refugee christmas
Paw Way, 18, of Somers Point, plays guitar for a group of ethnic Karen refugees while they sing ‘Merry Christmas to you all’ on Sunday during a Christmas party hosted by Catholic Charities for several Atlantic County families who are refugees from Myanmar, Thailand and Iraq at St. Michael’s parish hall in Atlantic City. Sean M. Fitzgerald

ATLANTIC CITY — Last year, Joseph Klaw and his relatives were living in a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

This year, the 22-year-old is living in Atlantic City and working at Trump Plaza, thanks to a refugee resettlement program run by Catholic Charities.

“I’m happy,” Klaw said while wearing a red traditional outfit and surrounded by dozens of relatives and friends. “I like the people and the opportunity.”

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Catholic Charities brought Klaw to the resort six month ago, and his parents, brother and sisters joined him several weeks later. 

And on Sunday, the Klaws experienced their first Christmas celebration with dozens of other families at party held at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church on Mississippi Avenue.

Klaw listened to religious and secular songs in his native Kayah, English and other languages. He brought a traditional beef and vegetable dish to share with others. His father, Elder Klaw Reh, even performed a tune on the harmonica.

The Klaws were among more than 70 refugees and eight volunteers who showed up for an unique Christmas celebration hosted by Catholic Charities.

 The parish hall was a festive, decorated with Christmas trees, nutcracker cutouts and posters of Iraq and states in Myanmar. Holiday tunes such as “Joy to the World” and “Jesus came down to this Earth” shared the same stage as traditional songs and dances from Myanmar. Donated gifts of clothing, toys and school supplies were passed out. Everyone ate a meal of traditional noodle and rice dishes.

Most of the families were from the Karen and Kayah states of Myanmar, and many of them came to Atlantic County within the past year, said Greg Kilpatrick, the Catholic Charities refugee-resettlement program coordinator. Other families who attended the party were different ethnicities from Myanmar: Arakanese, Mon, Chin. There was also one family from Iraq. All of the Myanmar refugees fled to escape persecution, killings and torture from the Burmese military regime, according to Koko Thein, a case manager and translator for Catholic Charities and a former refugee.

Kaitlyn Muller, program director of Catholic Charities refugee and immigration services said the Christmas celebration is important because many refugee families often get separated when they leave their homeland.

“Now they can come together and celebrate in an opportunity they wouldn’t have in their own country,” Muller said.

More importantly, the families can practice their own religion and traditions without fear of retribution, said Rose Thein, a volunteer with Catholic Charities who came to the United States 20 years ago. Most of the families who attended the celebration are Christian, while others are Buddhist or follow animism, the spiritual belief in the power of natural things such as plants, rivers and mountains.

“All they’d seen is misery, sorrow and persecution and atrocities from all sides,” Thein said. “So (here), they are free to see their friends in their faith (and it) is a blessing to us. This all happen because of the grace of God and Jesus Christ.”

The number of refugee families has been growing in the Garden State.

Catholic Charities helped 340 families resettle in New Jersey from January to September of this year,and a quarter of them were placed in Atlantic County, Muller said. The organization usually helps 200 people resettle each year. The 2007 Christmas party, the first one held for the refugee program, drew 15 families, Koko Thein said.

The attendees said they liked the cultural aspect of the Christmas celebration.

Pi Kee, a 41 year-old ceiling installer from Somers Point, said through Thein’s translation that he enjoyed the bamboo dance because it is very popular back in his homeland of Myanmar, and it is performed every New Year. Kee, who came with his wife, Day Kyu and four other relatives, said his other favorite part was singing Christmas songs and coming together with families of other nationalities.

Sa Lin, a father of five from Somers Point, called it the “most enjoyable festival all year round,” Thein said.

Lin, who is Muslim, said he didn’t feel strange celebrating a Christian holiday, and his family brought a traditional curry to share. While their religion prohibits singing other religious songs, Lin said his oldest son, Abdula, 15, joined in the bamboo dance.

The children, on the other hand, gravitated to food and other goodies.

Newon Lah, 10, said he loved eating chocolate and the Arakanese noodles made by his mother, Ma Lah. His brother Swee, 9, said he enjoyed the dancing and getting presents, especially two plastic balls that stick together.

The celebration also had a special significance for Les and Irene Zan, a married couple from Paoli, Pa., who drives to the resort once a month to help out refugee families.

The Zans — with some help from their local church, the Great Valley Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pa. — collected and gift-wrapped more than 400 gifts to distribute to the former refugees. The Zans had to use a truck and a sport utility vehicle to haul the presents during their two-hour trip.

“I just want to see the smiles on the kids faces,” Irene Zan said.

Les Zan, whose family fled Myanmar, came to the United States as a child in 1969.  Les, now an electrical business analyst, said he was following the example of his father, Spencer, who helped other refugee families in Atlantic City for years before he died in February 2008.

“My observation, when I look at the faces of the young people, (is) where will they be five, ten years from now?” Les Zan said. “I hope they learn English and assimilate to the culture and become productive citizens.”

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