Meet your neighbors: the refugee experience
Friends, neighbors, refugees. The South Hills is home to the largest community of refugees in the Pittsburgh region. Get to know your South Hills neighbors.
A long journey to finding true happiness: Aye Aye’s story
Growing up in Burma in the 1970s, an extremely poor country in political turmoil, Aye Aye’s family struggled to get by. When Aye Aye was just a teen-ager, her parents separated, and she went to live with her mother. But supporting Aye Aye and her younger sister was difficult for a single mom.
“My mom struggled with the two of us. She didn’t have a job, and we were very poor,” Aye Aye explained.
When Aye Aye turned 21, she knew she had to do something to help her family.
Without a word to her mother or sister, Aye Aye left on foot with other travelers and made her way to Bangkok, Thailand, where she knew she could make money to support her mom. It was a four-day journey.
“I did not think about my safety. I thought only about sending my earnings back to my mother and sister. I didn’t even think about how my mom might worry about me,” Aye Aye said.
As she did not speak Thai, finding work was more difficult than anticipated. She started as a housekeeper and eventually took jobs as a housemaid and an attendant at a gas station.
“We cannot make eye contact with our bosses in Thailand. The work as a housemaid wasn’t good,” Aye Aye remembered. And then there was worse. “When I was housekeeping, the man tried to rape me. I switched my job after that.”
After four years in Thailand, she got married and became pregnant in 1997. They went to Burma to visit Aye Aye’s family, and she gave birth to her daughter, Sawe Zin Phyu. Her husband returned to Thailand before Aye Aye and sadly passed away.
Aye Aye was on her own and not sure what to do. She needed to earn money to help her mother, and now care for her child. She made the difficult decision to leave Sawe Zin Phyu with her mother in Burma and return to Thailand.
Back in Thailand, she began working and eventually remarried. She and her husband lived together for two years, earning money for their families. Her second husband was exiled from Burma for political reasons, so the two applied for refugee status.
Just as it seemed they were headed for new beginnings and a more prosperous life, Aye Aye’s second husband was taken to prison. That’s when she learned she was pregnant.
“My husband was stuck in jail when I learned we could come to the U.S.,” Aye Aye explained. “My son was born in a Thailand refugee camp. Before I came to America, I wanted him to see his father. I asked the Thai police, and they refused.”
In 2006, Aye Aye and her then 10-month-old son, Khaing Kyaw Zin, made the move to Pittsburgh on their own. It broke her heart to leave her daughter with her mother in Burma, but she knew she could better support them earning money in America.
When Aye Aye arrived in the U.S. in February 2006, she became depressed. Having faced mental illness throughout her adult life, she missed her family, husband and daughter and felt very alone.
She found help through agencies in the community and was hired at a small design company. She was getting by on her own, raising her son, and learning her independence. She eventually switched jobs to work in housekeeping at the Omni Hotel, where she was respected and valued – something she had not known as an employee in Thailand.
After seven years in the U.S., she divorced her husband who was still in Thailand and remarried. Upon learning Aye Aye was pregnant, her third husband left her. Aye Aye was forced to once again fend for herself.
“I was pregnant and I asked him for help, but he refused. I worked at the hotel until I was eight months pregnant doing housekeeping, so I could support myself,” Aye Aye explained.
When Aye Aye started going into labor, with no family to help, she dropped her son off at a neighbor’s and went to Magee Hospital on her own to deliver her daughter.
After Snow was born, her third husband came back to the family, but left them once more when times got tough.
“He tried to come back a third time, but I refused to take him in,” Aye Aye said. “I was so tired of him. I don’t need any man in my life.”
With two small children to raise, Aye Aye struggled with child care and maintaining her job. She learned about SHIM’s Prospect Park Family Center from contacts at other agencies and thought they could help.
“I went to the Family Center, and they helped me with my communication, transportation and everything else,” Aye Aye said.
Staff at SHIM’s Family Center helped Aye Aye through home visiting with her daughter, Snow, as well.
“I worked hard to support my kids, but I am glad the Family Center was there to help,” Aye Aye said.
Now, Aye Aye is still working at the Omni Hotel, where she feels appreciated. “My boss here sometimes comes to help me with the housekeeping. We eat lunch at the same table. It is so different from Thailand,” she said.
While her daughter, Sawe Zin Phyu, now 20-years-old, still lives in Burma with Aye Aye’s mother, Aye Aye is able to send them money to help and speak with them on Skype as much as they can.
She and her two children also live with her long-time boyfriend Yaku. With her past experiences with men, Aye Aye was understandably hesitant to enter a fourth relationship, but Yaku has stood by her side and has accepted her children as his own. They are thinking about buying a home of their own soon.
“Yaku was an orphan. He considers my family, his family. Sometimes when my mind gets tired or I get sad, Yaku helps me,” Aye Aye said. “My children see him as their father.”
Aye Aye still turns to the Family Center for help and questions. Aye Aye received counseling services, her son participates in SHIM’s Youth Mentoring Program and attended after school during his elementary schooling. Snow started kindergarten this year and is thriving.
“Americans are different from Thai. They really want to help. When I faced hard times in my life, the Family Center and others were there to support me,” Aye Aye explained. “I am happy now, living a happy life.”