Refugee family reunited in Saint Paul

“If I can, I want to go to school, that is my wish”

Klo Mai, 26

You help reunite families after hardship

Klo Mai, 26, remembers cooking over an open fire in the refugee camp that was her makeshift home. What would seem like “roughing it” to most Minnesotans was all she knew.

“There, you have to grab coal or a stick to make a fire,” Mai said, with the aid of a translator. “Here, you have to wait for electricity on the stove. It’s slower.”

Saint Paul, Minnesota is a world away from Thailand, which served as a refuge for her family for nearly two decades. Now, she prepares food for her family on an electric stove in a small apartment on the city’s east side. Each morning she gets up and does laundry and makes breakfast for her family before getting her 11-year-old nephew ready for school and tending to her parents before going to work at her job assembling boxes.

Her father did all the cooking when she was a child, before he took ill. His sense of humor is intact. “I have to like her cooking, other wise I have little food,” he jokes.

Mai’s parents arrived in Minnesota this summer. They’re worried and wondering about how cold it gets during winter. They both have serious health conditions, the father only seeing from one eye, the mother dependent upon an oxygen machine, among other health issues. Mai is serving as her nephew’s guardian. His mother remains in the camp, taking care of other children there. His father is reportedly dead.

“My nephew is happy, but he’s worried about school,” she says. “He is worried about classes and learning English.”

The family fled their home of Burma because of the violent civil wars there. This summer, they were reunited in Minnesota through the help of Catholic Charities’ New American Services program. Referred by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities works to reunite families who have been torn apart.

“In the refugee camps, families are often divided,” said Cathy Luiken, a case manager at Catholic Charities. “It’s so beautiful to see families reunited. Klo Mai and her brother have stepped up to take such good are of their parents.”

Luiken serves as the family’s guide for their first 90 days here, working to help them connect to services and find a place to call home. She worked with a volunteer attorney to help Mai legally take guardianship of her nephew.

Mai hesitates to plan for the future, but said she hopes to go back to school and learn more English.

“If I can, I want to go to school, that is my wish,” she said.

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