May 14, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 9
Back Issues
‘Our Students Lead Us’
Sullivan Award-winners
Part of the fabric of University life
Curiosity drives Mitman’s pursuits
‘Reverend Nurse:’
At 52, Valley minister feels call to care for the whole person, spiritually and physically
Leap of a lifetime:
Athlete Kim Turko jumps a formidable hurdle — life-threatening illness
He’ll be back:
Adult education graduate studies adult education
‘Hungry to Help:’
Student refugee wants to improve the lives of Burma’s forgotten children
Revitalizing Main Street:
Jill Nolt’s plan for her hometown high school makes front-page news
Peace Corps bound:
Business major trades fast lane for slow pace on Tonga
First in her family:
Angela Caldwell, a Native American, overcomes community attitudes to become lawyer
From Crane’s love of the cosmos comes new era for stargazers
A history of Finals
Sharlotte Bolyard is flying high
A ministry of medicine

Bombay bound:
Darden grad to apply best U.S. business practices to family company in India

Peer educator looks beyond educating:
Health advocacy is next step for Alyssa Lederer

No ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions:
Family expert Charmaine Yoest says creativity, flexibility are keys to resolving work/family issues

Reflections on the road to enlightenment:
Thirteen years, one class at a time, but who was counting?

‘Connecting communities:’
Presentation on African-American history at U.Va. gets students thinking, talking
‘Hungry to Help’
Student refugee wants to improve the lives of Burma’s forgotten children
Wynn Nyane
Photo by Michael Bailey
After hearing about the living conditions of Burmese refugees, Wynn Nyane traveled to the Thai-Burma border to document their plight. She was especially moved by the story of the 2-year-old child (below) who had been abandoned by the roadside and then adopted by other refugees. “That little child’s face grabs me,” she said.

By Matt Kelly

Wynn LeiLei Nyane is trying to find her place in the world. Born in Burma to a Burmese father and a Malaysian mother, Nyane had to flee Burma in the 1990s with members of her family in the aftermath of a military coup. Eventually, the Nyanes were granted political asylum in the United States, but the experience left her feeling adrift.

“Where do I belong?” Nyane asked. “ I’m not actually a Burmese person anymore after living in America for five years. My thinking has become too provocative. I have become very skeptical of authority. On the other hand, am I really going to be American? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure everything out.”

Nyane, 24, who is graduating from the University of Virginia with a foreign affairs degree, is sure about one thing: something must be done to help the Burmese refugees — particularly the children — who have had to flee oppression and persecution in their homeland and are now amassed by the millions in official refugee camps and illegal settlements along the border of Thailand and Burma.

“When children are born in an official refugee camp, they have a higher likelihood that they will get refugee status,” Nyane said. But the children born to refugees living in unofficial settlements are stateless, because neither the Thai nor Burma governments recognize them as citizens.

‘The Forgotten’
Excerpt from a paper written by U.Va. student and refugee Wynn Nyane after a six-week visit to Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border, as part of an undergraduate photo-documentary research project on Burmese refugees, sponsored by U.Va.’s Center for Global Health.

During my first week, I learnt what a difficult life the Burmese migrants and political exiles lead in Mae Sot. The whole area is filled with swamps, insects, vicious dogs, motorbikes and cars flying all around, people eating dubious food from street hawkers (I am sure it is full of bacteria). I was trying to adapt to my surrounding, but found myself trapped between walls of suffering. … Dogs howling, house-lizards staring, ants crawling onto my skin, and some small insects buzzing around my ears became my daily lullaby to sleep. My whole body was aching and screaming to get a better bed. ... Going to the bathroom is another matter: the water in the bathroom is infested with mosquito larvas; sometimes there’s a toad waiting and ready to jump on me while taking a shower. ... My situation was a lot better than many exiles and migrants, and yet I felt like I was imprisoned and going to break down any time. … The only thing that kept me going was when I reminded myself why I was there. If you think this is bad, wait until you heard the stories of the ex-political prisoners.
They all told me their astoundingly shocking life experiences, believing that I could retell the horrendous systematic tortures in Burmese prisons.

Every political prisoner has to go through a fourteen-day period of continuous interrogation without food and sleep for the first few days, but with probing and humiliation by the Military Intelligence. A few examples of torturing would be placing a bag over the head and punching the person until he sees stars (M1 told me that before experiencing it himself,
he had thought you only saw stars in cartoons); using wachan-pja (flat bamboo slat) to scrape off the skin of the shin; and standing in “Riding-bike Position.”

One of the narratives that stands out in my mind is P’s time spent in the prisons for over eight years. He had to sleep on the cold concrete floor only wearing a short-sleeve cotton shirt and a longyi (cotton cloth that Burmese men ties around their waist), and the iron-shackles at the ankles during the winter.

As the prison is located near the mountains, the cold crisp wind howled through the bamboo-matting wall all night long, which makes even a strong-spirited man want to cry after a few months. There reached a point where I felt very uncomfortable that I had to ask (when we became close) why they laughed and made jokes when they recounted their unpleasant past. They told me that it is a survival skill, which they need to continue living without being so attached to their past and the present situation of their colleagues.

