Upon first meeting Chapter Doh, three things are apparent: he has smile lines that frame his chocolate brown eyes, he is quick to laugh and he is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. He seems like your typical college kid, unless you dig a bit deeper and realize that maybe his constant laughing is masking something that is not immediately apparent: he is a refugee from Myanmar. The seriousness of his life experiences make keeping up with his computer science classes seem mundane and folly by comparison.
Ethnically motivated civil unrest caused Doh to flee from Myanmar to Thailand when he was just 10 years old, with only his aunt by his side. He spent weeks in the dense jungle climbing steep mountains to reach safety in Thailand, where the United Nations set up a refugee camp for those escaping the war. Doh lived there for nearly ten years without his parents while he waited to be reassigned to another country as a refugee.
“A refugee camp to me is a prison,” he said. “I could not leave.”
Living as an undocumented refugee in a camp in Thailand meant he could not legally leave the camp for any reason, which was a strict rule that was enforced by a barbed wire fence.
The United Nations was in charge of the refugees on the Thai-Burma border. They designated specific places for each person to live and provided the refugees with basic necessities, including food, shelter and water, so they had no reason — or excuse — to leave the camp.
Doh said people would attempt to escape the refugee camp in search of food, because there was often not enough protein in the meals the United Nations provided.
“Whenever they did, they got arrested by the security guards and they would get beat up really bad and they would just send them back to the camp,” he said.
Doh was eventually relocated to Salt Lake City when he was just 19 years old, only to move to Logan a few months later. In the meantime, he was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, served an LDS mission, took English classes, received his GED and enrolled at Utah State University as a computer science major — he is now a junior.
“Why not Utah State?” he said, laughing. He always laughs.
Doh returned to Myanmar this Christmas break after being away from his parents and homeland for 15 years. He said it was bittersweet to return to Myanmar.
“I met my family and they were so happy, but at the same time they were so sad,” he said. “It has been too long for them.”
Since Doh returned to Myanmar, the violent civil unrest died out and the country is experiencing the beginnings of rebirth and peace, though the country still has prevalent scars.
“Everything changed,” he said.
Doh visited those painful places, including the arduous mountain he had to cross to flee to Thailand, his now burned-down childhood home, the tree where his father –who was a Karen soldier– was tied up over night while enemy troops deliberated whether or not to kill him and where Doh ran away from being shot at by soldiers who were camping out in trees. Somehow these experiences have not hardened Doh; instead they empower him.
But the country is not all stained with haunting memories. Doh also visited a grove of fruit trees he planted as a kid that now tower over his head and provide fruit. Doh is like those trees. He is now full-grown and he is helping rebuild Myanmar by planting seeds of education in the poverty-ridden country. Doh donated $600 to a local elementary school there called Tseker.
“The school children followed me everywhere,” he said. “I even taught them English for two days at the school.”
Doh said upon returning to Logan, he has learned how to be more humble from the Burmese people.
“People are happy, even though they don’t have a lot of stuff like we have in America,” he said.
Doh returned to America and is now back to Logan, though he said if he could return to Burma right now, he would.
Doh is among an estimated 50,000 refugees who live in Utah, with another estimated 1,000 more coming each year, according to Refugee Community Liaison Chelsea Eddy. Utah receives a variety of refugees from the Thai-Burma border, including the ethnic Karen, Karenni, Burmese and Rohingya, which is a Muslim ethnic group. Each group has unique languages, culture and heritage.
While Salt Lake City is the only designated resettlement city in Utah, Cache Valley is a hub for many refugees, said Luz Carreno, an AmeriCorps Vista for the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection. One reason is that newly migrated refugees typically want to live near their friends and families. Another reason is that there are a lot of jobs in Cache Valley, particularly at the JBS beef packing plant in Hyrum.