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James Shwe, a new American, grew up in Burmese refugee camps

Friday, July 4, 2014 - 9:02 am

Jim Shwe, 26, lived for 20 years in refugee camps along the Thailand/Burma border.

In 2008 he, along with his parents, two sisters, and three brothers moved to Fort Wayne. The family was sponsored by one of his brothers' in-laws who already lived in Fort Wayne.

Before Shwe's family came they attended a class in the refugee camp to help prepare them for living in the United States. But many of the things they had heard, rumors that circulated around the camp, were not true: like the rumor the government would feed and house them for free as long as they stayed in school. The reality is after three months of help they were on their own in a strange country. Shwe said they were not sure where to go to ask for help. It was a very difficult time for the family.

Shwe said it was through friends at their new church, Southwest Lutheran, that they received help. He learned he could go to Wayne Township to get rental assistance for two months so he would have a little bit longer to find a job. Shwe could speak some English, but his parents could not. His father has a disability and cannot work, but he didn’t realize until nearly a year after the family came to the States that he could go on Supplemental Security Income.

Shwe enrolled at Ivy Tech and was immediately given a job. It was another year before he started school, and he decided to go into nursing. It soon became apparent his work shifts interfered with school; the classes he needed met at times when he couldn’t be there. In the end he changed his major to education. It was a good choice for him as he had been a teacher in the refugee camps before he moved.

In 2013 the whole family applied to become U.S. citizens. Because Shwe could easily understand English he helped his family with the study guide and he would listened to the CD with 100 questions he'd need to know for the citizenship test as he traveled back and forth to school and work.

It cost $680 for each person to take the test, Shwe said. His father had the hardest time getting through it, as he understood little English. But after three tries Shwe said he passed the exam. Fortunately for people who have financial hardship some of the fees can be waived.

Shwe said for most of his life he had led an undocumented existence. He was born in Burma, but because the family fled the country, they had no documentation. While in the refugee camps they couldn’t leave because they didn’t have the paperwork to prove they were citizens of any country. Getting his U.S. citizenship was a huge accomplishment, Shwe said.

“I can prove that I am something right now and I belong to someone or some part of the country. It is a solid assurance, a guarantee that I have received,” Shwe said.

Shwe said without having family and friends to turn to when someone comes to the country it could be very difficult. When he came he was with his family and they were fortunate to have friends to help them through the rough times.

Currently Shwe works at Pathfinders Community Center, where he teaches a class to help people learn how to buy a house and English as a second language to those who speak Burmese and Spanish. He said it makes him feel very good to help educate these people because it is something that he and his family have come through as well. He also works at East Allen Community Schools as a translator. He is still in school and hopes to finish his degree in another year. He would then like to teach high school.