At a recent interview, San San Lwin brought a folder neatly filled with documents that tell the story of her escape from Myanmar (also known as Burma), her marriage in Thailand and her arrival as a refugee in America. She had refugee documents, work records and certificates of American citizenship for herself and her older daughter, Shun Le Win, 12. Shun Le Win was only five months old when the family arrived in America.
Her younger daughter, May Thu Win, was born in Chapel Hill, so she’s an American citizen by birth. The 10-year-old has discovered that being born in America has one important perk.
“I ask her will she be a doctor or an engineer,” Lwin said. “She said, ‘No, I want to be president.” (Update: Now she wants to be an architect.)
Lwin is a University employee, a housekeeper in McIver residence hall, which also has its perks. Eligibility for a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, the University’s highest honor, is at the top of that list. And Lwin was one of the six honorees in 2017.
Lwin said she felt wonderful and very happy when found out she had won. “And amazing.”
She calls McIver’s residents her “second children.” The students call her their “second mother.”
“She has become so much more than our housekeeper,” wrote one of the 58 students and colleagues who nominated Lwin for the Massey. “She always takes time to stop and talk to us about our lives, academics and more. She remembers our names and never forgets to ask us how we’re doing and to follow up with us.”
The compassion she shows to her students is returned in full. They post friendly greetings on her housekeeping closet door, decorate her door for special occasions and look forward to greeting her every morning. When she’s not there, they notice.
“She was recently absent for a few days due to illness, and on the very first day, my residents were quick to make note,” wrote a resident adviser. “By day three, we were all deeply worried. When she returned, it was as if the whole building breathed a sigh of relief.”
Refuge in North Carolina
Lwin grew up on a family farm in the southeastern part of Myanmar, home to most of the Karen people, who make up seven percent of the nation’s population. The area has been in political turmoil almost constantly since the end of World War II, as the Karen and other groups fought against the ruling military dictatorship.
Like many other Karen people, Lwin fled to neighboring Thailand to escape the fighting. It was there she met her husband, Myo Win, an opposition soldier also forced to flee. After years spent in Thailand, Lwin and her husband were able to come to the United States in 2005 through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations immigration agency.
Lwin recalled her confusion during the long journey from Southeast Asia to North Carolina. “I can’t speak the language. Zero,” she said, making a circle with the fingers of one hand. “But we have the IOM bag.”
She means the white plastic bag with the distinctive IOM logo given to refugees to hold their important documents. “They understand we’re refugees,” she said. “I hold up the bag and they know.”
The family’s first stop was New Bern, where the Interfaith Refugee Ministry helped them get settled in their new home. After 18 months in New Bern, they moved to Chapel Hill, where many other Karen refugee families have settled. She and her husband both eventually got jobs at the University, she as a housekeeper and he at the student dining hall. The former opposition soldier now makes coffee and refills the milk and juice dispensers for the students. The former farmer keeps students’ shared spaces and bathrooms tidy.
“San San is such an inspiration and role model for perseverance, hard work and respect,” another student wrote. “Although she’s a refugee far from her home and family and has two young children, she is always so pleasant, positive and diligent. She is truly a valued part of our community.”
McIver is part of the Kenan Community made up of Spencer, McIver, Alderman and Kenan residence halls. Lwin began her job eight years ago in this community at Spencer, and she has returned after being assigned to other residence halls.
“This is my second house,” she said of McIver. “I really like it.”
Lwin likes her first home, too. In June 2014, she and her family moved into a Habitat for Humanity house in Phoenix Place, a neighborhood of affordable housing for low-wage University employees.
“My neighborhood is nice,” she said. “A lot of Karen people live over there.”
She had applied for a Habitat house twice before because the family’s apartment was unhealthy for her daughter with asthma. When they qualified for the Habitat house on the third try, she and her husband had to put in 325 hours of work equity – mostly painting and cleaning for Lwin.
Now that she and her daughters are citizens and her husband has a green card, the United States is home for the family. “I don’t want to go back,” Lwin said. “When I’m old, over 65, I want to go back to my country for a visit — only visit.” Her daughters also want to visit some day.
The former farmer has put down roots in her new country, including the backyard garden she has planted with seeds from her native land.
By Susan Hudson