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Refugees Find Covid Relief Through the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network

Bethany Starin

Air Force veteran Jack Johnson never expected the refugees he traveled thousands of miles to serve on the Burma-Thailand border to show up in his backyard in Denver, Colorado. But that’s exactly what happened.

It was 2007. Jack Johnson had taken numerous mission trips to the refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border to serve Karen refugees, a Burmese ethnic group. High school students even tagged along with Johnson on some of his trips, exposing them to the tragic situation. Johnson became passionate to meet the needs of specific Burmese minorities, bringing rice, sugar and milk to the refugees—and praying heartily as to how he could continue to provide aid.

That’s when he was alerted that due to changes in the UN, waves of Burmese refugees were arriving in Denver. In response, Johnson founded the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network (CBRTN), a refugee support group that seeks to provide relief, development and life transformation.

CBRTN is a group of volunteers who have been helping refugees from Burma since 2007. That includes a lot of the different people groups from Burma — Karen and Chin mainly,” said Susan Rairdon, current secretary of CBRTN since Johnson (now in his 80s) retired. “We also support a Karen lady in Thailand, Ratraphi, who cares for about 10 Karen orphans since.”

CBRTN is the only group in the Denver area that has focused primarily on refugees from Burma, according to WORLD. In 2007, the tally of Burmese refugees went from 19 to more than 300. Now, the number of refugees CBRTN has helped is in the thousands, said Rairdon.

“It went from seven families to thousands in a matter of a few years. At first we knew all the families, and then all the sudden we didn’t know them all,” Rairdon said.

One of the refugees they assisted is Lah-Say Wah. Wah, a 29-year-old Karen woman, came to Denver from a Thailand refugee camp as a high school student. That’s when she met Rairdon, who was teaching a group of Karen ladies in the apartment complex where Wah and her family lived. This set Wah up to excel in high school, go on to graduate from college with a degree in social work and join the CBRTN team.

“CBRTN provides basic personal needs such as clothing, foods, and financial assistance to the families here in the Denver Metro area. In addition to the physical needs being met, I personally believe CBRTN provides hope. If it wasn’t for CBRTN, I personally wouldn’t be where I am today,” Wah said.

Rairdon, who has been on the board since it was founded, said three major agencies would alert CBRTN when refugee families arrived, and CBRTN would adopt them. It was all hands on deck, Rairdon reminisced about those first years, a team of local, unpaid volunteers providing practical needs for refugees.

This included rides from the airport or to the doctor, clothing, housing, English lessons, driving lessons, help opening bank accounts or taxes—as well as the major need: finding jobs. “Especially for the Karen coming from the Thai camps, who had zero English and were expected to learn it in three to four months and get a job,” Rairdon said. “Now at this stage they are doing much better, a lot of them have gotten citizenship, learned English—some went to college!”

Rairdon smiles as she talks about teaching English to refugees. In those early years, she volunteered by welcoming seven high school students in her home, educating them along with her own children so they could more quickly learn English.

“I took in young men who were very bright but needed one-on-one help with English and needed to be immersed in English,” she said. “We had them come to our house and live with us and helped them graduate. In one or two years they were speaking English like a pro.”

Since 2007, the team at CBRTN diversified, including adding five board members who were Burmese refugees. A significant development was the adding of Andrew Thang, an energetic 59-year-old Chin pastor, to the staff. Thang came to Denver with his family in 2009 from Burma and began working full-time with CBRTN. Raridon said he keeps a finger on the pulse of the needs in the Denver refugee community, adopting families and providing them pastoral care.

Currently, Rairdon says one of Thang’s goals is to find land for a farm that would provide refugee jobs and a place for stability.

“I found that there are two groups of people within the refugees. One, people that were connected to the church and had a tenacity to work hard, to make something of themselves. There are others that are depressed and turn to alcohol and drugs,” Rairdon said. “Pastor Andrew really wanted to set up some kind of farm for the older men who couldn’t learn English, didn’t like their jobs, had to ride a bus into the mountains, and work in the casinos. He knew they would love working on a farm and this would also help them make a break from alcohol.” Rairdon said they are still in process, searching for land and finances to launch this dream.

COVID has left more gaps for CBRTN to fill, Rairdon said, including funding for hospitalizations and lost jobs.

“To my knowledge there have been about five deaths in the refugee community because of COVID, but many hospitalizations and many losing their jobs,” Rairdon said, adding that one refugee couple worked at a local hotel, which shut down due to Covid. This left the couple without jobs and without unemployment when the hotel refused proper documentation. CBRTN stepped in, helping the couple with rent. “Rent in the Denver area even for a small, run-down apartment is over $1,000 a month,” Rairdon noted.

Another big need is rent assistance for single moms. Wah, who has been on the CBRTN board for about a decade, is vital in finding these specific refugee situations, alerting the CBRTN team and helping fill the gaps. Wah is in a department where she can help them get food stamps or other government assistance.

“The greatest current need in the community is housing issues and as well as an increased number of domestic violence cases. CBRTN addresses these issues by providing financial support to the family, helping advocate for the family, and connecting the family to a support system either through another organization or community,” Wah said.

Recently, Wah said she spent hours on the phone helping a family work out insurance details related to a car accident.

“A family I knew in the community got into a car accident and one of the family members spent 12 days in the hospital. With language barriers and issues with insurance, I helped them apply for state medicaid and helped them contact his private insurance. I spent hours on the phone with the hospital, police department, auto insurance, and health insurance companies as an advocate and helped the family understand what’s happening,” Wah said. “I am still in the process of helping this family but got a letter last week that his hospital bill of a little over $197,000, the insurance paid $194,000. The best news since July!”

Wah adds that her volunteer role at CBRTN makes her come alive when she sees the needs being met, the smiles on the faces of the refugees.

CBRTN relies only on private donations, but according to WORLD, Johnson said he has never once begged anyone for money:

“Every time there’s a need, somebody calls and provision just appears, magically. It’s fun to watch God work,” Johnson said to WORLD.

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