Shee Ro was 3 months old when his family fled from conflict in Burma to a refugee camp in the bordering Thailand.
"I lived in refugee camps 27 years," Ro said in his strengthening English. "(The Burmese army) came and fired the whole camp. It burned. They used guns like fire. They put some rag in gas and threw it."
Jo Buth of Refugee Resettlement in Waukesha has worked with several families who have come from the conflict in Burma (Myanmar) said that those of Karen ethnicity in the country were persecuted. More than 155,000 Karen people became refugees over the course of many years. Buth explained that Ro's father was forced to be a porter for the Burmese army, carrying guns and being forced to walk before the rest in case there might be land mines during conflict.
The family lived for many years at Upiem Mai in the Tak province of Thailand. While Ro was there the camp still had not gained access to cellphone service, Internet, or electricity which did not arrive until 2010.
However, five years ago, Ro was selected along with five sisters and his parents to be sponsored by a strong volunteer network of churches in the United States and were welcomed to Waukesha.
Ro reconnected with his girlfriend from the refugee camp who had settled with her family in Virginia and they got married in the states. They welcomed baby daughter Jodie two years ago and have another baby coming in March.
Ro said a friend in Neenah was the recipient of a Habitat home and had an open house for the community.
"I got excited about that," Ro said. "I (asked) him if we have a Waukesha Habitat Community and his sponsor gave me the address here and my sponsor filled out the form for me."
According to Executive Director Diane McGeen, the Ro family was approved in June as they met the criteria and had a great story filled with the common American dream of homeownership.
"There are three things Habitat looks at when they select a family. They look at the need: Is there a need for safe, affordable, decent housing. We felt they do. They have a growing family. Do the have the ability to repay and yes, he has an income. The third is the ability to partner with us and put in the sweat equity. They can have family and friends help as well," McGeen said.
Ro works cleaning buildings and his wife, Paw Lu Lu takes care of their daughter. Ro is taking English classes through Waukesha County Technical College and has a tutor through the Literacy Council of Greater Waukesha. He jokes that while his English is better he still finds the language difficult, however math translates to everyone.
The Ro family currently lives in an apartment that Shee admits they are beginning to outgrow.
"The apartment is OK but sometimes my kid jumps (disturbing the neighbors)," Ro says with a laugh. "Sometimes we have parties (and there is no room.)"
Buth explained that "parties" in the Karen culture simply refer to social gatherings for worship and that the community as a whole will get together for each birthday and other celebrations.
Ro and Lu are required to put 250 hours each of sweat equity into the home and can solicit the help of friends and family to assist them in reaching that goal.
Ro said that working on the house he has learned a lot he never knew ... like how to use a hammer.
"I never knew anything (about building a house). Now I know a little," Ro said with a proud smile. "They show(ed) me how to nail."
Buth said that Ro has lived in bamboo huts with leaves for roofs, no nails required.
The family will move in when the house is completed sometime this spring. Then they will tackle their next big step: moving from refugee status to U.S. citizenship.
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