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The Survivor: A Burmese Refugee’s Tale
He lived through civil war, a landmine explosion, and a deep-jungle journey to safety. One blood transfusion, two refugee camps, and 8,000 miles later, Kaw Lah is among the thousands of asylum-seekers who fled Myanmar in search of peace—and a home—in Indianapolis.
In his own valley of the shadow of death, Kaw Lah picked his way through a field, searching for vegetables. It was midday and hot, even though the cold season had descended on the green mountains of Kayin State in southeast Myanmar.
Next to him stood Saw La Kaw, a friend and fellow soldier. They were combatants in what would become the world’s longest civil war, members of a militia opposing the national Burmese Army. The ruthless ruling junta was trying to stamp out the insurgencies of seven ethnic groups scattered throughout the country, including Kaw Lah’s Karen resistance. It razed villages. Confiscated chickens and vegetables for food. Raped women. Forced children to haul their equipment for miles at a time. And deposited landmines—“the soldiers that never sleep”—to silently patrol in legions beneath the soil along the Thai border.
Kaw Lah’s life in Myanmar was hardscrabble, much of it spent on the run. At the age of 19, he had decided to join the resistance against the wishes of his father, who was a guide for the Allied forces when Japan occupied Burma during World War II and later became involved in the Karen revolution. Kaw Lah’s father had seen fighting firsthand, and he didn’t want his son to face the same dangers.
But in 1993, Kaw Lah rebelled. He was in a field with his parents, helping them cut grain and rice. He told them he was going home but instead snuck into the village, where he knew the Burmese Army was holding a recruitment meeting. The military would often conscript young people of diverse backgrounds, separating them from their homelands and severing their sense of belonging to native ethnic groups. Kaw Lah hatched an audacious plan to join the junta’s forces, learn what he could of their strategy, and then escape and join the Karen resistance, using the intelligence against the enemy. He enlisted in the army, they shaved his head, and for six months he received combat training.
At the conclusion of his instruction, the army sent Kaw Lah to the front lines, where he waited for an opportunity to escape. One day, a few months into his time there, his superior officer went to the barracks to rest and put a 15-year-old soldier on guard. The boy fell asleep. Seeing his moment, Kaw Lah fled the base with his rifle and 300 bullets. Eventually, he found his way back to the Karen resistance.
It was December 1998 when Kaw Lah and his friend Saw La Kaw combed the mountains scavenging for food. Burmese troops had just captured Saw La Kaw’s children and parents. The two men joined a small Karen patrol and tracked the soldiers through the hills. They drew gunfire from some 200 members of the Burmese Army but somehow evaded them unharmed. Kaw Lah had heard rumors that Burmese forces buried landmines nearby. But on that day in 1998, as he and his friend searched for pumpkins, chiles, eggplants, and long beans, everything was quiet.
Until it wasn’t.
A blast of heat and smoke enveloped Kaw Lah’s body and flung him into the air so high that when he fell back to Earth, landing on stones, he thought he had broken his tailbone. Saw La Kaw threw down his gun and ran for help.
For what felt like forever, Kaw Lah lay there, looking at his bloodied legs. What scared him most in that moment, though, was the thought that enemy troops in the area might have heard the explosion. If they found him before Saw La Kaw returned, they would torture him. There in the valley, he wondered: Who will reach me first?
In Sati, a village of about 20 families living in bamboo huts near the Karen resistance headquarters, Saw La Kaw enlisted aid for his wounded friend. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to the valley with around 40 people, who rushed to Kaw Lah’s side. They picked him up and carried him back to the village. There, they laid him out in a hut and wrapped his legs in strands of torn clothing. One of the villagers, a nurse, gave him some glucose and several shots. He remembers wanting a drink of water. But for some reason, no one gave him any. He lay in that hut for roughly an hour, he believes, as those who cared for him decided what to do next.
Kaw Lah had already lost a lot of blood. And the closest hospital was a 24-hour journey through deep-jungle mountain territory, with several enemy checkpoints along the way. Four men volunteered to try to get him there.
Kaw Lah faded in and out of consciousness as his party trekked over the rugged terrain. A shooting pain jarred him awake whenever his legs hit a rock or crag. Somehow, the men managed to carry Kaw Lah to safety while avoiding the Burmese Army.
