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Modesto man who fled Myanmar works 364 days a year. And he has no complaints

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Zam, a refugee from Asia who resettled in Modesto, looks forward to the day when he has more family time with his wife and two sons.

For now, the young business owner works seven days a week running his sushi and hot wok franchises at supermarkets in Turlock and Tracy.

He says he took one day off last year — Christmas Day — when the supermarkets were closed.

Modesto was Zam’s destination after fleeing for his life from military authorities in Myanmar (formerly Burma), the scene of a human rights catastrophe in recent years. When he was young, a religious woman actually prophesied that Zam would move to the United States some day.

“I never believed it,” says Zam, who has an outgoing personality. “Bad things happened in life for me to be here and fulfill that promise. I don’t know why, but I am here.”

The Modesto man told his story at a recent “Journey to Belonging” event held by the World Relief resettlement agency to share the untold dramas of immigrants and asylum seekers in Stanislaus County.

For 23 years, World Relief Modesto has worked with churches and volunteers to assist newcomers from far-flung regions including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, India, Latin America and the former Soviet nations.

The Trump administration has sharply cut back on resettlements in the United States and could impose a cap of 18,000 refugees next year. Advocates insist the nation is capable of taking in 95,000 annually.

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World Relief helps refugees and people from Middle Eastern countries with special immigration visas adjust to life here by assisting with transportation, housing, job readiness, language training and arrangements for health care.

Zam, 31, was born in the Chin State of Myanmar, a undeveloped mountainous region that borders India. The Chin people are Christian and community-minded due to the legacy of American missionaries who planted churches starting in the 1890s.

Zam’s father was the pastor of a small church, which paid him a salary of 50 pounds of rice to preach the Gospel.

Long-standing civil war between the government and ethnic groups has driven thousands of refugees from Chin State and other parts of Myanmar to neighboring countries like India and Malaysia, where many suffer abuses or exploitation. According to Human Rights Watch, a military campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has caused more than 700,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Zam began his working life as a teenager on crews collecting rock and sand that was trucked to supply building projects at military bases in Chin State.

The course of his life changed after a truck leaving a base was commandeered by soldiers deserting from the army. As a soldier with a gun sat between Zam and the driver, with four soldiers in the back, the truck left the base and was driven into the jungle, where the soldiers got out and fled.

When Zam returned home that night, his body covered in mud from work, he was urged to go into hiding. Authorities suspected Zam of aiding the deserters and arrested the driver, who was never heard from again.

Zam’s mother sent him to Rangoon to stay with a cousin and hoped things might blow over in a month or so. But it appeared Zam remained under suspicion, so possessions were sold and an agent was paid about $300 to illegally transport him through the southern peninsula of Myanmar and Thailand to Malaysia.

To cross the border, Zam and six other people were concealed in the back of a food truck with items piled on top. Squeezed into small openings under the cargo, they could not move and inhaled dust while trying to breathe.

After the border crossing, the migrants were delivered to a 2-bedroom house packed with 30 other people. It began six years in Malaysia where Zam took any job to keep himself fed and maintain his dream of a better life.

“They did not treat you well, because you were illegal,” he says. “We didn’t get the normal wage. We were paid $500 when the average wage was $1,000.”

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Malaysia was hazardous for a foreigner with no family or connections. The police robbed the people they stopped on the streets. And no one offered care when Zam was sick in bed for two months with an unknown illness.

He ultimately worked in a restaurant, casino, grocery store and security detail, while keeping in touch with his sweetheart back home, and saved money for a plane ticket that brought Cing to join him in Malaysia.

Their first son, Khai, was born there. The couple endured long lines and several years of waiting for United Nations approval of their petition for refugee resettlement and finally came to Modesto in early 2012 through the services of faith-based World Relief.

Refugees accepted

Today, refugees and immigrants in Modesto are faced with rising costs for housing and spasms of political toxicity around immigration. But the faith community is still welcoming toward immigrants.

Patrick Kolasinski, a World Relief board member and attorney practicing immigration law and criminal defense, said at the Journey to Belonging event that biblical passages support good treatment of immigrants.

“The amazing thing is Modesto has been historically one of the most welcoming communities in the U.S. for refugees,” he says. “We have taken in and welcomed people partly because we are such a faith-based community.”

Stanislaus County took in 4,260 refugees or people with special immigration visas from Middle Eastern countries from 2007 to 2017.

The diverse group of speakers at Journey to Belonging included Asadullah Omer, who brought his university education from Afghanistan and works in county social services; Sergio Lara, who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status; and Diego Ramos, a minor from El Salvador who was granted asylum after being detained near the U.S. border.

Ramos was reunited with his parents in Modesto and received language training at Roosevelt Junior High and a program at Davis High School. The 17-year-old has been accepted to attend the University of Chicago.

Zam could speak four languages before resettlement — Chin, Cantonese, Mizo and Malay — and learned English mostly from on-the-job interactions with local people.

World Relief volunteer Teresa Shackelford and her husband helped the parents navigate life in Modesto, teaching them to drive, ride the bus, shop at stores and not put metal in the microwave.

“We had them over for holidays and birthdays,” says Shackelford, who now lives in Nevada City. “They became part of our lives.”

The new arrivals gave Shackelford the honor of naming their second son, Josiah. “They came here because they believe it was what God wanted and be able to make money and give their children a future and send money back home,” she says. “No matter what he has to do here to make ends meet, it is better than where he came from.”

Other Burmese families

Shackelford says about eight Burmese families came to Modesto about the same time as Zam and his family. Because of their limited English, most of them moved to cities with larger Burmese communities. Shackelford helped the Burmese women with a microbusiness making jewelry for sale at craft fairs and churches.

Zam initially worked for an employer who did not pay him after two months’ work and he had to borrow money for rent. He had better luck with other $8- to $10-an-hour jobs and then worked in Asian food franchises in supermarkets.

To become his own boss, Zam acquired the franchises at Raley’s in Turlock and Winco in Tracy. His wife, Cing, is a business major at Modesto Junior College and has struggled more to master English.

Newcomers like Zam might gain a stronger foothold if their energies were spent working in more skilled occupations with higher pay.

Jim Stokes, a former site manager for International Rescue Committee in Turlock, said the agency has tried to work with the county on a workforce development program. “We need to have a career development program and small business training to take them to the next level of business,” Stokes said.

Zam and his family are scraping by but they appreciate the opportunities offered in the United States. “If you choose you can be anything here,” Zam says. “You can become a business owner, doctor. There is a way.”

Shackelford, who is a nurse, says she has explored moving to Myanmar to assist the Chin people with health care, teach English or start a recovery ministry for addicts in a country immersed in the opium trade.

Less adventurous people can make a difference by supporting a resettlement organization. World Relief and International Rescue Committee operate in Stanislaus County.

“Any kind of exchange with another culture is an opportunity to learn about how God has uniquely made us all and to appreciate different cultures and just for the purpose of learning,” Shackelford says.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.
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