Burmese refugee makes most of opportunity to shine in tech sector
Garroe Wah hard at work during a coding class at We Are Makers. (Michael Pekarske)
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The We Are Makers program is changing lives. None perhaps more so than the life of Garroe Wah, a refugee from Burma.
Wah's only offense in his native land was that he was Karen—a religious ethnic group that has been persecuted since the 1950s and that, according to Wah, had the Burmese government in 1995 issue a statement calling for their ethnic cleansing.
After running from village to village through eastern Burma from 1995 to 1999 to avoid losing his life to the Burmese soldiers who were chasing him and his fellow countrymen, United Nations Human Crisis Relief (UNHCR) officials were finally able to stage an escape route for Wah and many fellow Karen (kuh-REN), allowing them to make it safely to a refugee camp along the Thailand border.
Danger still surrounded him. Leaving the refugee camp meant you could be arrested by Thai police and sent back to Burma—Wah worked his way around the danger by seeing a bigger picture entirely.
“Since I was young I've really been crazy about computers,” said Wah, who, along with other area refugees has now been in the coding training program for We Are Makers for five months. His dreams are big like any refugee wanting to make the most of their American experience. In his case, he wants to be a computer programmer.
Even when Wah arrived in Utah in June 2008, the computer he bought at a Deseret Industries sat and collected dust because he didn't know how to use it. It wasn't until an LDS missionary helped him some eight months later that it came out of that box.
When he was at a refugee camp years earlier, he said he and his fellow Karen often wondered aloud what using one would be like.
“Back at the camp, we'd heard about it but we'd never used one. Was it a box? A bowl?” he said, laughing at the thought now. “I was told [by a relief worker] I'd be able to look at something like a TV screen.”
Even in the camp where Wah stayed in Thailand as a young man in his 20s, he made the best of a tough situation. He took high school classes even though no governing body recognized he was receiving an education.
Wah's love of learning there resulted in his eventually being accepted to a private school in a small city 300 miles away from the camp, taught solely by a Japanese teacher whose mother financed the entire venture—from books to housing to food and clothing—and who taught these refugees more than they ever thought possible.
“I owe so much to this teacher, he was so amazing,” said Wah, who added that he'd one day like to return to help and teach others.
But even as he was in school 300 miles away from that refugee camp, Wah never forgot about his own people. Even then, he took the English lessons he learned from that Japanese teacher and became an interpreter at the camp where he had stayed because he felt it was the right thing to do.
“There's a big need for it. They [the Karen] need to know important information such as personal hygiene and education [upon arriving at a refugee camp],” said Wah, who was very proud of what he was able to do for his fellow countrymen and someday hopes to return to the camp to teach them more about life.
After spending those eight years in Thailand, Wah finally found his way to America. Along the way, he received an opportunity to further his education and develop English-speaking skills, which would come in handy in Utah.
With his wife six months pregnant, they de-boarded the airplane in Salt Lake City. After settling in and having a short meeting with refugee officials, he was placed in an apartment and asked to help with interpretation—the same skill he put to use at the refugee camp—at a local company called backcountry.com. It was tough, he said, because the Burmese community in Salt Lake City—numbering about 2,000 people at the time, he added—struggled to understand their new surroundings.
“Later on, about four months later,” he recalled, “I got a call from the refugee office to join their team and was hired on a seven-month contract helping refugees connect with resources and providing case management.”
After that, Wah applied for and got another interpreting job on a four-month contract. Four months later came his big break: a job at the Department of Workforce Services helping people receive Medicaid. Wah worked in that position for five years.
He currently works at the Refugee Education and Training Center and because he's always looking forward, he's already put in his notice that he'll be stepping down in May to become a computer programmer.
“I've been in the class [at We Are Makers] for five months and I really enjoy it,” he explained. “It's really hard because [coding] it's a second language. Because of that I go to the library on Fridays to learn it. Taking Fridays away from my family is very difficult but I know it is something I have to do.”
As time goes on though, he's proven to himself that he's capable of overcoming many challenges.
“I know that there are barriers,” he said, “but I'm going to work as hard as I can.”
For more about the We Are Makers program, please go to http://www.wearemakers.io/