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Family and future 

Young former refugees balance immense responsibilities

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The house on Maltby Street was humming. A dozen children, cousins and siblings ages 4 to 14, filled the living room with the yelps of youth at play. The percussive sounds of food preparation — knife cutting into board, mortar mashing into pestle — consumed the kitchen where adults congregated and cooked. Christmas decorations covered the ceiling, but the night was no unique festive evening. The activity was quotidian, all just another night in the Htoo household. Amid the din, at the end of a floral-patterned sofa, sat Ehlerh Htoo.

Ehlerh, 20, is the seventh of 10 children of Pee He and Say La Htoo, former refugees from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. The Monroe Community College student had wisps of black facial hair and wore a European soccer jersey and a dark winter cap folded above the ears, like Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Ehlerh may have been reclining on the sofa, but his role in the family is far from passive.

"Everything seems to fall on me right now," he said.

Ehlerh came to the United States 10 years ago and began learning English at School 44. For a decade he has served as an interpreter for his father's doctor visits, walked his mother through the Price Rite checkout line, and funneled his wages toward the family utility bills. When a wind storm tore into the roof two years ago, Ehlerh rushed home from high school to navigate the insurance process. As the oldest child with no kids of his own, Ehlerh is most equipped to handle these tasks. "I try my best to take care of my parents," he said.

In America, many 20-somethings depend on their parents more than ever. Last year, parents gave $500 billion to support adult children over the age of 18, according to a study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave. Yet in the lives of former refugees like Ehlerh, roles are reversed. Children in their late-teens and 20's look out for the parents while pursuing dreams of their own. They've moved to a starkly unfamiliar city — Rochester — a world away in multiple senses from the refugee camps of their childhoods. Immense responsibilities take a mental toil. Depression and anxiety are real risks. Still, the achievements of the young generation of former refugees are undeniable as they make their marks on Rochester.

One percent of all refugees who enter the United States resettle in Rochester. More join family in Rochester after working a few years in other cities through what is known as secondary migration. Local housing is more affordable than in places like New York City; and jobs, particularly in the health care sector, are accessible. A network of voluntary agencies, known by the science fiction-sounding abbreviation VOLAGs, guide new residents on the basics: how to decipher the RTS schedule, go grocery shopping, and learn beginner English. The VOLAGs, like the Catholic Family Center, aim to have former refugees self-sufficient within six months. Instrumental in getting former refugees independent are the sons and daughters who serve as their families' cultural arbiters and financial contributors.

Ehlerh knows the bills are due on the 25th of each month. On summer breaks during high school, he worked picking blueberries in Spencerport before returning to Edison Tech in the fall. A portion went to pay his family's utilities.

"I didn't want them to get bad credit," he said. Ehlerh now works an 11-hour shift on Saturdays, preparing cod, salmon, and mackerel at the Public Market. He makes $140 a day, money his mother has begun refusing, preferring that her son instead save it for tuition. Ehlerh studies hotel management at MCC and dreams of opening a hotel of his own.

Ehlerh notices the different upbringings of his friends who were born in America. "Many don't have to worry about other stuff like going to both school and work," he said. "I believe one day I could be just like them. Or my kids. If it's not me, it'll be my kids."

At first, Pee He and Say La did not feel comfortable asking their son for assistance, opting to struggle in silence during the first disorienting weeks in Rochester.

"It was hard to keep asking questions," Pee He said, through Ehlerh's interpreting.

Today, the parents seek out more help, but anxiety lurks. Pee He, quick to flash a giant smile in conversation, cannot speak to coworkers during shifts at Gray Metal Products in Avon. Say La rarely leaves the house during the day, preferring the comfort of watching her grandchildren in the living room to the world outside.

Dr. Anthony Petruso exclusively treats patients who were once refugees. As the lead physician at Rochester Regional Health's Refugee Health Care Program, he routinely deals with the specific challenges presented by familial roles in America.

"For older family members, you sometimes see a displacement of authority," Petruso said. "You have a reversal of the power dynamics. The younger generation is going to be the hardest working, but also trying to provide a lot of support for all their extended family too. That can be very stressful." he said.

