“Good, but cold,” Jay Dan says of his family’s first winter in Canada.
Jay Dan, with his wife, Ahnin, their two children, Merry (nearly three years old) and Joshua (10 months) were joined by Jay Dan’s brother, Naw Naw, when they made the long-awaited trip from Malaysia to Canada to begin a new life in early December.
The family of five is now residing in Creston, with a one-year commitment of backing from the Creston Refugee Committee, and the support of the federal government.
The adults are Kachin people, from Northern Burma, or Myanmar, who have lived for years as refugees in Malaysia after fleeing from the military dictatorship in their homeland.
After less than three months in Canada, Jay Dan is more than willing to talk about his life, which has been one of fear since 2007.
“I came back from church with two friends at 9 p.m. and saw a girl crying,” he recalled.
Despite his own experience as a forced labourer on a road construction crew since the age of 13, Jay Dan intervened. He and his friends put themselves between two soldiers and the girl.
“We talked to the soldiers and said this girl is our friend, she did nothing wrong. They didn’t listen. They said, ‘Go away, this is not your business. If you don’t want to die or go to jail, just go away.’ ”
The young soldiers had been drinking alcohol, he said. Jay Dan’s friends took on the soldiers while he rushed her away to her home.
“When I came back to my home, my mother is weeping. She said I did wrong with the soldiers and they had been here.”
“They will be back again,” she said. “You have to leave.”
She had packed clothing and rice for Jay Dan and he left immediately, at 10 p.m. He spent the next seven nights and eight days walking the 219 miles to the nearest city, where he had been attending university. A friend put him up, placing himself at risk. The soldiers, he learned, continued to search for him and his mom got a message to Jay Dan that he needed to go to Malaysia.
“Save your life,” she pleaded. “You cannot stay in Burma.”
Jay Dan was given a phone number and name to contact. Eventually travel, reminiscent of the movie Trains, Planes and Automobiles, was arranged for his escape to Malaysia. Boats, buses, trucks and foot travel transported a group of seven.
“I was very, very much afraid,” he said. “But I had no choice. Needed to move. I worried all the way to Malaysia.”
In his temporary home he was provided with United Nations refugee documents, but his worries were far from over. There were no refugee camps or supports and Jay Dan often worked 12-14 hours a day at menial jobs. Low wages and cash payments were the norm — United Nations-documented refugees were easy to take advantage of. Three times in the next several years he was robbed of his month’s wages at knifepoint. Thieves also stole his cellphone each time.
“After the robberies it was difficult. Without money you can’t eat or buy food or pay rent. I managed to borrow some money but it was a very difficult time.”
Jay Dan met Ahnin, also a refugee, and they started dating in 2009. They had met, but not dated, years earlier in Burma. They married in 2010.
Ahnin’s crime was refusing to give up her family’s pig to demanding soldiers. She fled after being threatened with death, arriving in Malaysia in 2008.
Even as a couple, Jay Dan and Ahnin were routinely harassed by authorities, and had to pay bribes to escape arrest and detention.
Meanwhile, back at home, Jay Dan’s younger brother, Naw Naw (the pronunciation is closer to No No), was becoming the replacement for the wrath of Myanmar soldiers. He was physically abused and threatened with forced military recruitment if he failed to reveal his brother’s whereabouts.
Again, the boys’ parents made the sacrifice, urging Naw Naw to leave their country for sanctuary in Malaysia, knowing they might never see either of their sons again. Naw Naw arrived in Malaysia in 2010.
“Naw Naw had to come to Malaysia because of me,” Jay Dan said.
While he hasn’t spoken to his parents since last year, Jay Dan said his parents know of the family’s move to Canada.
“My parents are very happy now. They think my life and family is safe, that it is very good now. They say thanks to the United Nations and to the Canadian government and people.”
While he wishes he could believe his parents would one day follow, he knows it is unlikely.
“It is not easy for them to leave now — they are old. They have grandchildren they haven’t seen. It is very difficult for them. I miss my parents and hometown — I always will.”
For now, the family focuses on the present. They study English with a tutor each day and Naw Naw works as a dishwasher for two hours each night. Living in Creston is a blessing, Naw Naw said.
“Cities have more problems. We like small towns because we grew up in a village. We are safe here,” he smiled.
The adults all speak surprisingly good English — they also learned Chinese and Malay in their efforts to land better jobs while waiting to be transferred to a new country. Each is quick to echo the gratitude of their elders, wanting to pass on their thanks to the refugee committee and Creston Valley residents who have made them feel welcome and safe.