When he finally awoke in the hospital, his left leg had been amputated. Kaw Lah learned that he had already received a blood transfusion from two separate donors. A week later, doctors took off his other leg. He doesn’t recall much about the two months that it took him to recover. He remembers crying and laughing like a crazy person. He remembers kids pushing him around in a wheelchair. Eventually, doctors sent him back to the Karen resistance headquarters near Sati. There, Kaw Lah’s decade-long journey to Indianapolis began.
Headed to the United States on a flight from Bangkok to Japan, from Japan to New York, from New York to Indianapolis, Kaw Lah didn't cry like he had in the refugee camps. Instead, he prayed: Take me to America safely.
Kaw Lah’s service in the resistance came to an end the day he stepped on the landmine. A soldier who fell asleep allowed him to escape the Burmese Army. But the soldier that never slept—a weapon that has killed more than 300 people in Myanmar and injured more than 2,800 since 1999, according to the most recent Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor report—caught up with him.
Although Kaw Lah was fitted with a pair of prosthetic legs not long after the blast, his superiors in the resistance sent him to a refugee camp in Thailand; with limited mobility, he would be of little use to their efforts. He spent the next several years of his life in two camps, amid ramshackle huts with bamboo siding and leaf roofs, built atop dirt. He didn’t have much work, so he sold lottery tickets to get by. While children in the camps received a grade-school education, there was little for adults to do. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder were endemic, along with alcoholism and addiction. In 2005, while still stuck in the camps, Kaw Lah received news that his friend Saw La Kaw, the one who’d run for help after Kaw Lah stepped on the landmine, had died in battle.
Kaw Lah memorized Scripture to keep up his spirits and pass the time. Among his favorite passages was Psalm 23, verses one through six:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Maybe the green pastures of Psalm 23 reminded Kaw Lah of the verdant hills and vales of Myanmar, where that shadow of death served as an ever-present danger. And after his time in the Burmese Army, he knew what it was like to be in the presence of his enemies. But the idyllic setting described in those verses
was a far cry from what Kaw Lah experienced in the two camps where he lived after losing his legs. Most photos of Kaw Lah from that time reveal a man with a gaunt face, hollow eyes glazed over. In one picture, though, taken in a camp known as Mae Ra Moe, he holds a bouquet of pink and white flowers, a gift from a teacher for receiving a certificate in Bible studies. His eyes are bloodshot from crying.
Kaw Lah applied for refugee status in 2009, and it took longer than a year for him to hear back about his fate. Finally, the U.S. Department of State designated Indianapolis as the site of his future home, because of a substantial population of Karen refugees living on the city’s north side. In October 2010, he boarded a plane in Bangkok carrying a small blue backpack, the kind a kindergartner might wear on the first day of school, containing all his earthly possessions: a black leather-bound Bible, a separate copy of the New Testament, a hymnal, an English-Karen picture dictionary, and a change of clothes.
Headed to the United States on a flight from Bangkok to Japan, from Japan to New York, from New York to Indianapolis, Kaw Lah didn’t cry like he had in the refugee camps. Instead, he prayed: Take me to America safely. His legs hurt from wearing his prosthetics for 20 hours straight.
But when he stepped off of the plane, he was happy. It was about 9 p.m. on October 20, 2010. An employee of Exodus Refugee—which, along with Catholic Charities, is one of two resettlement agencies in Indianapolis that work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement—picked him up and drove him to Nora. There, an apartment furnished by Exodus workers, along with a hot, familiar meal of vegetables and rice, awaited him. For the first time in his life, Kaw Lah didn’t have to run away from anything. He had made it to America safely. But now he was starting another difficult venture: building a new life in a new country.
Kaw Lah is one of thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar, a country about the size of Texas, in recent decades. They seek asylum from the systematic ethnic and religious violence that has ravished the Southeast Asian nation since the first in a series of military juntas assumed power in 1962. In 1989, leaders of the ruling military regime changed the name of the country to Myanmar from Burma—a move recognized by the United Nations but still disputed by pro-democracy groups. (The U.S. state department refers to the nation as Burma, and President Barack Obama raised eyebrows in some diplomatic circles when he called it Myanmar on a visit to Southeast Asia in 2012.)
