‘My father was a poor and illiterate farmer. I remember seeing people take advantage of him several times when I was seven years old. They cheated him of a fair price on a regular basis. It was so painful for me to witness that. That’s when I decided, I don’t have to be rich, but I do want to get a proper education. Then I won’t have to work on a farm when I grow up, and no one will be able to look down on me.’
Veronica Aye Lay (37) has shoulder-length black hair, a youthful demeanour and comes across as introverted and smart. When she talks about her childhood, and the great importance she came to attach to a good education, her voice rises and each word is emphasised. It is clear that this means a lot to her. To attend a good school, she moved from the inhospitable Shan State in eastern Burma to Rangoon, the country capital at the time. Later still, she fled to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. And in the end she arrived in the United States via the relocation program of the United Nations.
For nearly five years now she has been living in Bowling Green, a city with approximately 70,000 residents in the American state of Kentucky. She lives with her husband Bernadine (38), son David (14), and daughters Lucy (11) and Mary (4) in a medium sized house in a quiet neighbourhood. Mary was born in Bowling Green and as such is an American citizen. The rest of the family hopes to achieve this status as well in three years time.
‘I’m so happy with this job’
Five days a week, Veronica gets in her car and drives to an industry park a few kilometres away. She works here, sewing clothing samples in a Fruit of the Loom factory. The samples are sent all around the world to clients. It’s her first job in the USA. ‘I’m so happy with this job. Many of the refugees I know are working long shifts in restaurants or in car factories. This is a much better job. The work isn’t tough and I learn a lot.’ And there’s another benefit too: as a seamstress she gets free fabrics. ‘At home I get behind my sewing machine and make trousers, pyjamas and T-shirts. The money that I save by doing this we send to our families in Burma.’
Although she still is working hard to make ends meet, her life is worlds apart from how it was in Burma. ‘In the Shan State, where I was born, life was very hard and unpredictable. It was dangerous because of the rebel soldiers, and there was a lot of poverty. We lived in a bamboo hut. Sometimes all we had to eat for days on end was dry corn. We couldn’t even afford a pen for schoolwork.’
‘I blossomed in this place thanks to the routine and order established by the nuns’
Burma is a mainly Buddhist country but Veronica’s family was Catholic; her father was adopted when he was a boy by an Italian priest in Burma. Their Catholic affiliation allowed Veronica’s parents to give her a step up when she was thirteen and send her to a convent, far from home. Here she received an education from the nuns. ‘I blossomed in this place thanks to the routine and order established by the nuns. I didn’t have my own room but I didn’t mind. We slept in beds lined up neatly in rows, our stuff in suitcases under our beds. I rarely saw my family, only once or twice a year, because the trip was long and bus tickets were expensive.’
When she was 19 she graduated and then moved again to another completely new environment: Rangoon, a city of millions. She was set on making her childhood dream come true: to study at university. But life in Rangoon wasn’t easy. ‘I lived in a tiny bamboo hut together with six other girls. If it rained hard, the roof leaked. We didn’t have a kitchen so we cooked on a coal fire outside in front of the hut.’ To earn money for her study, she worked long days in a small clothes production factory, often working more than ten hours a day.
She took distance learning courses because she the fees for regular university were too high. Every three months she had a period with classes. At 25, already married to Bernadine and mother of two, she finally obtained her heart’s desire: a diploma in English language studies. Her Facebook page shows one of the few pictures she still has from her time in Burma: Veronica shyly looks into the camera with the black graduation cap on her head.
Even with a diploma in her pocket, there were very few opportunities for her in Burma, which was a dictatorial regime at the time. The couple decided to flee to Malaysia with their children. Their plan was for this tropical Muslim state to be a temporary stop on their way to a new life in Australia or the USA. Bernadine left first. It took two more years to save enough money to also pay the smugglers for passage for Veronica, David and Lucy.
‘I was so scared during this long walk’
The trip from Burma to Malaysia was a long journey full of obstacles. The first leg of the trip was a very long ride to Thailand in a truck packed with 22 people. Upon arrival in Thailand they were arrested by the police. After a frightening week spent in a filthy Thai prison, their group was released for a fee. The next part of the trip was a long trek by foot through the jungle and across vast rubber plantations; Veronica walked more than ten hours. Lucy was two years old and strapped onto Veronica’s back with a swaddling cloth. David was four and he walked alongside Veronica, holding her hand. Now and then someone from the group would give David a piggyback to give his short legs a rest. ‘I was so scared during this long walk. It was pitch-dark, and in the distance you could dimly make out the light of the smuggler who led the way. The ground was uneven and I was afraid to trip over the tree roots.’ Finally they reached the Malaysian border. And a few hours later she and Bernadine fell into each other’s arms again after not having seen each other for over two years.
Malaysia turned out to be an insecure way station. The family lived in a derelict apartment above a shop with hardly any furniture. They managed on a few dollars per day. Always there was the fear of the police, who often held razzias. Veronica felt desperate and anxious, worrying a lot about their future. Would they be picked for the relocation program of the UN?
For Veronica good education continued to be her number one priority; not for her this time but for her son David. ‘We lived in Malaysia for three years, and all that time I gave David home schooling. I taught him maths and also found some English books to teach him his first English words.’ Bernadine worked long days as a medicine courier. But on his free Sundays he played chess with David who was keen to learn.
Then after years of uncertainty the message finally arrived: the UN had honoured their application. The USA offered to relocate them. ‘I was so incredibly happy. I couldn’t eat or sleep for excitement. All I kept thinking was: soon we’ll no longer be refugees. And we can finally build a future. The first time I stepped into our house here in Bowling Green, I felt like I was in a dream. There was a bedroom and a couch. We had cupboards, a microwave, a dining table, chairs and a television. Things that only the rich people have in Burma.’
‘I never have to tell him to do his homework’
The home schooling she had given David for many years, paid off when they arrived in Bowling Green. Again with support from the Catholic Church, David was able to go to an elite Catholic private school. In his first year, he already was among the best in the class. ‘I never have to tell him to do his homework, he always does it of his own accord. What does he want to become? He wants to join the military. Not because he wants to become a soldier, but because he can get free admission to university with a military scholarship.’ The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Daughter Lucy also is one of the best of her class. ‘I am so proud of my children and now feel much more confident about their future. I’m glad that they will be able to study later, and be able to choose what they want to be.’
‘I would love to go back to school again’
Now that her life has entered calmer waters, there is also room for her own ambitions to resurface again. ‘I would love to go back to school again. As a teenager, I really wanted to become a nurse. There was no money for that then, but I would still love to do that. I dream of helping and caring for patients and I want to encourage them to get back on their feet again, even when it’s unbearably tough.
‘I’m glad I never gave up on the ambitions I had as a young girl in Burma. And I would like to say to other women: don’t give up hope. Try to make your dreams come true.’