is today. After years of difficulties, Nai Ponyar can finally claim safety, comfort and dignity for his family.
As told by Nai Ponyar to Edwin Harris, English as a Second Language Instructor