The people of Myanmar mainly fall into eight diverse ethnic groups. The majority Burmans live primarily on the central plains and are concentrated in the country’s cities. Another prominent group, the Chin, many of whom are Christian, live among the nation’s rolling hills and mountains and speak numerous distinct languages. Kaw Lah’s Karen people are also hill-dwellers, where they farm dry rice and hunt. An estimated 70 percent of the Karen are Buddhist, but 30 percent, like Kaw Lah, are Christian.
Since 2001, more than 100,000 Burmese refugees granted asylum by the United Nations have journeyed to the United States from camps in India, Malaysia, and Thailand. Though official statistics put the number of refugees from Myanmar in Indiana at around 15,000, the state’s refugee coordinator, Matthew Schomburg, estimates that as many as 20,000 have resettled here, mainly in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, with the majority residing in pockets on the capital’s south and north sides—leading some to call the city “Little Burma.” Refugees sometimes refer to the south side, and Perry Township in particular, as “Chindianapolis,” due to the large number of Chins living there.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy political leader who recently announced her candidacy in Myanmar’s 2015 presidential election after nearly two decades of house arrest, spoke to an audience of 7,000 in Fort Wayne as part of a 17-day U.S. tour in 2012. The Indiana Department of Revenue now offers tax forms in Burmese. Indiana can lay claim to one of the largest populations of people from Myanmar outside of the country itself.
Dozens of churches that serve refugees from Myanmar have sprung up on the south side of Indianapolis, along with restaurants and small businesses catering to the newcomers. In Perry Township, 2,041 students, roughly 14 percent of the school system’s enrollment, speak Burmese, Chin, Karen, Hakha, Kachin, Motu, or Zophei—the languages of Myanmar.
Seeking to capitalize on the influx of Chin and Karen, Than Hre, a political refugee from Guam, opened Chin Brothers Restaurant & Grocery on Stop 11 Road in 2008. On a recent weekday at lunchtime, roughly 50 people filled the place, buying Burmese delicacies such as laphat toh, a dish of pickled tea leaves that Than Hre says is one of his most popular menu items.
How did Indianapolis, of all places, become “Little Burma”? The central location, low cost of living, and relative abundance of low-skilled work drew many of the refugees. But Indiana has historical connections to Myanmar that run even deeper.
In 1813, Adoniram Judson, an American Baptist from Massachusetts, became the first Christian missionary in Burma. In Rangoon, the nation’s capital, he and his wife translated part of the New Testament into Burmese, introducing Christianity to a largely Buddhist people. Over time, the American Baptist denomination—which has hundreds of churches across Indiana—maintained close ties to the country’s missionaries and the converted.
In 1993, John Mang Tling, a Baptist minister and former Burmese politician, became one of the first refugees to arrive in Indianapolis, sponsored by Southport Baptist Church. Tling was born in the hills of Burma. In 1956, he served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister of the Union of Burma, and then as secretary to the foreign minister in 1960. In 1969, he participated in an attempted coup of the reigning military regime. When that failed, he fled to Thailand and then to Martinsville, Indiana, where he stayed with two other refugees in the home of Barbara Harvey, a member of Southport Baptist Church. His presence, along with other asylum-seekers arriving in the early 1990s, led additional newcomers to Central Indiana in growing numbers.
Today, one of Tling’s distant nephews, Elaisa Vahnie, serves as executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps refugees of Myanmar adjust to their new environment. Vahnie and a number of other refugees in Indianapolis received special scholarships through the U.S. state department to study at Indiana University in Bloomington, and eventually relocated to Indianapolis.
“The philosophy, the conviction of this organization is that the U.S. government, the citizens, the people, the Hoosiers are very generous to take us from Thailand, Malaysia, and India, where we first sought protection,” says Vahnie, sitting in his office at BACI’s headquarters on the south side of Indianapolis. He describes those from Myanmar as “hardworking” and calls their presence a “win-win” for the local community, to which he is grateful. “They brought us here and spent their money,” he says, “to give us the opportunity to start a new life.”
Even the most quotidian tasks can be fraught with potential dangers. Kaw Lah put some fish heads in a pot in his apartment and let them sit, a common practice for one of his preferred native dishes. The apartment complex threatened to call the health department.
Inside the Circle City Industrial Complex, a converted warehouse on the near-east side, 30 refugees, many with troubled backgrounds similar to Kaw Lah’s, sit in a semicircle on a February morning, learning the ins and outs of making it in America.
