The American Dream
Cind Mang and Dal Suan, who have adopted the American names Judith and Joseph, can’t help but laugh when asked how their lives have changed. You can tell they have no idea where to start, and once you’ve heard their story, you understand why.
These two young refugees from Myanmar are still adjusting to a new life, a new home, a new language, a new culture, a new city, a new country and a new couch. Furniture is a concept that is relatively new to Judith and Joseph. Options were limited in the countryside where they grew up, and life was tough. They were forced to drop out of school and start farming after 8th grade, their homes were sparse, they sat on the floor, and had no running water or electricity and they cooked on an open, indoor fire with little ventilation.
“The insides of the homes are all black from the smoke,” Judith recalls. “We had to walk miles to get wood. If there was enough wood left over after cooking, we were able to make a fire to stay warm.”
Along with the limited resources, there was a growing military presence in the region, which persecuted the Zomi minority for their Christian faith. “The soldiers used to force us Christians to carry their gear, be their slaves. We would have to carry the supplies ten miles at a time. They would not feed us or give us water. If we refused they would beat us.” says Lucy, one of Judith’s two younger sisters who live with the couple.
Seeking a better life, Joseph found work in Malaysia. Once he’d saved enough money, he sent for Judith, and they filed for refugee status. They arrived in Tulsa in 2010, and immediately began working with Catholic Charities to bring Judith’s mother and sisters to join them.
Together, the family has learned the ropes of living in America, often by trial and error. Faucets, toilets and appliances, everything was new. They didn’t speak English and had never driven a car. They say even figuring out the cuisine was an experience. “We had no idea how to eat a cheeseburger or what pizza was!” Judith says.
Learning on the fly is a must for the whole family. Judith’s sisters Lucy and Monica are in their sophomore and junior year respectively at McClain High School. The sisters, who speak English incredibly well, considering they didn’t speak it at all a year ago, are teaching themselves by reading the dictionary and immersing themselves in American culture.
“Being at McClain is helpful for learning to speak English,” says Monica. “We are the only two Burmese in the whole school, so we have to speak English.” Both girls say their favorite subject is math, mostly because you don’t need to speak English to be good at math.
In 2013, a friend introduced Judith and Joseph to Tulsa Habitat for Humanity. Joseph, who works at AAON, talks about how thankful he is for his affordable Habitat home. “Having a zero percent interest loan and an affordable home payment is very helpful,” he says. “We are saving money for our children’s education. Our kids need to have a big education because we don’t have much education.”
While they’re still adjusting to their new life, they continue to work to get more family members out of Myanmar, so that they too may rest comfortably each night, worship safely and celebrate unabashedly each chance they get.