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Burmese refugees finally ‘at home' in Fort Wayne

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On the Web

For photos of Persay Caleb's family and life in Mae La, go to www.burmafortwayne.com. Use the map to navigate to Mae Sot. Select “Photos” and then view “Mae La Camp” or “Camp Refugee Portraits.”

After 25 years in camps, Persay Caleb's family is feeling settled here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007 - 2:50 pm

Editor's note: The News-Sentinel's Steve Linsenmayer visited the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand in January 2006 and met Persay Caleb and his family. See The News-Sentinel's Burma project at www.burmafortwayne.com.

Persay Caleb may never return to the land of his birth, but after 25 years he has finally come home to Fort Wayne.

Persay, 67, and his family have been refugees from Burma since 1982. He was arrested that year after several of his friends joined up with the Karen National Union, a group fighting for the autonomy of Karen State, inside Burma.

The KNU has been behind the longest-running armed resistance in the world since 1948, when it struck out at the newly created Burmese government.

Persay worked at a state-run pharmaceutical factory. He said he was not involved in politics or the KNU, but, because of his friends' activities, he was arrested and jailed for six months and five days. He didn't expect the situation to improve, so when he got out, he took his wife, Dolly, 68, and their children, and left the Rangoon area, fleeing toward the Thai-Burma border. The family then lived in camps inside and outside the Burmese border.

Beginning in 1998, he lived in Mae La, the largest of 10 border camps, with more than 51,000 people. Shortly after his arrival, Burmese troops attacked the camp, pursuing active members of the KNU.

“Yes, we could hear it; some shells came into the camp,” he said. Since then, things have been quieter. While there was fighting in the area in the past year, he said it never came close to the camp.

Camp life may be relatively safe, but it is only a small improvement over life in Burma.

“I was not happy in Burma and not happy at the border, because you are not free to go anywhere,” Persay said.

Residents are not allowed outside the camp. Even with proper identification, they are often subject to harassment and blackmail by Thai soldiers and authorities. They cannot work outside the camp. There is little to do but wait.

Some of Persay's time was spent using his woodworking skills, often to make replacement feet and legs for some of the many land-mine victims in the camp. Dolly tended a garden and was proud of her orchids.

About two months ago, one of the camp zone leaders brought him big news. After nine years at Mae La, he was going to the United States. He had one week to prepare.

“I wanted to bring many things, but we couldn't bring anything except for clothing,” he said.

Pots and pans, his woodworking tools, all had to be left behind. They were too heavy to transport. Dolly left her orchids and the other flowers behind. The things they could not take were left with family and friends.

Each person was allowed to carry 25 pounds of personal belongings. Part of Persay Caleb's allotment included a rolled-up American flag that hung by the doorway of his bamboo house at Mae La. Persay said he always wanted to come to the United States. As a boy, he learned about the country at school and from visiting missionaries.

Persay is happy for the chance to live the rest of his life in a country he has heard about since he was a child. Even with no car and speaking little English, he is impressed with the amount of freedom that everyday life here offers.

He and Dolly arrived with their son, Hope. Daughter Jewel came at the end of June. They anxiously await the arrival of the other children and their families.

When asked about his plans for the next five to 10 years, Persay laughs and says he'll probably be dead. Still, he expects to be around long enough to look after his grandchildren while his children and their spouses work. Dolly has already started a new garden on the patio of their apartment. The flag now hangs on the wall of their apartment, their new home.