A refugee family's first Christmas 

Since Chanukah came and went weeks ago, you might think I feel lonesome among the Christmas craziness.

Actually, I'm pretty relaxed, having already picked most of the candle wax out of the carpet as my neighbors tussle with last-minute trips up the ladder to tack up just one more string of icicle lights.

Harried shoppers with carts piled high rush around me at the grocery store murmuring to themselves about honeyed hams and bread pudding; I'm over here leisurely poking at avocados for Tuesday taco night.

I'm terribly excited about my plans for Christmas Day, which involve Chinese takeout and the entire season of Homeland.

But it's true that this time of year can bring on a sense of otherness and isolation for some in our quirky Southern community — even for those who don't have the excuse that they already put away the menorahs. The malls and the shops on Broughton Street may be bustling with cha-ching-ing good cheer, but often, the season can leave many feeling like strangers in a strange land.

For a family I met last week, that feeling is no analogy but reality. Van Sang, his wife, Muani, and their four children will spend their first Christmas in Savannah after being relocated from a Malaysian refugee camp this summer, and though they have celebrated the birth of Jesus all their lives, the holiday has never felt so foreign.

Traditions are quite different in their native Burma — the war-wracked, tyrant-controlled Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar — and likely don't include shopping sprees or legions of automatronic reindeers lit up in the front yard.

Still, the freedom to practice their religion without fear is worth the confusion of terrifying lawn ornaments, fast traffic and a whole new language.

"It takes a lot of adjusting," sympathizes Deirdre Harrison, the director of the Refugee Resettlement Program of Lutheran Services of Georgia.

"Most refugees come from rural environments of abject poverty, and they're escaping religious, political or ethnic persecution."

Refugees are different from immigrants in that they cannot return home, ever. Over 43 million people worldwide are currently displaced from war and genocide, and they flock to UN camps and makeshift tent cities where food and medicine are scarce. Along with hundreds of other First World non-government organizations, LSG does what it can, sponsoring some 500 refugees a year.

Harrison has helped over 90 refugees find their way to Savannah from Iraq, Iran and Burma — where most of the population is Buddhist, and Muslims and Christians are targeted by the military. Usually the refugees are single men, though once in a while there is an opportunity for a large family like the Sang clan, which also includes Van's mother, Iai Ring, and his little brother, Pa Thang.

They arrive with literally no possessions, and LSG helps set them up with housing and entry-level jobs that don't require much English. Volunteers guide them through the mystifying basics of American life, like the teeny print on the bus route pamphlet and how to swipe a debit card (confounding for those who have lived here all our lives. Whoever drew those Escher-esque illustrations on ATMs deserves coal in his or her stocking.) The expectation is that the refugees will become self-sufficient within a year, and most of them do.

"Savannah's a great place because it's smaller than a lot of metropolitan areas and it's easier to navigate," Harrison tells me on the way to the Sangs' modestly furnished but spotless rental home off the South American streets on the city's eastside.

Muani greets us at the door, cheerful and enormously pregnant. She graciously accepts a gift of rice and a Target gift card, plus a couple of toy trucks from Harrison for the pair of energetic young boys rolling around the floor in Elmo pajamas. Van is away at his full-time job making sausage at Roger Woods Foods in Garden City, where he commutes an hour a day by bicycle. The two eldest Sang daughters are at school at May Howard Elementary. Sitting on the sofa are two other Burmese refugees who also recently settled in the neighborhood thanks to LSG.

We sit down on the carpet to chat. Which proves difficult, though Muani is learning a bit of Engliish by attending services at Bible Baptist Church. Her mother-in-law cannot read or write even in Burmese, her only language the spoken Chin dialect. I want to ask how it feels to be here, what they miss about home, are they as overwhelmed by the myriad brands of toothpaste at Target as I am? Instead, we all smile at each other while the boys shred the packaging on the toys.

Finally, there is a knock at the door: It's interpreter Zam Lian, another Burmese refugee who works as a sushi chef at TaCa. I commence with my questions, and though Lian's eagerness to help is admirable, much seems lost in translation. Through our halted conversation and from the look of weariness on mother-in-law Iai's wrinkled face as she squats in the corner wearing a pair of pink flannel frog pajama pants, I infer that resettlement is a mixed blessing.

Though they are now safe to practice their religion, there will be years of awkward, displaced feelings for all but perhaps the youngest Sang, chortling madly and pointing at his older brother, who is wearing the cardboard truck box on his head.

Soon everyone is laughing, and the living room gets even more crowded as other Burmese neighbors keep popping by, including Nai Blai Mon, fresh off his shift as a dishwasher at Whole Foods.

Brother-in-law Pa Thang comes home from Groves High, where he's required to attend until his 18th birthday next month. He's wearing a t-shirt screenprinted with the image of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and now serves in the Myanmar Parliament. Known simply as "The Lady," Suu Kyi continues to hold her government accountable for its ongoing human rights violations.

Harrison says LSG will continue to resettle refugees in this neighborhood, giving each new arrival a bit of familiarity in their alien new home. Though it sounds contrived for these strangers to forge a community (imagine being thrown together with a bunch of random Savannahians in a foreign country!) Lian assures that they will decorate a tree and gather for a traditional meal of beef and corn soup on Christmas Day.

"We are all from different villages, but we are a family now," he says, raising his arms as one of the Sang boys divebombs him from the couch.

It seems like a small miracle for those expelled from their native lands to find a sense of belonging in this part of the world where nothing feels like home. May a similar warmth come to those who hail from right here yet feel apart from the festivities of the season.

It's my Christmas wish for all, no matter how you celebrate.



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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

More by Jessica Leigh Lebos


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