November 4, 2013 by

Ner Clay and Paw Tha are a humble couple with a story that is hard for most of us to imagine. They have lived three different lives—the first in Burma, their homeland; the second in the refugee camps of Thailand; and now their third in Omaha.

Burma—now called Myanmar by military rule, but forever known as Burma to its refugees—lies south of China on the Bay of Bengal. Home to a number of ethnic groups, the Karen (kuh-REHN) people make up about one third of the country’s population. The Karen are quiet, respectful, and industrious. Family life is extremely important. Marriages are strong and function as a partnership of equals. The parenting style is firm but loving, and children of every age are respectful and obedient. Traditionally, Karen do not have family names; each person is seen as an individual.

The Karen suffered political and religious oppression in their homeland for many decades. But it became much worse in the 1970s and ’80s when a violent new military régime took over the government. A systematic genocide began, driving the Karen people into the forest while government soldiers burned their villages. The only way to stay alive was to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, where the families of Ner Clay and Paw Tha found safety.

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You might think of a refugee camp as offering temporary quarters. But history tells us the average stay for people in refugee camps worldwide is 15 years. Paw Tha lived 11 years in the camps. Ner Clay spent 30 years there.

“Life in the refugee camps was difficult,” says Ner Clay. “We were safe inside the fences, but we could hear enemy gunfire in the hills. People were crowded and lived in poor conditions. Monsoons washed away the dirt walls of our shelters, and we had to rebuild them after the rainy season. People could not leave the camp borders, and there was no way to earn a decent wage to a better life. When the fighting grew closer, the entire camp—thousands of people—had to move farther into Thailand.”

Faith and education are important values of the Karen culture, so churches and schools were organized. Ner Clay learned to speak English as a boy. As an adult, he served as a minister and helped charities organize services to the residents of the camp. Paw Tha arrived as a teenager who had already studied languages, history, and science. She taught English to first graders. Eventually, the couple found each other and were married. All three daughters—Victoria, now age 12, Gloria, 10, and Julia, 7—were born in the camp.

In 2008, Ner Clay and Paw Tha and their daughters were granted visas to travel to the United States. They were first placed in St. Paul, Minn., where they lived for three months. The couple’s English language skills positioned them in high demand. Then Ner Clay was asked to move his family to Omaha, where there was a need for a religious and cultural leader among the new Karen arrivals.

Ner Clay and Paw Tha moved their family into an apartment complex in North Omaha, and the Karen families followed. Day after day, they labored to settle their own family and jobs while helping dozens of new refugee families translate their mail, make appointments, drive for errands, and function in an all-English world.

Ner Clay became associate pastor of the Karen Christian Revival Church with a growing parish of more than 400 families. In addition to spiritual support and recreational activities, the church became a resource center for the community, offering resettlement assistance, clothing and household items, job-seeking advice, and educational programs that help the families adjust to life in Omaha.

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Paw Tha is now an interpreter at Franklin Elementary School, and their daughters attend Springville Elementary School, both of which are in the Omaha Public Schools district. In a comfortable home in northwest Omaha, they continue to provide assistance to established and new refugees—explaining insurance policies, legal documents, housing requirements, and notes from the children’s schools. They feel very lucky to be in a position to help others succeed, and often repeat their own personal slogan: “We are blessed to be a blessing.”

Still, Paw Tha is concerned about some of the darker aspects of American culture. “In the camps, there is nothing to do, so there are many eyes on the children. Here, the children have so much more freedom and are exposed to many temptations,” she says. “I worry that they will lose respect for the ways of our culture.”

“Except for a few setbacks, things have turned out pretty much the way we hoped,” Ner Clay says. “Our people are finding success. They have bought more than 300 homes and have started new businesses—grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and auto repair. We came here for freedom and citizenship, and we want to contribute to this great country. Anything is possible in America!”

This September, Ner Clay and Paw Tha became U.S. citizens, which granted automatic citizenship to their daughters. The couple agrees: “We hope our daughters will grab whatever opportunity they get in America.”