Inverted family roles are not the sole root of mental health challenges. Former refugees were involuntarily displaced from their homelands by forces of conflict or climate. The Nepali fled the oppressive regime in Bhutan. Christians from Burma, called the Karen (pronounced cur-in), outran the bullets of Myanmarese soldiers. Both Ehlerh's maternal grandparents were killed at the hands of the infamous Tatmadaw, the Myanmarian army known for acts of child slavery, rape, and murder against the Karen. Former refugees from Afghanistan knew the costs of war and the Taliban all too well before living in Rochester. Since 2013, more than 550 Somalians faced famine and civil unrest in the most perilous spot on the Horn of Africa before resettling here.

"What we see with traumatized people is a higher level of mental distress and mental illness," Petruso said, adding that flipped generational duties at home can amplify this preexisting tension.

Nabin Acharya, 26, once felt the kind of stress that steals sleep. It was October 2009 and the chinstrap beard he now sports was clean-shaven. Acharya had been one of the first displaced Bhutanese to leave the camps of eastern Nepal for America. As the eldest child, he was the axis on which his family turned: filing for food stamps, interpreting doctors' diagnoses, and applying for green cards. He worked as a dishwasher, bookbinder, and auto mechanic. Acharya was also still forming his own identity after graduating from Jefferson High School. He was pinched.

"I felt I could not talk to anybody," he said during an interview at a coffee shop at the Public Market. "Plus money and all the bills that keep coming through the house."

Both Acharya and Ehlerh referenced a "flooding" of anxiety at nighttime, hitting hardest as they lay awake in bed. Both men said it's uncommon to discuss these emotions among friends.

"Back home, we didn't know what depression was," Acharya said. "Here, I was up thinking, what is this?"

Suicide rates among Bhutanese refugees are nearly double the rate of the general population, a 2012 study by the Center for Disease Control found. Acharya once considered becoming part of this statistic.

Patience became a remedy for Acharya. "You just do it all," he said. "You'll have time if you don't think about it. It gets easier with each year."

Acharya is married and has plans to move out of his parents' home in Churchville-Chili. His wife had their first child, a daughter, in March.

Ehlerh found solace from stress on the soccer pitch. In the refugee camp of Tham Hin, his life revolved around soccer. On grassless clearings in dense jungle landscapes, he kicked a ball around for hours. The ball was soft, made of tissues wrapped in tape. In America, he played weekly pickup games alongside former refugees, immigrants, and lifelong Americans.

There is one certain space where parents retain substantial control over the younger generation: they rarely cede an inch when it comes to when and how their children date. Conservatism pervades the cultures of many former refugees. Public signs of affection, even holding hands, can be considered taboo.

Ehlerh's parents dictated when their children started dating. They did not allow him to have a girlfriend until he turned 18. "Because dating, it seemed like a distraction from school to them," he said.

Other cultural expectations included dating within the Karen community and marrying by birth order. Being the oldest unmarried sibling, Ehlerh will be the groom at his nuclear family's next wedding. Many Karens wed around 21, an age Ehlerh will turn next Valentine's Day.

But marriage is not in his plans yet. He met his girlfriend of two years, Paw Dah, at a national rally of Karen Americans in Washington, DC. Soon after, Ehlerh brought his parents to meet Paw Dah and her family in Utica.

"It's kind of awkward for the first time," Ehlerh admitted with a laugh. "If a parent doesn't like who you're dating or doesn't like the family, they will talk to you about it."

Pee He and Say La found Paw Dah kind and funny. Both set of parents smiled and made pleasant small talk over a home cooked meal. The four parents may meet again, in a similar setting, if the day arrives when Ehlerh wishes to marry Paw Dah. The parents must agree before a wedding proceeds.

"Parents always make a better decision and can see far, think deep, deeper than me," Ehlerh said. "They have experience and I don't, so I will listen."

Another young former refugee (name withheld for privacy) told me about his experience with parents' authority on issues of courtship. One day, he said, he was hanging out in the bedroom of a female friend. He was 16 and she was 18, and both were students in Rochester-area high schools, both former refugees from Nepal. The boy fell asleep on the floor while the girl kept typing away at her computer desk. The girl's father walked in and accused them of sleeping together. That night, both families gathered to discuss.

The young friends pleaded their case. They weren't in love. Nothing untoward occurred. Yes, they were together when sleep occurred, but they were most certainly not sleeping together. The parents of the two teenagers took all this in. But by the end of the night, the two were set to be married.

