Family reunited when children from Myanmar arrive in Tri-Cities

By Eric Francavilla, Tri-City HeraldJuly 18, 2012 

On restless nights, Aum Phe goes out to his backyard garden in Kennewick to tend to his peas.

The 35-year-old once farmed in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to support his wife, Shwe Pai, and five children, so the work is familiar.

Fleeing religious persecution for his Christian faith, Aum Phe paid for his family to be smuggled out of the country in 2008. He and his wife have found refuge in Kennewick since 2009, but the couple had to leave their children behind.

During their flight, Thailand border agents discovered the van transporting their children and sent them back.

Tending his peas and prayers have helped keep Aum Phe's mind off of the miles that have separated him from his children.

But Tuesday night, the nightmare ended when the couple's children landed at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco.

After hugs, Shwe Pai opened glass bottles of Sprite and Coca-Cola and a container of strawberries for her children.

Her husband put his arm over the shoulder of Om Phe, their oldest son, who has grown almost as tall as his father in the past few years.

The two boys and three girls -- Om Phe, Lei Phe, Awi Phe, Sum Phe and Ling Phe -- range in age from 7 to 16 years old.

Aum Phe, speaking through a translator, said he had a prepared a meal of chicken, Burmese curry and rice to celebrate their children's return.

He thanked everyone who made the reunion possible, including nonprofit World Relief, his volunteer mentor family, the Bengstons, and God.

World Relief resettles 200 refugees like Aum Phe and his family in the Tri-Cities every year, said Scott Michael, field office director.

Aum Phe's family qualified for refugee status because they were threatened by religious persecution as Christians, he said.

The pastor at Aum Phe's town was beaten to death by soldiers, and Aum Phe feared his family also would be targeted.

When the couple first moved into their Kennewick home, they put a cross on the wall, said Peter Bengston, a World Relief volunteer.

In his native country, such an action would be very dangerous, Bengston said.

The military also forced young men to carry equipment for soldiers.

Bengston's wife, Jo Ann, said, "They treated them like pack mules."

But leaving the country is easier said than done.

Aum Phe had to work for years to save up enough money to get his family out of the country. He worked in India and Malaysia, taking whatever work he could find.

The worst job was working for a pig farmer, he said. The work brought in little to no money, and he slept in the field in a makeshift tent of newspapers and a plastic tarp.

When his children were prevented from fleeing the country, he had to bribe border agents to learn where they were. Another bribe bought their release so they could return to his brother's farm.

Aum Phe's story is uncommon -- fewer than 6 percent of families get separated during their relocation, Michael said.

The process to reunite the family took years of paperwork, an immigration attorney, DNA testing costing more than $1,500, and a lot of worrying, Bengston said.

But now that their homeland is a world away, Aum Phe can plan the future for his family.

Through World Relief, Aum Phe has found a house for his family and jobs for himself and his wife.

Aum Phe rides his bicycle to work at China Cafe in Kennewick, where he prepares food. He also sells the vegetables he grows in his garden when he gets a chance. So far, he has sold 30 pounds of peas.

Shwe Pai carpools with a friend to work at Bruchi's CheeseSteak & Subs in Pasco.

The couple work many hours a week to support their family. Over the years, they sent money back to Myanmar for their children to rent a home and so the oldest two could go to school and take English lessons.

Now they look forward to sending their children to the public schools in Kennewick. And if things work out, Aum Phe wants to send Om Phe to college, and maybe take classes himself.

Twenty churches -- many directly working with World Relief -- help provide countless necessities that the refugees like Aum Phe's family can't afford.

West Side Church in Kennewick has so far donated beds, blankets, pillows, toys, two bikes, tables and chairs to prepare the couple for the arrival of their children.

Central United Protestant Church in Kennewick dropped off three backpacks full of supplies for the children on Monday.

The Bengston family volunteered through World Relief to help Aum Phe and Shwe Pai adjust to the new city and culture.

They brought a welcome sign to the airport and Peter Bengston said a prayer with the family.

"Now that they're here, they can begin a new chapter," he said.

-- Eric Francavilla: 582-1535; efrancavilla@tricityherald.com

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