Over the last few weeks, our world, our organization and the communities in which we serve have experienced rapid amounts of change. Like many of you, my colleagues and I have shifted to working from home for the foreseeable future, and our 16 offices across the U.S. have closed their physical locations. As our teams have moved quickly to create innovative ways to serve our immigrant and refugee neighbors during this time, I have been struck by the idea that we really are all in this together, and have felt compelled to consider what “being in this together” truly means.
Initially, you and I might picture family and friends as we think about weathering this storm together. We might expand our view to include our churches and schools, coworkers and classmates, the healthcare workers and grocery store clerks we see responding on the frontlines. And while all of these are, indeed, included in together, I can’t help but wonder if our view should expand even wider.
When I look to scripture, I see that every tribe, tongue and nation is present at the throne of God, and that’s the very picture I want to inform my definition of together. For over 75 years, World Relief has been coming alongside refugees and other vulnerable immigrants who have been displaced by extreme poverty, violence, oppression and disasters. Many of these people live right here within our own communities and are experiencing the same sorts of hardships we are throughout this pandemic. Sadly, for many of them, unique vulnerabilities including language barriers, fear of ICE and family separation make this time even harder.
Even as we seek to support vulnerable immigrants during this crisis, many of the people in the communities where we serve are using what they have to give back as well. Sei Paw and the Karenni Burmese refugees in Winston Salem, NC is one such community that is pitching in to serve others. Recently, they came together and made over 3,000 masks to give to healthcare workers and other first responders through an initiative called Project Mask.
Rob Cassell, the Executive Director of World Relief Triad, got to talk with Sei Paw about Project Mask and why she got involved. My prayer is that as you read, you would take Sei Paw’s words to heart and begin to see her and other refugees like her as valued members of our community.
When were you first resettled in the United States?
I first came to the United States in October 2009. I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for three years before moving to Winston-Salem.
Where are you originally from, and what caused you to have to flee from your home country?
I am originally from Burma. I had to flee when I was 16 years old because the Karenni people were accused of being involved with insurgents in Burma. The military came and tried to grab me and take me with them. It was very scary. My family fled because it was no longer safe. My grandmother was killed by the government who accused her of being a spy. Thankfully, my mom and I escaped the country and went to live in a refugee camp. My brother, who had been disabled by a mine, also escaped and was eventually resettled in Australia.
After leaving your home, did you have to wait anywhere before being resettled in the U.S? How long did you have to wait?
Yes. I had to live in a refugee camp in Thailand for eight-and-a-half years. There was no freedom in the camp. We were not allowed to go anywhere else.
What role did World Relief play in her resettlement?
I, personally, was resettled by Catholic Charities, but many of the other 500 Karenni refugees in Winston-Salem were resettled by World Relief. Many in our community have also worked with World Relief translators and English teachers.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected you, your family and your community?
It has created a bad situation for some of us. I started experiencing racism because I am Asian. Some people blamed me and my friends and family for the virus. Once, at a grocery store, a woman in line behind me shouted at me (the only Asian in the store) to get out of the way. I have never experienced this kind of aggression from others before.
Another time, I was in line at the grocery store, and the cashier was chatting nicely with the person in front of me. When it was my turn, the cashier turned away from me and completely ignored me. He then closed his register without even acknowledging me. I had to go use the self-checkout and kept wondering what I did wrong? I was only trying to buy food.
As I left, I noticed they opened the lane up again. I teared up in the car and prayed, “Lord, help me. Help my people. I don’t want it to be like this.”
Before COVID-19, cashiers at the grocery store were very friendly to me and my husband, but lately, I’ve felt very scared to go places.
What is Project Mask?
It’s a community project where people are sewing masks for people on front lines — healthcare workers, firemen, EMS and those working in nursing homes and hospitals.
What inspired you to get involved?
I got involved through my friends at RISE Winston-Salem, which is a program through the local YMCA that helps women learn English and how to sew.
I wanted to show that the Karenni and other refugees have skills to contribute, and we want to give back to our community and to the country. My first year in America I heard Obama quote Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That quote has guided me and led me to encourage more of my friends to get involved.
When did you first learn to sew and who taught you?
I first learned as a teenager in Burma. I attended some classes at a local Catholic Church when I was 15 to 16 years old. When I fled Burma and went to live in the camp, there were some sewing classes there as well that I took.
Is sewing a regular part of your life?
Not really. I haven’t sewed in over 20 years but started again just to make masks.
Who else participated in Project Mask with you?
There were 15 others from my Karenni community who made masks along with me.
How did it feel to participate in this project?
It felt great. It was amazing. I didn’t know it would be like this. I just wanted to help and show that my community could help the wider community.
How many masks have you been able to make?
We have made over 3,000 masks and are still sewing! Our original goal was 1,500, and we’re already passed that.
How has this project impacted your community?
It has given a name to the Karenni and prompted people to learn more about us and where we have come from. There has been a lot of support from others saying how proud they are of our community. We feel very proud of who we are and what we have been able to accomplish.
What would you say to others who want to support those in need during this crisis?
It’s easy to get involved. There is always something you can do. Try to help as much as you can. Even though you may think you can only do small things, when you come together with others, you can make a big impact.
What are your hopes for the end of this crisis? Is there anything you hope changes within your community, within the country, or throughout the world?
I hope that the Karenni people would be known in Winston-Salem and viewed as part of the community. Refugees have skills and we want to give back. I also hope people will visit the Project Mask website to learn more about the work we’re doing.
We are so grateful for Sei Paw and the Karenni community for their contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are just one of several refugee communities across the globe using their skills to give back. In Seattle, refugees have partnered with Aldi Collective to make masks for their community. In North Texas, our refugee Women’s Sewing Initiative made 150 masks and donated them to the Texas Oncology Clinic. And the list goes on, reminding us that together means all of us — refugee, immigrant, American-born alike.
Jennifer Foy joined World Relief in 2007 as a volunteer in serving many refugee families before joining the staff in 2014. She served in the High Point North Carolina Triad office until April 2019 when she moved to World Relief’s headquarters in Baltimore to take on a national role. In her current role she oversees the program management and development across all U.S. network of offices. She brings 15 years of nonprofit leadership experience leading local nonprofits. Jennifer grew up in Oregon and received a B.A. Sociology from Western Oregon University and later a M.P.A. from Norwich University in Vermont. She lives in Maryland with her husband Will.