Sein Martin is a refugee who has relentlessly overcome one hardship after another for nearly a quarter century. Born in a small town in Burma, Sein faced ethnic persecution from a young age. As members of the Karen group, one of several ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy in the country, Sein and his family were subject to targeted government prosecution. He and his parents survived by keeping lights out at night and hiding in underground holes. When he was two years old, Sein and his family endured a two-day journey to Sho Klo refugee camp in Thailand, bordering Burma. Ten years later, violent fights caused Sho Klo refugee camp to shut down and for its refugees such as Sein and his family, to relocate to another Thai camp bordering Burma, Mae La Camp.
The current count of Burmese refugees in Thailand is estimated at nearly 62,000 and it is considered one of the most protracted displacement situations in the world. Nevertheless, these camps offer refugees critical support: food, aid and, most importantly, protection against arrest, detention and deportation. Outside of the camp’s protection, Sein recounts that “whenever police were in sight, we’d immediately hide and run. We never had the freedom to go outside. We were like animals in the zoo.” Unfortunately, the camp left much to be desired, as refugees residing there lived in cramped, makeshift conditions with limited access to jobs and education.
In spite of the barriers, Sein was determined to make the best of his situation and worked hard to complete his high school education and a year of college education. Afterwards, he pursued medical training at Opian Refugee Camp, and then returned to Mae La Camp for an internship. Though Sein had completed his coursework, securing employment was challenging as Sein struggled to meet arbitrary hiring standards. He faced opposition from hiring managers, was required to retake medic training courses, and he waited for long periods of time to retake tests.
However, Sein persevered in his search to find employment. By the time he found work, Sein was 21 years old with the responsibility to support not only himself, but his wife and one-year-old daughter. His new salary was still not enough to support his family.
After 13 months of working as a medic at the camp, Sein applied to come to the United States with great hopes of achieving the personal and financial freedom he desired. Three years later, in November of 2012, his dream came true. “I love the freedom in this new country!” Sein exclaims. “No more police chasing me. I feel accepted.”
Sein found employment June 2013 as a dishwasher at a local Chicago restaurant. His wife, daughter and infant son remain in Thailand, awaiting the legal proceedings necessary to join Sein. “I will be happy when my family is here with me,” Sein says.