Lost in translation: A check-up with a Burmese refugee


Reporter’s note: Journalists traditionally remove themselves from the narrative of their articles to create an authoritative, objective tone in their writing. As I see it, the goal of the reporter is to become the invisible lens through which the reader, listener or viewer gets the truth. However, as I did the reporting for this story I unwittingly became an active participant in the day’s events. It was irresistible. To remove myself from the story would be to be to withhold the truth from the reader. So, in the interest of objectivity, this story is about me.

Zuli is a Burmese hill tribe refugee. As of November 2008, he had been in the United States for one year and two months. He has no last name. His medical records separate the second syllable from the first to form the required first-name, last-name construction: Zu Li.

For Zuli, everything is difficult. His wife is sick. He cannot find work. His shoulder aches all the time. As a Muslim living in Salt Lake City, he finds it hard to find Halaal meals, foods consistent with Islamic dietary code. Above all else, Zuli has a single, suffocating problem that envelops every part of his life — he speaks no English.

On Nov. 18, I accompanied Peter Robson, a translator from the Asian Association of Utah, to take Zuli to a routine doctor’s appointment to have his shoulder checked.

As climbed into his car, Robson, 23, explained he would be translating the medical staff’s questions from English to Thai. We were driving to pick up his partner, Kamar, who would translate from Thai to a mixture of Burmese and Karen, two of the languages Zuli speaks. The process would then repeat in reverse to convey Zuli’s responses to the nurses and doctors.

Kamar, 19, also a Burmese refugee, learned to speak Thai while growing up in refugee camps near the Thailand-Myanmar border. He has been in the U.S. for a little more than one year. Utah-born Robson, a native English speaker, learned to speak Thai while serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is where Robson and I first met, and where I also learned to speak Thai.

“Do you ever worry that when you translate something…?” I started to ask.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “Always”

I asked Robson how he knows when the chain of translation has broken down.

“By the answer they give,” Robson said. “I mean, you ask them the last time they threw up and they answer ‘No’ — you know something got lost.”

Kamar, Robson said, was very excited that I was coming. When we saw Kamar, Robson commented on how “dressed up” he was, saying that Kamar normally wears ragged jeans and T-shirts. That day he wore khaki slacks, a green dress shirt and faded red, white and blue flip-flops.

“Why aren’t you listening to music,” he asked Robson in Thai from the back seat of the car.

“Because I’m enduring an interview,” Robson responded, now speaking in Thai and motioning to me.

Kamar pulled out a knockoff mp3 player and informed me that he and Robson only listen to Burmese hip-hop in the car.

“What do you think of America,” I asked in Thai as we drove.

Kamar looked slightly annoyed. “I don’t think,” he said. “I’m listening to music.”

* * *

Zuli lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Rose Park with his wife, Poriba, and his five or six grandchildren. I say “five or six” because nobody, including Zuli, could give me a sure answer of how many people live there. He is either 55 or 59 years old, depending on whether one trusts his medical records or Zuli.

A pile of shoes lined the small entryway of the apartment. A moist, sour smell blanketed the apartment as we walked in. A collection of cardboard sheets ripped from packing boxes lined the wall, the names and phone numbers written on them. The names were written in Burmese making it impossible to tell to whom they belonged, but Zuli quickly asked me for my number which he added to the collection. The only other real decorations were the Islamic wall calendars, unidentifiable stains on the carpet and family pictures printed on inexpensive copy -paper and stuck to the wall with masking tape.

We sat cross-legged on the floor just next to a full-length sofa. Zuli began speaking in a dizzying blend of backwoods Thai and Burmese. He was animated and cheerful as he spoke. Peter listened to him and nodded.
Zuli said something to me, and flashed a tobacco-stained smile in my direction. I stared, hoping that whatever he said would eventually trickle into the part of my brain that could make sense of it. It never got that far. I smiled, nodded and tried to slink out of the conversation as fast as I could. They chatted for another few minutes before I heard something I did understand.

