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‘Hungry to help’
University Of Virginia Student Refugee Wynn Nyane Wants To Change The Lives Of Burma’s Forgotten Children

May 7, 2004 -- Wynn LeiLei Nyane, a University of Virginia foreign affairs major who will graduate May 16, 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, 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.

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 family was temporarily torn apart. The military regime blacklisted her father, who worked for Burmese television news, making it impossible for him to get work. After three years of privation, 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, their father spirited the four sisters out of Burma, and the family was reunited in Singapore.

“My father is a good man,” she said. “He has sacrificed everything for us, and he’d do it again if he had to. My mother is the best mom caring for us. … I love them with all my heart.”

Two years after leaving Burma, her father took a job in the United States with Radio Free Asia and moved his family to America, where they were granted political asylum. Fearing for the safety of his daughters, he bid Nyane and her sisters not to get involved in Burmese politics. However, 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 U.Va. 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.”

Contact: Matt Kelly, (434) 924-7291

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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