This year’s Canada Day festivities will be particularly special for Thaw Simon.
Today is the first time the 28-year old former Burmese refugee will celebrate the nation’s birthday as a Canadian.
Born in the Karen region of Burma — now called Myanmar — Simon, her parents, grandparents and two sisters Kanyaw and Paw Paw fled the Southeast Asian country in 1990 to avoid civil war. The family ended up in one of many Thai refugee camps, now home to a total of about 150,000 people. Considered the most-populated along the Thai-Myanmar border, the Mae La refugee camp houses around 50,000 refugees in a roughly 10 square-kilometre area.
According to Simon, camp residents lived in fear of the Myanmar Army.
“In 1996, the camp that was closest to the border (was attacked) by the Burmese military and they burnt the whole camp down,” said Simon. “Especially in summer we had to be aware of and afraid of what we called ‘the news’ because across the Burma border is only one river and the river is shallow in the summer (allowing) the military to come across very easily.
“So we always had to be prepared in case the military came to burn down the camp.”
Growing up in the camp, Simon and her sisters were able to study at schools run by missionaries and NGOs, receiving the equivalent of the Australian Grade 12 level in English and math. With little options, Simon began teaching at a Bible school from where she and Kanyaw were eventually sponsored by the First Mennonite Church to come to Canada in 2006, living briefly in Edmonton before moving to Penticton. And in February, Paw Paw arrived too.
According to the provincial government, as of 2006, an estimated 4,930 people living in Penticton are immigrants, about 60 per cent of whom came from countries where English is not the first language. Many of them turn to the South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services for support.
According to SOICS settlement services project co-ordinator Karina Chambers, the organization serves about 1,500 people each year.
“SOICS provides English language services as well as settlement, employment and mentoring programs,” said Chambers. “It assists immigrants in the integration process as well as working with the community to build a welcoming and inclusive environment for newcomers so that they can share the richness of their culture and be an integral part of building a strong nation.”
For Simon, SOICS — who she will soon work full-time for — was not just an invaluable resource, but also an important foundation in her sense of community as she adjusted to the many new aspects of her life in Canada.
“There was so much to learn. It could be (overwhelming),” she said. “For example, in my culture, we don’t call people by their names. So I found that very strange at first, because here people call each other by their names. When I went to school I had to call my teachers by her name but I always called her ‘Teacher’ instead and so I found it very hard. It took a while for me to get used to calling people by their names.
“In Burma, you call people by their position. So it is normal that you ask people their age so that you could figure out at which level you can call them, which is not normal here. It was all kind of funny.”
On May 11, she and Kanyaw became Canadian citizens.
“Leading up to the (citizenship) ceremony when people asked me, ‘Are you getting excited? How do you feel?’ I always said that I was speechless because I was very, very happy,” said Simon. “It was the first time ever that I could say I have an identity, that I belong to something and that I belong to a country.
“In a refugee camp, everyone is the same. You do not have high dreams. It doesn’t matter what you do or how well you do it, you don’t have any future, but here in Canada you have freedom and you have opportunity. If you work hard and do your job well, you do well, no matter who you are or where you are from.
“I am very proud to be a Canadian.”