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PHOTOS: A Burmese refugee lands in Seattle. His first goal is to learn English

Tu Tu is his full name, because Burmese people don't use last names.

He is 20 when he arrives in Seattle. With his long bangs and torn jeans, he looks American.

It terrifies him that he can’t speak English. How will he get by if he can’t communicate? It’s a fear he pushes out of his mind. He’s not supposed to be a kid anymore.

Upon Arrival: How refugees find their way in Seattle

Tu Tu's cousin Sheltar comes to greet him at Sea-Tac Airport after many years apart.

They cry, but they don't hug. That’s the culture in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

In the past decade, Burmese refugees have topped the list of new arrivals to the U.S. It’s a relatively new community, finding its way here.

Tu Tu will live at Sheltar’s two-bedroom apartment in Kent. Her sister’s family also lives here. Tu Tu brings the total to nine. He’ll sleep on a twin bed, in the living room.

Tu Tu fishes a picture frame from his backpack. It’s his girlfriend from the refugee camp. The frame says, “Forever Love.”

He pulls a bible from his bag, then another, and another. There are at least four – in his native Karen and English, a language he’s eager to learn.

A social worker leaves Tu Tu a $20 bill. It’s for random expenses. He spends it in a few hours, on a phone card, to call his dad back in Thailand.

When refugees arrive, they get small grants to help them get started. Here’s a typical budget for an individual:

Each refugee receives a one-time federal grant as welcome money, which ranges from $925-1,125. These funds are often used toward rent or household needs. Refugees without children also receive federal cash assistance for up to eight months, or until they find a job. Whichever comes first. The maximum monthly payment varies by state; in Washington it’s $332 per person. Tu Tu gets $320.

Refugees also get a caseworker during their initial resettlement (for up to three months), to help them navigate unfamiliar American systems – from learning to ride a bus, to creating resumes.

The U.S. resettlement program steers refugees toward employment and self-sufficiency, right away. Nationwide, about half get a job within their first year. That’s according to the most recent government data available, from 2014. In Washington state, the rate is lower, at about 32 percent employed.

The money helps, but new realities set in quickly.

And for many, what they left behind still haunts them. It’s estimated about one in three refugees experience mental health issues due to violence, displacement and loss.

Tu Tu’s family is Karen, an ethnic minority in Myanmar. For decades, military forces have attacked and burned ethnic villages. More than a million people have been displaced, including Tu Tu’s family.

"While we moved to camp I carried one chicken," he says.

It is a child's memory - he was about five.

“It was an attack. They tried to kill all the Karen people and then my grandmother had to carry me out.”

His grandmother later told him many people died on the way to Thailand. His brother and sister got sick and died young. His mother left after he was born.

In Thailand, Tu Tu settled into a routine life with his father and grandmother. But it was like living in a cage. And as he got older, his dad pushed him to leave and look for opportunity. Tu Tu wanted to stay. But he followed his dad’s wishes.

Tu Tu’s main goal is to learn English. It’s his dream to be an interpreter someday.

The government money buys him a little cushion of time. And he wants to use it to learn English.

It’s his cousin Sheltar’s advice. She and her husband never had this cushion; they had to pay the rent.

And she says it made her feel bad, that maybe her co-workers didn’t like her because she couldn’t understand English.

Tu Tu starts taking English classes right away. Six months in, he approaches it like a full-time job.

He takes the bus to class, about an hour each way, four nights a week.

He arrives early, sits in the front, and confidently calls out answers. He makes his classmates laugh.

His ambition is paying off. He can have conversations in English.

But the odds are against him when it comes to English fluency.

In census surveys, roughly one out of five Burmese people in the U.S. say they speak English well. The rest will finds their worlds limited in many ways, especially in the job market. About 30 percent live in poverty; a rate nearly double the general population.

Tu Tu has turned 21, and he’s not in English class anymore. His cousin helped him land a job at an electronics manufacturer in Redmond. He solders together parts, for $13 an hour.

His conversations skills are expanding – “I can say hasta mañana and salud and gracias,” he says laughing.

Tu Tu stuck with English classes for the first eight months, as planned. But now, there’s no more time. His relatives have worked similar factory jobs for years. And perhaps he will, too.

Compared to all refugees in the U.S., Burmese are among the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs due to low levels of education. Nearly half drop out of high school. (Odds are later generations will find greater success and stability.)

Tu Tu seems proud of his job. He helps pay the rent, he’s paying off the travel loan for his flight to the U.S. And he sent $500 to his father back in Thailand.

“My grandma is sick,” he says. “They need help and they need money, so I sent money.”

He says life here is good. It’s not what he expected. But he’s not really sure what he expected.

He misses family back home, and familiar surroundings. And sometimes, he’ll ask a friend to drive him to a nearby park.

“In the mountains,” he says, “so I can hear the sound of the river and birds.”

It sounds like the mountain village where he grew up, thousands of miles away. And it makes him happy.

To help refugees in your community, visit

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