I will not deny that there were many days when I was very upset by the ex-political prisoners’ behavior (living with them is difficult). They have been deprived of the politeness and friendliness of the Burmese culture, and their motherland, Burma, for so long. Moreover, they have lived with the hatred and brutality of the Burmese Military Regime. On top of that, they are struggling to survive with fear at every corner in a host land where they are not wanted. The more I tried to empathize with their pain and fear, the more I became distant from the ‘outside’ world. Finally, I realized that they did not really think I could ever really understand their situation because the struggles in my life as a refugee settled in the United States have been ‘nothing’ compared to what they are forced to endure. …

Visiting factories, migrant workers’ quarters, elementary schools (consist one room for all the grades), and plantations was as draining as living within enclosed walls. The body odor and confined and fetid living areas almost made me faint every time I visited different places. ... While helping the Earth Rights group, I was upset to learn that the plantation workers are using fertilizers that have been banned in ‘developed’ countries because of health risks. All of the elementary schools are run illegally by kind-hearted people from all walks of life. It is noteworthy that all the Burmese children attending these schools have no legal status to enjoy any rights of medical care and education in Thailand although most of them were born on Thailand soil. …

First I felt guilty, then angry that the international community has ignored Burmese people, who are suffering so greatly because of the Burmese Military Regime. However, until I experienced Mae Sot last summer, it had not really affected me personally because my family had been accepted as refugees in the United States. In Mae Sot, I had nothing with me that I could call mine and hold onto except for a CD that my boyfriend had made for me and the emotional support from my mentors, family, and friends in the Northern Hemisphere. Learning about the situation of migrant workers (legal and illegal) and political exiles from Burma was the hardest thing I have done in my entire life. Throughout my stay, I felt alienated from my own people and experienced the loss of freedom and independence, and I felt fear. However, I would not trade this experience for anything. This trip has made me whole, hungry to help, and has strengthened my dream of helping the children at the border.
1Initials have been used instead of names for
security reasons.

Furthermore, these children and their families are subjected to squalid living conditions. Their plight is all the more compelling to Nyane because she knows how easily she might have been one of them.

Nyane was only 8 years old when a revolution and a military coup wracked her country, and her home was torn apart. The military regime blacklisted her father, who worked for Burmese television news. Her mother returned to her native Malaysia and found work in Singapore, where she was later joined by Nyane’s father. But Nyane and her sisters, the eldest of which was 18, were not permitted to leave the country. They lived without their parents in an apartment near their grandmother and an aunt.

In 1996, the four sisters were spirited out of Burma and reunited with their parents in Singapore. Two years later, her father took a job with Radio Free Asia as a U.S. correspondent and moved his family to America, where they were granted political asylum.

Nyane’s father, fearing for the safety of his daughters, bid Nyane and her sisters not to get involved in Burmese politics. Nyane honored his wishes until, working as a translator for the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, she befriended two Burmese families who told her about the deplorable conditions in the border settlements. Their stories disturbed her, and her conscience would not allow her to sit idly by and do nothing.

With the support of a scholarship from U.Va.’s Center for Global Health, Nyane traveled to Thailand in summer 2002 to investigate, from a health perspective, the living conditions of the refugee camps and illegal settlements and to develop a plan (with the subsequent support of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award) to provide nutrition, health care and education to stateless Burmese children.

Because she is a refugee living in America on an indefinite stay, Nyane has no passport to facilitate foreign travel, so before she could make the trip, she had to apply for a refugee travel document. Even with the document, Nyane said, she lived in fear.

“I knew that I wouldn’t have the protection of any government [during my trip],” she said. “I could just disappear and nobody would even notice.”

The conditions Nyane found along the Thai-Burma border appalled her: children with scabies, eating leaves they had foraged; non-existent sanitation; and refugees being exploited as cheap day labor in Thailand and elsewhere. She took many photographs, including one of a young child with an ancient face who had been adopted by people who had found him abandoned by the roadside.

“That little child’s face grabs me,” she said of the picture. “I think I ought to be able to do something about [his situation].”

While in the camps, Nyane ran into a variety of problems. She was not able to eat the prepared food because of the poor sanitation, so she ate only raw fruits and vegetables.

She appealed to the United Nations Children’s Fund for books on health, so she could teach hygiene to camp residents, but when UNICEF found that she was staying with former political prisoners, she said, the books were not delivered.

In a culture where young people traditionally defer to the wisdom of their elders, rather than the other way around, Nyane found her youth to be an impediment. Few adults seemed willing to embrace her ideas for changing the lives of the border children — such as feeding the children while they were at school, as an incentive for them to come to lessons and to get them playing with other children in a safe environment.

“The question I have been facing is, are they going to listen?” she said. “Will they have enough of an idea that young people can do something?”

Michael J. Smith, professor of politics at U.Va., has supervised Nyane on three independent studies and gotten to know her well. “Wynn has an extraordinary commitment to helping these children,” he said. “She is very courageous, traveling to the Thai-Burma border to work with refugee children. She has a remarkable single-mindedness and a graciousness. She represents the idealistic hope for the future that we hold for all our students. She will go far because she is determined to make a difference in the world.”

Nyane is now applying for jobs with agencies that focus on refugee questions, but despite her resolve to make a difference, she is pessimistic about the future of Burma’s forgotten children. Even if the country’s government would change tomorrow, she said, too many of these children have been raised without education, nutrition, medicine or hope.

Furthermore, the refugees speak little English, Nyane said, and that hampers efforts to publicize their plight to the world community. She believes that international attention, including putting pressure on the Thai and Burmese governments and boycotting companies that do business with the Burmese military regime, would be a catalyst for change.

“We have to have humanity when we are dealing with refugee issues, because the refugees have been, in a way, raped by their own government,” she said. “They have been looted, murdered, persecuted because of their ethnicity and their beliefs, and experiencing all these issues in their own country. People have the right to live and enjoy life, and the Burmese people don’t, so everybody has to help.”


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