The Karen, 10 of them, sit together on the right side of the room with a translator. The Chin sit in the middle with another translator, and the Burmans sit to the left with a translator of their own. Some have been in the country as briefly as a few days, others two to three weeks. Almost all are from Myanmar, though today there also happens to be a family from Cuba.
During their two-day orientation with Exodus Refugee, they learn through a slide presentation that they have the same rights as everyone else in the United States: Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly. Freedom of religion. It’s an amazing thing to hear for someone who has lived in a country where none of those rights is promised, says Zir Zual, an Exodus worker sitting at the back of the room. “Everything totally changes from Burma to here,” says Zual, a Christian who arrived in 2009 from that nation, where he could have been killed for his religion. As a child, he was once forced to be a porter for the military and carry their equipment to the next village. Had he refused, he says, others would have been beaten, made to suffer for his transgression.
The refugees also learn that with those rights come various responsibilities. They have to sign up for the Selective Service System and pay taxes. And like most Americans, they typically find themselves in debt: The International Organization for Migration gives them an interest-free travel loan for the plane ticket here, and repayment begins in monthly installments soon after they arrive. The refugees also receive approximately $925 from the Reception and Placement program funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to get them through their first three months in the country. Kelly Reeves, 23, the Exodus employee leading this morning’s session, shows a slide explaining how they might spend that money on rent, utilities, food, school supplies, furnishings, and healthcare. “Once this money is spent, it is spent,” Reeves tells the refugees. “We cannot get it back. There are no refunds or do-overs.”
The refugees learn how to call 911 in an emergency. They learn that over the next 30 to 90 days, and even beyond if necessary, they will receive aid from Exodus in the form of job-readiness and English classes, and help finding a family doctor. They learn that Exodus can give them mental-health counseling and assistance in applying for green cards. They learn that if they need anything or have questions, they should call their case managers. If the case manager doesn’t answer, they should leave a voicemail.
Reeves opens the floor to questions. After a few beats, one Chin woman raises her hand and speaks, and the translator repeats her words in English: “We don’t know how to leave a voicemail.”
“We can practice that,” Reeves assures her.
“How do we pay for rent?” asks another refugee.
“You might have a job. You might get cash assistance from welfare,” Reeves says, adding that for the first three months, Exodus will send their rent payment to their apartment complex.
For new refugees, scenes like this play out almost every other week at Exodus, a nonprofit that started in 1981 to help Cubans adjust to Indiana. In 2013, Indianapolis’s two resettlement agencies, Exodus and Catholic Charities, helped 859 and 502 refugees, respectively. Ninety percent of Exodus’s new arrivals were from Myanmar.
Carleen Miller, Exodus’s executive director, projects that her organization will resettle 740 refugees in 2014, the majority of them from Myanmar, and they will be among the last from that country to come to Indianapolis. In January, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that resettlement from Thai camps—one of the largest of its kind in history—would come to an end. Conditions are improving in Myanmar, particularly in Kaw Lah’s southeast region, and the U.N. high commissioner has said that refugees still stuck in Thai camps may eventually be able to return home. By 2016, Miller says, Exodus will have almost completely shifted its focus to a new wave of refugees, most likely from Africa and the Middle East.
As the morning session at Exodus comes to a close, Reeves tries to make sure the refugees understand her organization’s role. “We can help you,” she tells the group, who keep their eyes trained on her while tilting their heads to hear the translators. “But ultimately, you are the one who will have to live life in America.”
In an afternoon session, the refugees hear a talk from Zual about cultural adjustment. Just a few years ago, he was in their shoes. Zual knows they are getting ready to enter one of the most difficult parts of their long journey. He shows a chart of what they can expect in the coming months. Along its Y-axis is a range of emotions, with happiness at the top and sadness at the bottom. Along the X-axis is a timeline. At first, refugees feel joy, as signified by a photo of a person smiling. Then, as the reality of being in a foreign country with strange customs becomes clear, they may sink into despair. “Your adjustment will be easier if you cooperate with those who are helping you and try to learn English as soon as possible,” Zual tells them. Hard times lie ahead, he warns. But if they do their part to adjust to society, he assures them, they’ll eventually be happy again.
