Burmese refugee escapes death to embrace new life in the U.S

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

Editor’s note: On World Refugee Day, June 20, as Starbucks announces a commitment to hire 2,500 refugees in Europe by 2022, we are highlighting stories of refugees and their journeys to find new homelands.

In her earliest memory, she is in her father’s arms and they are running. Bullets are flying past and she can see things burning. Then they are in the river and the water is up to her father's chest. He’s shot in the elbow but still holds tight to his daughter.

“He didn’t stop and he didn’t drop me,” she said. “My life couldn’t end there. God didn’t allow my story to stop that day.”

Naw Eh Moo Shar Hoffman thinks she must have been about 3 years old at the time. It was a lifetime ago, a world away from her life now as a 32-year old wife, mother and shift supervisor at Starbucks.

Hoffman’s family are among the many Karen people who fled their native Burma, also known as Myanmar, to escape religious and ethnic persecution by the Burmese Army.

Her first memory is just a fragment but she’s sure it’s from when the Show Klo camp in Thailand, where she had been born, was attacked and burned down, forcing the family to flee again. They hid where they could and tried to survive until the United Nations opened another refugee camp, Mae La, in Thailand. It would be where Hoffman spent the next 18 years.

Speaking from her home in Gainesville, Va., she spent an afternoon recounting the story of her life. “It’s important to remember,” she said. “I don’t want the next generation to forget.”

When she was pregnant with her son, Adoniram Judson Hoffman, now 2 years old, she began writing him a letter. It was about all the things she wanted him to know and all the things she survived. “I want him to know who he is – and where he’s from,” she said.

Rising water

In Mae La, a crowded camp of 50,000 people surrounded by wire fencing, rainy season could last for six months.

“The water came at night,” she said, remembering the flash flood.

Her mother was gone, having left the camp a few years before hoping to find a better future for her family, only to end up a victim of human trafficking. It would be years before she was reunited with her family. Her father was absent as well, having been put in jail after he’d fled the camp to try to find her mother. So, that night, in the flood, 12-year-old and her elderly grandmother desperately tried to save her three youngest siblings from the water.

As the water rose, she and her grandmother tried to carry the children to higher ground. “No one could help us because everyone was struggling,” she remembers.

Her grandmother fell and broke her arm before they got to safety. Hoffman saw the drowned bodies of girls she had gone to Sunday school with at the camp and, “we lost everything. Our home was floating away,” she said.

There were other threats too. One time the when the camp was attacked by Burmese soldiers, a mortar shell landed right next to her. “But it didn’t explode. My story didn’t end there either. Jesus had other plans for me.”

She thinks about those days sometimes now – like when she hears someone complain about not having air conditioning on a muggy day. “I think, ‘No air conditioning? That is no problem!’”

She marvels at the home she shares with her husband, Ben, and thinks about all she has. She credits her Christian faith for helping her survive, and not emerge bitter and angry. “Now I’m thankful that God placed me in the camp so I know how to appreciate his blessings and forgive others.”

She met Ben Hoffman when she was 15, a moment she remembers was “like if you saw snowflakes in summer.” He was on a mission with his family who had come from the United States to volunteer at the camp for several weeks. Over time, the two fell in love.

Over the next few years, he kept trying to find a way to get her out of the camp. Nothing worked. Like many people in the camps, she didn’t have a birth certificate or any kind of identification. “With no documents, no one can help,” she said.

But in 2007, the United States government agreed to give Karen people refugee status. “It was like heaven’s doors opened up,” she said.

On June 19, 2007, she arrived in America. She moved in with her future in-laws and got married six months later. Adjusting to life in the United States was hard. She’d never seen TV or the internet. “In the camp, we cooked, chopped wood. That’s how we lived life,” she said. “(Here) I felt like I was a newborn baby crawling on a highway where people are speeding.”

‘I won’t let you down’

Even though Hoffman didn’t speak much English, she needed to quickly start looking for a job soon after arriving in the United States. She applied to 15 places and, “I got rejected by almost everyone, but Starbucks chose me,” she said. Her store manager was a refugee himself from Africa. “In the middle of the interview, I said, ‘Please, I want a job so badly. I won’t let you down. I’ll work so hard,’” she said. “And he said, ‘I was a refugee too and I understand and I’ll call you partner.’”

Now a shift supervisor, she remains devoted to Starbucks. “I didn’t feel home until I started working with Starbucks.”

She goes to work each morning at 3 a.m. and comes home at 10 a.m., when her husband leaves to go to work. That way one of them is always with their son, whom, she notes, is the first person in her family in several generations to have “identification and a country.”

She has not finished the letter to her son. There is too much life still happening.

“I thank God for the true freedom he gives in my heart,” she said. “I’m home now and my story is still unfolding.”

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