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Refugee Elders Support Each Other After a Difficult Journey

A senior program helps Burmese refugees improve their overall health


By Hitomi Yoshida, Writer for the Diverse Elders Coalition

Naw Gay Lay is a 77-year-old Karen refugee from Myanmar (Burma). The Karen people are an ethnic and religious minority group that has been persecuted throughout much of Burma’s history.

As a young woman, Naw Gay Lay worked in a rice field and began raising her family in a rural village in central Burma. When she reached her mid-30s, the whole village had to flee from Burmese military insurgents. She lost her husband in this brutal civil conflict and was forced to live in the jungle with her six children for many years, hiding from the Burmese soldiers.

Survival, Resilience

Eventually, the family arrived at a refugee camp along the Thailand border in 2001. She was already in her early 60s by then. “Whole my life, I had to run away with my family in the jungle, until I got to the camp,” she recalls.

I want to go out. I want to see new things. Because I survived my life in the jungle, I have experience. I can find a way and figure out.

— Naw Gay Lay

After spending more than 10 years at the under-resourced refugee camp, Naw Gay Lay and her family were presented with an opportunity for resettlement in the United States. With support from a local refugee resettlement agency, she and her family started a new life in Philadelphia in July 2010.

“My family, they needed my help, so I came to the States,” says Naw Gay Lay. “It was difficult first, but I am adjusting and trying to learn everything in my new life.”

Despite the unthinkable life challenges she experienced, Naw Gay Lay demonstrates unwavering resilience with an ongoing sense of hope. “Right now I am improving my English, and I am happy for that,” she says. “I want to go out. I want to see new things. Because I survived my life in the jungle, I have experience. I can find a way and figure out.”

Naw Gay Lay currently lives with her daughter and two grandchildren in South Philadelphia. She has a total of 18 grandchildren. Her other children live in different places in the United States, so she often travels to visit them and care for her grandchildren.

Active Aging, Positive Memories

To address the unique needs of elderly refugees and connect them to one another, Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative started a refugee senior program in fall 2013 at Southeast by Southeast, a community hub operated by Mural Arts Philadelphia through its Porch Light program, funded by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. Now managed through Mural Arts, the program is still offered for refugee elders on a weekly basis. The Karen and other seniors participate in a range of recreational activities, including arts and crafts, baking and singing.

Naw Gay Lay plays an active role in this program. She calls and encourages other seniors who are hesitant to come out. She escorts them from their homes to the community center by walking with them. Believing that productive activities promote the well-being of refugee elders, she asserts, “I want my friends to get opportunities to learn. Because in Burma and at the camp, we worked every day — farming, collecting wood for cooking — so we stayed happy. But not here. They do not feel happy [because they are not active enough].”

Learning English is a major challenge for many adult Burmese refugees, especially because they did not have any formal literacy education in rural Burma nor at the camp. Therefore, Naw Gay Lay says she is grateful that the community center offers an English class. She also stresses the challenge of maintaining their native language, Karen. As the younger generation picks up English and adjusts to American culture quickly, she fears it loses its native language and cultural identity.

Among all the senior program activities she participates in, Naw Gay Lay shares that she has enjoyed learning English, baking,and craft-making the most. She points out the themes of natural beauty and wildlife that often emerge in their activities. Painting colorful flowers and creating farm animals with Play-Doh have revitalized participants’ spirits because they enable them to reminisce about the stability of their former lives in rural Burma.

“In Burma when we were little, we played with clay. In this program, we used Play-Doh and made animals — like a cow, a water buffalo,” says Naw Gay Lay. These animals are familiar and comforting to the Karen seniors because they grew up with them and miss seeing them, she explains. “One person, he drew an elephant in a field, saying, ‘This is my elephant.’ That’s his memory,” she says. “I drew chickens, roosters, and chicks. We miss that time, seeing different animals, insects. We remember.”

Revitalizing positive memories from the past and tapping into their strong sense of cultural heritage are crucial to foster refugee seniors’ sense of well-being. By encouraging seniors to come out of their houses and to share images and stories from their native countries through various artistic projects, active elders like Naw Gay Lay along with staff members at the Southeast by Southeast Community Center are facilitating culturally relevant activities that improve refugee elders’ mental and emotional health.

(With support from Naw Doh, Shira Walinksy and Melissa Fogg, members of the Southeast by Southeast Community Center in Philadelphia. Hitomi is a long-time friend of the Diverse Elders Coalition, and you can read her stories of intergenerational work with diverse elders in our Diverse Elders Stories Initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.)

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