Burmese refugee liking life in America

by BRETT PERFILI

Every year immigrants and refugees come to the United States seeking change, looking for opportunity and trying to discover some success in their new country. And as most Americans wake up on weekdays and head to work to make a living, Sebastian Palsuk, a Burmese refugee, is right there with them doing the same.

Palsuk, 31, has been living in Salt Lake City since he arrived from Malaysia in 2007. He is currently working for the LDS church at the Humanitarian Center on 1665 S. Bennett Way. He works in the production area, where he sifts through carts full of clothes sent from all over the country. He sorts the clothes, separating items that are in better shape from those that are more worn. The clothes are then moved to be sold at Deseret Industries stores located around the country.

He enjoys his job and everything about the United States.

“Whatever I want to do I can. Policy is very good for me,” Palsuk said. “If I want to work I can.”

Palsuk left behind a world of frustration where he was beaten and jailed. He once lived in a place where every move he made was monitored. Palsuk was told what he could and could not do. Here in the United States his world of aggravation has morphed into a land of freedom.

However, this was not always the case. He was a teacher at a primary religious school in a Christian village in Burma during the 1990s. One day the Burmese military showed up at the school and told Palsuk that he needed to allow Buddhists in his school. Palsuk did not like the idea, because he does not agree with Buddhism and did not want students of that religion attending his school. He was beaten for being uncooperative. Members of the military struck him in the head and pulled him out of the school. He was then arrested and sent to jail for four months in Burma.

Palsuk said that is something he will never forget, but wishes he could.

After he was released from jail things did not get any easier. His father advised him to move to Malaysia. There he was arrested again for not having a passport. He was sent to jail for a year.

Palsuk said the prisoners were always sweaty from the heat and dizzy due to the lack of food.

At night, when guards and prison workers could not see them, a group of Christians would gather and secretly pray and worship. The jail tolerated no religion of any kind, and if caught the prisoners were punished more.

“Every day we make worship and devotion,” Palsuk said.

When he was released from the Malaysian prison he learned he was not allowed to return to Burma, unless he wanted to go back to jail there.

So, he applied to get into the United States as a refugee. He was eventually granted permission to make the journey to America.

When he arrived in 2007, he worked with the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City to get started on the right foot. In December of 2007 he joined the IRC as an interpreter for incoming Burmese refugees. He found this helped him to learn to speak English more fluently. The IRC is an organization that helps the resettlement process for refugees by arranging places to stay, resources and providing finances.

The first job Palsuk landed was working for a Crystal Inn in Salt Lake City as a housekeeper. However, he was not learning about America and lacked communication with Americans, so he decided to quit and try to find a job where more interaction with people existed. Learning to speak English is Palsuk’s top priority.

His current job at the Humanitarian Center is ideal.

“I get more experience and also know more English,” Palsuk said.

Bart Hill, the center’s development manager, enjoys working with Burmese refugees.

“They are hard working,” Hill said. “They want to improve their situation. They have as good or better work ethic than others.”

Palsuk is doing just that.

He has his high school diploma, and is taking English classes at night through the Humanitarian Center. He plans to attend Salt Lake Community College. He said he wants to be a businessman, but could not find the words to explain exactly what kind.

His job at the Humanitarian Center is temporary; Palsuk is allowed to work there for only one year. But, he knows that what he has learned working there the past seven months will help him when he is forced to seek other employment. The LDS church will assist him with his job search when the time comes.

When he is away from his busy day sifting through used clothes or learning English, he is at his North Salt Lake apartment hanging out with his two Burmese roommates, Mangcung and Zawzawnaing. He likes to gather with them and others and play soccer in the park on Saturdays. He also keeps himself occupied during his free time by working on the Toyota that he was able to obtain through a bank loan.

This is also something Palsuk has found to be a privilege in the United States.

“I want to buy a car, I can,” Palsuk said. “Everyone in my country can’t buy a car. Whoever is working they can buy a car.”

His favorite aspect of this country, though, is the people. He has found Utahns to be very kind and helpful.

“People are good for me,” he said. “When I need help they help me. In my country no way. If you got into trouble they didn’t help.”

And for the people who know Palsuk, the feeling is mutual.

Elease Thompson, Palsuk’s job coach at the Humanitarian Center, loves working with him.

“He is one of the kindest men I have ever met,” Thompson said, making Palsuk blush. “I don’t know why some girl doesn’t snatch him up. He is so willing to help a woman.”

Palsuk’s goal is to become a U.S. citizen in five years.

Although Palsuk has bad memories of Burma and Malaysia, he is on a path to create good memories in his new country.