Kaw Lah relaxes on a yellow couch, in front of a makeshift coffee table in his studio apartment. He thumbs a mobile phone, looking at YouTube videos of his old refugee camps. He still has the blue backpack, but it isn’t big enough to hold all of the possessions he has accumulated during nearly four years in America, modest as they are. A camping lantern and a few lamps without shades illuminate the apartment, where, today, Kaw Lah is visited by Neminoo Sakuthay, a friend and translator from Exodus. They sit together in the living room, which doubles as Kaw Lah’s study and bedroom.
Kaw Lah’s time in Indianapolis has been marked by highs and lows, just as the Exodus orientation sessions promise. The 78-page Exodus case file documenting his progress is part comedy, part tragedy, and reveals how difficult the transition to American life can be. During his first medical appointment, on November 2, 2010, a doctor asked if he had any nightmares stemming from his past experiences and noted that, according to Kaw Lah, “some flashbacks occur, but he doesn’t let it depress him. He is not sad. Overall, he seems to be happy and excited to be in America.” By November 16, Kaw Lah was ready to start job-readiness classes and was classified as having beginner-level English skills.
But he learned early on that his financial circumstances would be trying. Because of his inability to stand for long stretches at a time, a caseworker wrote in his file that he would be difficult to employ. On June 7, 2011, Kaw Lah revealed that his checking account was down to $40, and he had a $20 electric bill. His caseworker told him he needed to pay the bill, and he did. On June 8, a caseworker went over the basics of budgeting with him. His first month’s rent was $459. He qualified for disability payments of $339 per month. He received temporary relief from Exodus and Washington Township to help make ends meet.
The starts and stops continued into the following year. In February 2012, an Exodus intern accompanied him on a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods, where Kaw Lah got a pair of white New Balance high-tops that provided more support for his prosthetics. Later that month, though, his caseworker lost contact with him. He wasn’t answering the phone, which was strange for someone who liked to talk as much as Kaw Lah. On February 28, after making calls to Kaw Lah’s acquaintances, Exodus finally found him. He had gone to visit friends in Logansport, who had a party over the weekend. Some of the guests were drinking alcohol, but Kaw Lah abstained. The party got out of hand, and the police came. Kaw Lah walked up to a cruiser and, thinking the police were there to take him back to Indianapolis, stood patiently on the sidewalk near the back passenger door. An officer put him in the cruiser, and Kaw Lah ended up spending a night in the Cass County Jail. An Exodus employee posted $200 in bail, picked him up, and took him home. A court date was set for March 2, and the judge dismissed the case after hearing what had happened.
The episode typifies the plight of the refugee, the confusion of being a stranger in a strange land. Getting by often hinges on trusting complete strangers to guide them along the way. In the best of circumstances, that can mean getting a ride from the airport to a new apartment. It can also mean assuming—incorrectly—that a police cruiser will take you home after a party.
Even the most quotidian tasks can be fraught with potential dangers, as Kaw Lah soon discovered. Not long after the police incident, he put some fish heads in a pot in his apartment and let them sit, a common practice for one of his preferred native dishes. It’s unclear how long the fish heads stewed, but apparently they began to emit a foul odor, which did not seem to bother Kaw Lah. The apartment complex, on the other hand, warned that if he did not take care of the issue, they would call the health department. A caseworker visited the apartment and noted that Kaw Lah “said that he could not smell them, but others told him that it smelled very badly. He removed the pot of fish heads.” Crisis averted.
"Kaw Lah has experienced adversity that would harden many people," said Ellen Miller of Exodus Refugee, "but he has pushed through his hardships and embraced a life of joy and community."
But such missteps offer an incomplete picture of Kaw Lah’s life. He has developed an interest in U.S. politics and current events. The 19-inch flat-screen TV in his apartment stopped working a while ago, so instead he looks for YouTube videos of Charlie Rose, host of the interview show on PBS and co-anchor of CBS This Morning. Kaw Lah loves Charlie Rose, loves how he sounds and talks. He believes Rose would make a better president than Barack Obama, but he doesn’t elaborate on why.
Kaw Lah has no plans to marry, he reveals, as Sakuthay translates, because he does not have legs. “I think I will be single forever,” he says. But he has formed fast friendships. He met an older man named Ta Bwey, a fellow Karen refugee and amputee. Kaw Lah believes himself to be 38 or 39 years old (though official U.N. records put his age at 40); Ta Bwey was around 50, and he became like family to Kaw Lah. Patty Gullick, a retired teacher from Broad Ripple High School, took Ta Bwey under her wing and helped with his English; Kaw Lah would join them to help translate. Ta Bwey later grew ill and had to be admitted to a hospital. Kaw Lah couldn’t get a ride there to see him and planned to visit the next day. But before he could go, his friend died. At the funeral, Kaw Lah sat with Ta Bwey’s daughter and son. “I called him brother,” Kaw Lah says, “and he called me brother.”
