Special Report: Seeking Refuge, Part 1
Published 12:00 pm Sunday, July 20, 2014
They came to Albert Lea from wartorn lands
Refugees find employment, connections, safe haven in Albert Lea
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about refugees living in Albert Lea.
When 42-year-old Dabang Gach was 15 years old, he fled his country, and he never returned.
Gach is from southern Sudan, which in 2011 became the country of South Sudan. He left on foot with his family and walked day and night through forests and brush until they arrived in neighboring Ethiopia.
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Fleeing Sudan because of civil war, they entered a refugee camp, where they found limited food and schooling.
Given the opportunity to move to the United States on Aug. 11, 1989, Gach said he first arrived in Washington, D.C. He later moved to Omaha, Phoenix and finally Albert Lea in 2010.
“When we came to the United States, it’s more different from where I was, very secure,” Gach said. “I can find a job to support myself and support my kids, also.”
He said people like to come to Albert Lea.
“It’s beautiful and a nice and clean area, not too crowded,” he said.
He is married with three children, ages 5, 3 and 1. A fourth child lives in Alaska.
Gach is one of an estimated 350 refugees from South Sudan and Burma who have moved to Albert Lea in the last 10 years.
United Way of Freeborn County Executive Director Ann Austin estimated 250 of the 350 fled from Sudan to the United States because of the decades-long civil war, and about 100 people known as the Karen fled Burma and refugee camps in Thailand.
An additional 150 Karen people commute from St. Paul to Albert Lea each day for work at Albert Lea Select Foods.
The Karen are an ethnic group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand who were subject to persecution and ethnic cleansing by the military-backed Burmese government, which calls the country the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Ceasefire deals were brokered in early 2012.
“Both refugees as communities are very humble and caring,” said Allyssa Sorenson, coordinator of the Volunteers in Service to America locally. “They want to be successful.”
Why Albert Lea?
While some of the refugees said they came to Albert Lea for work, others have come because of family or community connections. Running from danger for most of their lives, they said they are grateful for what the city offers as a safe and secure environment for themselves and their families — though it does have its challenges.
Simon Dup, 47, was the first South Sudanese refugee to move to Albert Lea in 2003.
Dup said he left Sudan as a young boy and lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia while the people of his country were engaged in what he described as a war between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
When he came to Albert Lea from Des Moines with his wife, Mary, and five of their children, he said he was welcomed by church communities such as Zion Lutheran Church.
“We don’t know anybody when we came here,” Dup said. “It was very easy when we came to the church.”
Dup attended Concordia Seminary and now leads Sudanese congregations of his own in both Albert Lea and Austin.
He has worked at Walmart, Home Depot and Hy-Vee and unlike many other local Sudanese has gained his U.S. citizenship, which he described as difficult.
Dup has returned to Sudan six times, the most recent time in 2013, taking donations of about $10,000 to build a school for the children of Malual, which was destroyed.
Tha Htaw, 57, who speaks some English but spoke mainly through an interpreter, said he moved to St. Paul from a Karen refugee camp in Thailand in 2008, where he lived for more than 20 years, after fleeing Burma because of civil war. He said he and his family moved from place to place before arriving in the refugee camp.
“I don’t think many people realize the duress they were under,” Austin said.
Htaw’s wife, Pah Mu, 55, who cannot speak English, said people in Burma lived in huts made of bamboo and had to run through the forests for their lives.
People were not used to living in a culture with structure, let alone electricity, appliances and other electronics.
“It takes a little while, but they’re learning,” Austin said.
A better life
About four years ago, the family moved from St. Paul to Albert Lea. At that time, Mu worked for Albert Lea Select Foods.
Though she no longer works there, Htaw said they stay in the city because they enjoy the lakes and parks. His wife likes to fish, and his son also works here.
Htaw has nine children, six of whom live with him in the family’s home on Clark Street.
Austin described Htaw as being “one of the best advocates for the Karen community,” as he offers help to others to get their driver’s licenses or sign up for bank accounts.
Another person who has helped the Karen community is Wah Paw, 27, who lived in New Jersey and St. Paul before moving to Albert Lea in 2010.
Though he used to work for Albert Lea Select Foods when he first moved to town, he is now a success coach for Albert Lea Area Schools, helping the Karen students and their families throughout the district. Speaking both Karen and English, he has an office at Halverson Elementary School and travels to all of the schools. He also translates for Karen families visiting the Freeborn County Department of Human Services.
Paw said before life in the United States, life was difficult in Burma. There were no schools, and most people did not have the opportunity to read or write.
Though he learned to read and write in English in a refugee camp in Thailand, he said he felt like a prisoner there. He is grateful to be in Albert Lea.
Despite the hardships the refugees went through to get to the United States, Dabang said he wants his children to know where he came from.
“It’s good to know the story, where Dad came from,” he said. “We don’t call ourselves African. We are African American.”
On Monday, in the second installment of the “Seeking Refuge” series, read what the Sudanese and Karen refugees are doing in Albert Lea.