Season of Giving: Refugee family overwhelmed with bounty of gifts
Editor's note: This is the fifth story in a series profiling people and organizations helping those in need during the holidays and throughout the year.
For 17 years, living in the thatched hut of a large refugee camp in Thailand, Mu Paw's family exchanged cookies as Christmas gifts and, if the adults were fortunate, a T-shirt might be received as a present.
Then there would be a church service in the evening. But after that, the grind of surviving would continue again. Unabated.
That cycle all changed in October, when Mu Paw, her five children and one grandchild were told their application to leave Thailand the country they fled to from oppression in Burma and come to Utah as refugees had been approved. It had taken nine years from their initial petition to gain passage to America.
They arrived in Salt Lake City with not much more than the clothes on their backs.
So it was with a sense of wonderment when a group of volunteers with Catholic Community Services (CCS) arrived at the front door of the spartan apartment Wednesday night with bags of Christmas gifts filled with clothes, toys and gift cards.
Nancy Sliwinski, who has been working with family members to help them learn English and also how to navigate the foreign world of America, sat on the floor with the younger kids and used the opportunity to teach.
"What is this in English?" she asked, holding up a red jacket. "A coat."
"These are mittens," she said.
"Underwear," Sliwinski continued, holding up a small box.
But Sunnay Bra, 10, had already moved on and was busy playing with a giant stuffed animal.
Americanization had begun in earnest.
"We focus on clothing because it's such a need," CCS spokeswoman Danielle Stamos said. "But obviously every child wants a toy."
Nobody seems to know exactly how long Catholic Community Services has been engaged in the Christmas gift-giving program called Gift of the Drummer. Stamos said when she asked around, the best answer was "as long as we can remember."
Under the program, more than 1,000 low-income and refugee families are delivered Christmas gifts through donors. Catholic Community Services will also provide 1,400 people with holiday food boxes in December. Some were already distributed in November, and donations typically include turkey, cranberries, yams and stuffing.
Stamos said people usually adopt a family through the Gift of the Drummer program, but the nonprofit will take donations piecemeal as well to supplement gift giving.
For the delivery to Mu Paw's family, it was a single donor and meant a bounty of clothes and toys including a Jenga game and a toy train set that sent Bra and 8-year-old Ehta Kpaw Say scrambling to lay out several feet of track on the living room floor while their 18-month old nephew, Thyu Htoo, cried when he felt left out.
La Wei, who came from Burma as a refugee in 2008 and now helps transition families for Catholic Community Services, said the most important gift the families can receive is the trust that develops between case workers and families as they try to resettle into a new life.
"When I came, it seemed like the world was upside down," he said. "It's still hard for me sometimes."
To help the family, there are posters hanging on the wall with basic English words that include the days of the week, names for meals and the alphabet.
But for Mu Paw, she's simply trying to acclimate to the weather. In Burma and Thailand, it's a tropical climate. In Salt Lake City, with the altitude, the climate makes their skin dry and it's also the first time any of them have seen snow.
"I was afraid to go outside," Mu Paw said with a laugh.
Wei said the family has already begun integrating. The children are enrolled in school and navigating the process where they'll eventually obtain legal permanent resident status and, ultimately, citizenship.
Law Eh Dah, Mu Paw's 17-year-old daughter, said she's already got plans for her new life in Utah. As she sat on the couch with a lap full of gifts, she said she has plans to go to school to become a doctor.
"If I am a doctor, I will be able to help my people," she said, though it was only last year that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma the first visit by a U.S. Cabinet member in 50 years as the country has been dragged down by an oppressive government that led to sanctions against the nation also known as Myanmar.
The family said they had little faith they'd ever see their homeland again.
As Mu Paw talked, 14-year-old Mu Kbaw modeled an Angry Birds beanie hat that she'd pulled from her gift bag. She smiled. Laughter filled the apartment.
Mu Paw laughed, too. For now, this was home.