In addition to making friends, Kaw Lah improved his English. He advanced to a higher-level learning group but still tutored those in the lower levels. He began to help new refugees decipher their mail and understand their bills. If he knew a fellow newcomer needed transportation to an appointment, he took it upon himself to call Exodus and remind them.
In 2011, Kaw Lah met Valerie Beard, a college student working as an Exodus intern. He strode up to her, offered his hand, and introduced himself in English. Beard helped facilitate an intensive eight-week, three-hour-a-day language course in which Kaw Lah was enrolled. After class, basking in the warmth of the sun, the two would sit on a ledge outside Exodus. Kaw Lah quizzed Beard about personalities he saw on the news. He wanted her to tell him who would succeed the U.S. president if something happened, including the titles of the next several officials who would replace him, stumping Beard after a few names.
Beard noticed that Kaw Lah was quickly becoming a kind of self-appointed advocate for the residents of his Nora apartment complex, where a few dozen other refugees from Myanmar lived and often looked to Kaw Lah because of his developing English skills. Whenever an Exodus employee came to pick up Kaw Lah for language classes at the nearby First Baptist Church, he would cajole the driver into going to other apartments to pick up refugees who weren’t enrolled so they could attend the classes as well. “Just one more person,” he would say, pressing his constituents’ cases. “Just one more person.” He taught newcomers the intricacies of the IndyGo bus system. He seemed to have a soft spot for elderly refugees in particular, making sure they had transportation to and from medical appointments.
Last summer, Kaw Lah received a letter from Exodus announcing that he would be honored at the charity’s fundraising gala as “Refugee of the Year.” The note is displayed on his apartment wall—one of the few items, along with certificates from completing Bible classes in refugee camps, decorating his sparse Nora apartment.
“Your vibrant personality, enthusiasm for learning and kindness to others makes you one of the most amazing people the staff at Exodus has ever met,” reads the letter. “You have overcome many challenges but you maintain a positive, hopeful attitude and work hard to work through any barriers in your path. You have dedicated yourself to helping others in your community and to being a shining star wherever you go.”
In September, nearly 450 people gathered at the Exodus Home at Last gala, where Exodus director Miller read a speech Beard had written in Kaw Lah’s honor:
Kaw Lah is always the first person to introduce himself in a room of strangers—and it seems that he never forgets the name of a new friend. He does not simply sit by passively and ask Exodus to serve him; he invests himself in the lives and interests of the many staff members who have worked with him over the past three years. Kaw Lah also advocates for other refugees in the Karen community and warmly welcomes new arrivals. Kaw Lah has experienced adversity that would harden many people, but he has pushed through his hardships and embraced a life of joy and community.
Kaw Lah jumped from his seat and gave the crowd a thumbs up, then took the stage, wearing an untucked white collared shirt, blue jeans, and his white New Balance shoes. People clapped. He pumped both of his hands in the air.
Beard drove Kaw Lah and one of his elderly friends, a Karenni man in his 70s, home later that evening. During the trip, Kaw Lah began pleading his friend’s case to get the same award next year. It struck Beard that only one hour after he received his reward, he was already thinking about others.
But here in his apartment, Kaw Lah’s thoughts turn to his own future. Career-wise, he wants someday to become a translator like his friend Sakuthay. (His backup plan, he says without apparent irony, is to become U.S. Attorney General, because his brush with the court system fascinated him.) In the meantime, he’s looking for a job that doesn’t require him to be on his feet for too long.
And he has other ambitions beyond finding employment: “I still have hope to reunite with my parents and siblings,” he says. “And the second one is to do good things around me.” He is also studying to become a U.S. citizen, which he wants to accomplish by next year. Then maybe he will finally have a country to call his own—and, God willing, peace at last.
Kaw Lah portrait by Tony Valainis; Indianapolis southside photos by Sarah Boyum; additional photos courtesy Kaw Lah
This article appeared in the May 2014 issue.