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From a Thai refugee camp to Worthington, MuMu Aye's passion for education continues

Aye was born in Burma, and became a refugee due to political instability and the grinding oppression inflicted on her Karen ethnic group.

MuMu Aye, right, poses for a picture with her husband, Eh Sher, and sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
MuMu Aye, right, poses for a picture with her husband, Eh Sher, and sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
Submitted photo

WORTHINGTON — MuMu Aye’s desire to learn and help others has propelled from her increasingly dangerous home in Burma to a refugee camp in Thailand, followed by Texas, and Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

Now she lives in Worthington, serving as a community liaison manager at JBS, where she connects JBS employees with community resources and educates managers and employees about the diverse cultural backgrounds of the people who work there.

MuMu Aye sits with her sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
MuMu Aye sits with her sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
Submitted photo

“It’s a way of getting to know their co-workers, opening a door for them to be able to get to know each other and have a friendly and safe workplace, (and be) more tolerant toward each other’s differences,” Aye said.

About 2,000 people work at JBS in Worthington, with some commuting from as far as Sioux Falls, South Dakota. While some were born and raised in Minnesota, others originally came from much further afield, from countries in at least five other continents, with about 80 different languages spoken at JBS.

Refugee life

Aye was born in Burma, and became a refugee due to political instability and the grinding oppression inflicted on her Karen ethnic group.

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Her family didn’t want to leave their hometown, but the military regime in charge wouldn’t allow them jobs other than hard labor. There was no electricity and there wasn’t enough food. They couldn’t even go out of town to farm or plant vegetables because of the land mines, which routinely cost people their limbs or their lives.

Still, Aye’s family survived until her father died in 2001, leaving her mother to care for half a dozen children alone. Educational opportunities, as well as survival, spurred the family to go to a 5,000-person refugee camp in Thailand, where Aye lived for six years. There, she was a teacher, sometimes for students older than she was, who hadn’t had the opportunity to attend school before but nevertheless felt determined to learn.

Aye had that determination too.

MuMu Aye sits with her sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
MuMu Aye sits with her sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3.
Submitted photo

But no one goes and picks up refugees and simply drops them off in the U.S. Instead, refugees go through a lengthy process involving U.N. agencies, identifications, background checks, applications, processing, multiple interviews and medical check-ups for vaccines and communicable illnesses. After the background checks, there’s more waiting, and training on what life will be like in the new country. Even the trip isn’t free, and refugees are taught how to pay bills so they can pay off their travel loans, Aye said.

Some people made it all the way to the training part of the process and decided to stay in the refugee camp because such a big change can be very frightening, she recalled.

“I was like ‘how am I going to get a job? I am in a refugee camp, I don’t have any skill set trained for … highly developed countries,’” she said. “So it was really, really terrifying to make that decision, because you don’t know you’ll survive.”

In the U.S.

Aye made the jump, and traveled to Houston, Texas, where she lived for almost a year.

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“It was difficult to find a job in the U.S., difficult to navigate the big city,” she said. “So in 2013, I moved up to Marshall to work … as an interpreter there.”

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She also applied to attend Southwest Minnesota State University, and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in human resources. Her desire for education didn’t end there, though, and Aye recently graduated with a master’s degree in business administration, with a marketing concentration.

She still sees people from her days at the refugee camp in Thailand, including at least one of her former students, who now works at JBS.

She is married to Eh Sher, and they have two sons, Andrew, 8, and Elijah, 3. They still live in Marshall, and Aye spends time with them on weekends.

A group of Karen people hold up a Karen flag.
A group of Karen people hold up a Karen flag.
Submitted photo

Many Karen, including Aye herself, still have family members in Burma or Thailand, and they send support back to them. The situation in Burma remains grim following the 2021 military coup, and many people are stuck in refugee camps. Soon after Aye became a refugee, the system stopped accepting new ones, leaving people with few options.

Aye encouraged people to be open-minded, reach out and ask questions rather than fear refugees.

“They are not people that you should be scared of, or … think of differently,” she said. “Before they came here, they have made a big decision … and most refugees came here because of their children’s education.”

MuMu Aye
MuMu Aye
Kari Lucin / The Globe

Also, in Aye’s experience, refugees are generally very appreciative of the opportunity America has given them, and many of their children serve in the military, become doctors or serve the community in some other way. Some of the older immigrants have a more difficult time learning English, but often must prioritize working to pay their bills and take care of their families.

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Aye emphasized that many refugees are very friendly and it’s easy to have a conversation with them. Asking questions like “do you know where the post office is?” or “do you know how to register your kids for school?” and offering help can be a good icebreaker.

To refugees, Aye offered another piece of advice: ask questions.

“In the United States, don’t be afraid to ask. You can achieve anything by asking,” she said. “Just ask, and you will be answered, because compared to where I came from, people here are very nice.”

READ MORE FROM KARI LUCIN

Related Topics: WORTHINGTONEDUCATION
A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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