Dam Thang hasn’t seen his wife and two daughters since 2005 when he fled to Malaysia amidst threats from the military-controlled government in Myanmar. Now a refugee in the United States, he waits patiently for the long-expected reunion in a large crowd inside the international terminal at O’Hare International Airport. Standing with his hands in his pockets, Dam Thang is quiet, occasionally pulling out his cell phone to answer a call from anxious friends waiting back in Wheaton.
His wife and two daughters, now 7 and 10, fled to eastern India in 2007 as Myanmar (formerly Burma) continued to repress individuals from minority cultures, ethnicities and religions. For the last 20 years, many Burmese have been subjected by the government to forced relocation, arbitrary arrest, detention, forced labor, and military conscription. As a result, more than 3.5 million have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have fled to nearby Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Amanda Hofbauer, the New Arrivals Volunteer Coordinator at World Relief DuPage, waits with Dam Thang and his friend Lang Mang, who acts as his translator. Earlier in the afternoon, Hofbauer met them at the World Relief DuPage office and took them to the airport in a 12-passenger van.
Each year, World Relief DuPage/Aurora resettles around 550 refugees from throughout the world and often the only breaks in arrivals come in the beginning of October when the President of the United States signs a letter determining the nation’s refugee arrival ceiling for the upcoming year, and over Christmas.
World Relief is continually looking for more volunteers to aid with welcoming refugees to the United States through airport pickups and with helping them to adjust to their new home.
Hofbauer said many refugees and their families face difficulties learning English, finding employment, navigating the country’s laws and culture, budgeting, education for children, and dealing with changing family dynamics. Through tutoring, conducting airport pickups and becoming friendship partners, volunteers play a vital role in the lives of refugees in DuPage and Kane Counties.
“The need for volunteers is huge because there are many gaps we don’t have the capacity to fill as an organization,” Hofbauer said. “There are things that come up that volunteers can help immensely with– like driver’s ed, setting up cell phones and teaching how to pay bills.”
However, the impact of volunteers goes far beyond the completion of tasks. Many form lasting relationships that provide love, community, encouragement and healing.
For Dam Thang and his family, there will be many adjustments ahead.
When he finally sees his wife and daughters at the international terminal, the reunion is a quiet one. The travelers are weary, but the family is finally together and there is peace.
As Hofbauer and Lang Mang carry the family’s two bags—their only belongings—through a bridge to the parking lot, Dam Thang lovingly puts his hand on the back of his youngest daughter whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant.
Later that afternoon, the family is ushered into a College Avenue apartment in Wheaton by warm food, energetic music and the jubilant voices of long-separated family, friends and neighbors welcoming them to America.
It is on this seemingly ordinary afternoon in Wheaton that Dam Thang and his family begin to make a new life together.