GREELEY (AP) – Marry Naing grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. No one had cars. There were no big buildings. There was no electricity. When she looks back on her childhood, she remembers being hungry all the time. They didn’t even have money for food.
When she got older, she could afford to go the camp’s small market. She could buy some meat and vegetables and cook them over the fire she built.
She lives in Greeley now with her husband Tun Linn, her niece, Ei Tun, and her two young children, John and Cherry.
She loves to cook. It’s much easier when you can press a button instead of starting a fire, she said. A favorite is savory porridge with meat for breakfast.
Greeley’s Habitat for Humanity selected the family to receive a home. They’ll break ground soon.
Tun Linn Naing and Marry Naing met and got married in the camp. Both were political refugees from Myanmar. The government approved of killing members of the National League for Democracy. Tun Linn was a member of that party. Marry’s father was part of another party that championed democracy.
They had no papers when they fled from Myanmar to Thailand, but they had their lives.
A history of persecutionIn 1988, a series of protests calling for democracy, largely led by students and workers, swept through Myanmar.
Gen. Saw Maung led a military coup and took control of the government on Sept. 18, 1988. The military suppressed the demonstrations and killed thousands of unarmed protesters. They went by the name State Law and Order Restoration Council. The group then changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.
Tun Linn was a student then. He knew the government put dissidents like him in jail.
“They could kill you,” Tun Linn said.
In 1990, Myanmar held its first multiparty election in 30 years, according to Britannica. The National League for Democracy, formed in 1988, was among the participating parties. The party won by a large majority, but the State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to acknowledge the victory. It also kept party leaders, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father established the party, under house arrest.
Tun Linn looked up to Suu Kyi as the leader of his party and a symbol of change.
The U.S. invoked economic sanctions against the country in 1997, calling for Myanmar to honor the election results and to condemn human rights violations. The sanctions helped pressure the country to make changes.
In 2008, the country ratified a new constitution following criticism from the international community for the government’s failure to provide quick disaster response after a powerful cyclone that killed tens of thousands of people.
Marry had her first child, John, in the camp around then. As their family grew, so did Marry and Tun Linn’s desire to get relocated. They wanted to give their son a different life. They kept applying for relocation and waited for good news.
Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and won the vote for a seat in Parliament in 2012. In 2015, Suu Kyi ran for president and won by a large majority. The constitution technically barred her from the position, so she was named state counselor.
The victory signaled a shift in the government, but the country is still roiling in controversy. Suu Kyi has recently come under fire for her silence on the military’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. An estimated 421,000 Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in less than a month amid accusations of ethnic cleansing.
‘They came from zero’Ei Tun, Marry’s niece, was born in the camps. She doesn’t remember her mother and father, she said, who died when she was young. Her grandmother took care of her until she was 7 years old. Her grandmother was then relocated to the United Kingdom, leaving Ei Tun behind.
That’s when Tun Linn and Marry took her in.
About seven years ago they were selected for relocation to the U.S. It was a huge relief. It was the beginning of a dream.
“They came from zero,” Ei Tun said. “When they came to the United States they saw how much life could be better. Just seeing a standing building was like a dream come true.”
Tun Linn got a job working for JBS. Marry started studying English at the Global Refugee Center and Right to Read. There, she learned about Greeley’s Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity helps low-income families become homeowners. To qualify, families have to prove a need for housing, have the ability to make payments, agree to volunteer with Greeley Area Habitat for Humanity, agree to maintain the home, attend workshops and demonstrate they are in the U.S. legally.
“This is one of the strongest families in the program,” said Cheri-Witt Brown, executive director at Habitat.
The Naings soon will live next to a refugee family from Peru and a refugee family from Somalia.
In October, the Naings will have been in the U.S. for seven years. Tun Linn said they never lived in a house because in the beginning they moved around a lot. They lived in small, cramped apartments they could afford. They moved to Greeley in 2012.
Now, with a steady, well-paying job, he hopes to plant roots for his family and give his kids a chance at a better life. They’ll have a yard to play in and a place to call home. They won’t have to sleep on dirt floors and go hungry.
For the first time, Marry will be able to cook in a house she can call her own.