Still, some parents have adjusted their expectations since arriving in Rochester. Acharya, for example, married below his caste (the social classes Hindus are born into). Acharya is Sharma and Sapana is Chettri. This difference would have made their courtship, let alone union, impossible under the stringent class system in which they were raised. Yet Acharya's parents, Prem and Narayani, warmed to Sapana early on in Rochester.

"My parents would've cared in the camps," he said of his cross-caste relationship. "They have come to accept it here."

Almost on cue, the name Sapana appeared as Acharya's phone lit up. She was at the public market, in the enclosed row of stands, shopping with her mother-in-law.

When deciding where to attend college, many former refugees remain local. The proximity to home allows children to support parents and parents to support children. Parents have their trusted interpreters nearby and children get home cooked meals after class.

Ehlerh says he never thought of studying outside Monroe County. "I know my parents need my help and I depend on my parents," he said.

Seventeen-year-old Pray Meh says she felt similar pressure to remain in Rochester for college. Like Ehlerh, she is Karen and left the camps of Thailand before turning nine. Yet Meh, a senior at Bishop Kearney, has different plans for next year: She is leaving Rochester to study physical therapy at D'Youville College in Buffalo. The distance may seem minor to many, but the decision to head 75 miles west for college was not made lightly.

"It was tough because I know my parents will need me at home," Meh said. "I don't know what they're going to do when something comes up."

Meh, a varsity cheerleader, wears a bow atop her straight black hair on game days. Before and after cheer practice, she cares for her younger brother and sister.

"When we're going through some issues in the family, like with money, my parents tell me everything," Meh said. "But I am told not to tell my siblings about it because it would worry them."

Meh also says she feels more scrutinized for being a girl. While preparing to go out with friends, her parents pepper her with questions about who she'll be with and what time she'll be back. But she says her 15-year-old brother can come and go without constant inquiry.

"My mom told me to pick a college in Rochester, but I really want to go away for some time," she said. "I want to experience the world."

Some of Meh's friends who came to Rochester as refugees waffle between wanting to stay or leave for college. Meh says she has not second-guessed her choice, and that her mother has taken a liking to the physical therapy program.

Leaving Rochester for college doesn't necessarily prevent children from assisting their parents. There is FaceTime and Skype. And cars. Meh imagines her parents will make trips to the D'Youville's campus next year, to check in and seek assistance.

Djifa Kothor, a former refugee from Togo, recalled how his father would drive three-and-a-half hours on weekends to St. Lawrence University, where Kothor studied, to ask for help with paperwork.

"The reason I wanted to go away for college was to have space to focus on my studies and myself," Kothor says. "I knew if I stayed in Rochester, I would be helping my family every weekend. In the end, it happened anyway."

His father's trip might seem excessive, but properly completing the forms sent by the Rochester Housing Authority, RG&E, and the Department of Human Services granted the Kothors a home, utilities, and health care. Confirming the documents were in order was worth the drive.

"Almost every month he was there," Kothor says. "If I had an exam I was thinking about, I had to stop and fill out the paperwork."

He says he used to view these weekend visits as burdens, but now appreciates being so well-versed in the bureaucratic intricacies of social services. Kothor, now 31, is an assistant manager at the Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services, and helps new Americans through many of the same systems he once walked his father through while away at college.

Back in his home, Ehlerh's younger relatives scurried upstairs, draining the noise from the living room. Ehlerh rose off the sofa and led me down to his basement bedroom. A full-size mattress filled in a nook at the bottom of the steps. Rolling hangers of clothes and a PlayStation gave the space the vibe of a dorm room.

Ehlerh said he appreciates this space: a place he has to himself. The house does not typically quiet down, he said, until 9 p.m. when the younger kids go to sleep. I asked him how many people live in the two-story house. "Ten," he said with an uptick in his voice. "Eleven," Ehlerh added with more confidence.

The number will soon be eight. His older brother Bee Bee is buying a house of his own with his wife and daughter. They will move out of the Maltby Street house, leaving Ehlerh as the oldest child under the roof.

"Soon it will all be me," Ehlerh said as he walked up the basement stairs to rejoin the bustle above.

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