Refugees Among Us at MM.LaFleur
Filed in: Humans of MM
Immigration and refugee resettlement have been at the center of the news lately, but at MM.LaFleur, these issues were important to us long before the current controversy. For the past several years, we have been a proud partner of the International Rescue Committee; since last summer, we have employed four refugees who recently settled in the U.S.
Our CEO, Sarah LaFleur, first became involved with refugee issues while volunteering at a resettlement camp in Zambia during college, working with Angolan, Congolese, and Rwandan refugees. “The experience was a wake-up call,” says Sarah. “Many people assume that once refugees make it to a camp, they are safe. But the truth is, refugee camps are often uncomfortable and dangerous places—especially for women. Many end up living there for years, even generations, often with very little to do, since the host country doesn’t necessarily want to create a vibrant economy within these settlements. Some women, especially those without a male breadwinner, have to turn to prostitution to feed their children and families.”
“What really struck me about my experience in Zambia was that the many refugees in the camp were desperately seeking a sense of purpose, despite the pain and monotony of their circumstances. There were few jobs available, and they frequently volunteered to work for free. Many were motivated, capable (some had advanced degrees), and ambitious—but without resources and opportunities, they were stuck. The experience made me realize how important it is, for all of us, to feel that we have a sense of purpose as we go about our days.”
Sarah serves on the junior board of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees, with the ultimate goal of helping them resettle and become financially self-sufficient. This year, MM.LaFleur will sponsor the IRC’s “Vision Not Victim” initiative, which helps adolescent refugee girls envision their careers and explore professional opportunities. Through the IRC, we’ve also added hard-working employees to our team: Tiam, from Burma; Bimal, from Bhutan; Binita, from Nepal; and Abdul, from Afghanistan. Each of their personal stories, below, are different, but they are all finding a sense of place and purpose in their new home, New York. We are honored to work with them at MM.LaFleur.
Tiam, from Burma
I don’t speak very much English, but am learning more every day. I’m from Burma, and came to the U.S. in 2013. My wife joined me about a year ago, and we just had a baby boy named Immanuel. We live in Brooklyn.
I love my people, but the government in Burma is very bad. I’m Christian, but our country is largely Buddhist, so you have to keep it a secret. I grew up Christian, and my whole family is Christian, and I was persecuted for it. My mom, my brother, and my sister are still there. We stay in touch by email and Facebook. I hope they will be able to join me here. I love America. The education here is so much better. I want my son to grow up and go to school here.
Before coming to the U.S., I spent four years working in Malaysia, away from my wife and family. Malaysia was very hard for refugees. Sometimes policemen would check us and pocket any money we were carrying. We learned to run anytime we saw them.
Before I came to work for MM.LaFleur, my first job in America was at a restaurant near Times Square. My favorite American food is cheese—we don’t eat it in Burma!
Binita, from Nepal
I was born in Nepal, and came to the U.S. in 2013. I’m here on asylum, and am in the process of getting my green card. I have two children who still live in Nepal with my ex-husband. My daughter just turned 18, and is trying to come join me in the U.S. My son is 13, and when he’s old enough, I hope that he’ll come over, too. My parents and one of my sisters have been in the U.S. since 2000. When my mom first came to the U.S., she didn’t speak any English. She was a nurse in Nepal, but she couldn’t be a nurse here because she didn’t know the language. I don’t know how she managed, but she got a job as a babysitter and has worked for different families. Now she knows every corner of New York and is super confident. She’s like superwoman.
I talk to my own kids a lot, mostly over text. When we video chat, it’s more emotional, and I don’t like them to see me crying when they tell me to come back. I miss Nepal, but the political situation is not stable. Many young people try to come to the U.S. for a better education, and older people go to other countries to find work. You want to invest in your country, but you have to survive. That’s the worst part: Even though many people from Nepal love their country and want to do something there, your hands are tied. You cannot trust the government at all. I miss it, but the situation is bad. We cannot go back.
It’s my second chapter, coming to America. I’m open to everything. I love the spirit of New York. It’s true what they say: It’s the city that never sleeps! My sister lives in Seattle, and when I visit her, I find it really quiet. New York is so busy and fast-growing; it’s very stimulating here. America is a great country. People are so caring, even when it comes to animals. Everything feels secure, and you feel like you’re in the right place. Your hard work pays off and you get returns for the effort you put in.
Bimal, from Bhutan
I was born in Bhutan. When I was 18 years old, I went to a school in a different part of the country for the summer, and to get home, I took a route that brought me across the Bhutan border into India. When I got back to the border to re-enter, I wasn’t allowed in. Bhutan is a Buddhist country, and even though I’m a Buddhist, my family’s origins are from Nepal. There is a religious conflict in Bhutan, which is very complicated, and the Bhutan government threatened my family and told us we had to go back to Nepal. We were helpless. When I was prevented from re-entering Bhutan, I couldn’t contact my family, but I have an aunt in India who I stayed with for a few months, and she was able to send them a message. After that, I had nowhere to go. I ended up at a refugee camp in Nepal, and stayed there for 25 years before coming to the U.S.
While I was in Nepal, I worked as a spiritual counselor. I also met my wife there, and we had a son. They both lived in the camp with me, and they’re here in New York with me now. We live in Queens. My son is 16 years old and goes to high school in Manhattan. Sometimes he tells me he wants to be a philosopher, sometimes he says he wants to be an astronaut. When I was his age, I learned English by reading books about philosophy, which I still read all the time. My favorite is by a philosopher named Osho.
I miss my hometown in Bhutan, and my friends. Those things are constant, my memories. My parents and siblings are still in Bhutan, and I talk with them on the weekends. I left behind many friends at the camp in Nepal, and I hope they make it to the U.S. someday, too.
I really enjoy working here, and my daily life. My wife likes New York, too. There are many amazing things here, like the subway. We mostly cook at home, but I love hamburgers and KFC. America is 100 times more advanced than my country, and I have huge respect for it. I was suffering, and the U.S. helped me to come here. I’m very grateful.
Abdul, from Afghanistan
I was born in Afghanistan, and came to the U.S. this past summer. I came here alone, and my wife and children are still back in Afghanistan. I wanted to make sure I had a good, stable job before my family comes over here. I also want to finish my studies. I applied to university here in New York, and hope to start this fall semester. I want to study computer science.
In Afghanistan, I worked with the U.S. Army on construction projects for about five years. All the projects were for Afghan armies, and I felt happy that my work was helping Afghan people. Working with the Army gave me a few ideas about American culture before I moved here, and it also taught me most of my English. The people in the village where I’m from knew that I was working with the Americans, so it was very hard for me to travel back home. I felt unsafe there, which was the most important reason I moved here. If someone knows you’re working with Americans, they treat you as a threat.
I talk to my family back home every day. This is the longest I’ve been away from my family, so I miss them. I want to move them here because the education system is so much better. I want my kids to go to school here. My job is to provide them a good education, so I’m trying my best.
I feel like America is my home now, but it’s hard to adjust because the culture in Afghanistan is so different. The most important thing is the work. Having a job makes it a lot easier because you meet nice people. I learn from my colleagues every day. This job allows me to learn and improve and get adjusted to American culture. We are a very good family here. I’m trying my best to add something to the company.
Photographs by Yan Ruan.