“Pete, you’re Christian, aren’t you?” Zuli asked.

Robson said he was.

“Christianity and Islam are really similar, you know,” Zuli said. “I say it, EE-bra-him, you say it Abraham.” He rattled off a few more Old Testament names. “They’re practically the same. The only difference is how we say it.”

I slowly began making sense of Zuli’s accent as the conversation continued.

Robson began asking Zuli questions about the day’s events. Zuli responded in garbled Thai half of the time and the rest of the time in a language that lies somewhere along the Thai-Burmese spectrum. Kamar filled the conversation’s gaps. Zuli told Robson that he thought he had an ulcer. He wanted medicine for that in addition to getting his shoulder checkup.

I was understanding about 25 percent of the proceedings when the volume of the conversation grew. Zuli was visibly amused that Robson had forgotten a detail from a previous appointment. Zuli erupted into belly-shaking laughter and pointed at Robson.

“I liked it better when we weren’t friends and he didn’t yell at me,” Robson said quietly to me with a smile.

We left for the clinic.

* * *

I had intended to spend as much time in the background as possible, to avoid interrupting the flow of activities. It was, I found, more and more impossible as we got closer to the doctor’s office.

In the car, Robson told Zuli I am engaged.

“You’ve got a woman?” Zuli cried in an excited spray of spit. “If you get married, I’m coming for sure, and I’ll bring you something.” He trailed off and gestured with his hands to show me just how large the intended gift would be.

A storm of confusion ensued upon our arrival at the University Healthcare Redwood Health Center in Salt Lake City. The translation system was about to be stretched to the limit.

A woman sitting with a nervous-looking Asian man was in the waiting room, which was full of people who spoke at least half a dozen languages. She jumped up to ask if we were the translators. The woman, an LDS service missionary, told us she had scheduled an appointment for her client but the hospital did not have anyone they could even call who speaks his language, Karen. The woman pleaded for our help after Zuli’s appointment as we were whisked into the exam room.

In the exam room, Zuli’s demeanor changed. He had been laughing and smiling and speaking almost non-stop, but now he was now silent and stared blankly at the wall, making eye contact with no one. A medical assistant came in and asked Zuli how tall he was.

“Zuli, how tall are you?” Robson translated.

Kamar translated the question into Burmese. Zuli spoke.

“Eight,” Kamar said, in Thai.

“What? What do you mean eight? He said eight,” Robson said in Thai and English.

In a flurry of further translation, and after standing Zuli back to back with Kamar, it was determined that Zuli is 5 feet 2 inches tall. The assistant did not seem too worried about actually measuring Zuli and entered his height into the computer.

“How is your shoulder,” the assistant asked.

Another 45-second volley of translation passed and Zuli again said, “Eight.”
It then became clear that Zuli was referring to a picture chart that medical staff uses to help patients rate the level of pain they are feeling. A rating of one is on the 10-point chart is associated with no pain and has a corresponding smiley face. An eight corresponds to a face with furrowed eyebrows and squinting eyes, the level of pain Zuli was feeling.

“Oh! I get it,” Kamar said. “See, I thought you were asking ‘how tall does it hurt’ a minute ago.”

The nurse laughed. I laughed. Robson laughed. Zuli did not. The medical assistant left and the room fell silent.

“Pete. Pete, help me, OK? Help me get this ulcer taken care of,” Zuli said quietly. Robson nodded and looked down at the floor.

The doctor came in and began to ask Zuli questions via the translation team. He said he was amazed at how efficient they were when compared to some he has worked with. The doctor checked Zuli’s shoulder and recommended an injection. Robson mentioned Zuli wanted medicine for an ulcer. The doctor said he would schedule a colonoscopy.

Robson stopped and looked at me. “How do you say colonoscopy in Thai?”
I thought about it and came up with the rough translation — a combination of words: check, look at and butt. We looked at Kamar who stared blankly at us.

“Oh wait. Yeah, I think my dad had one of those,” he said. He fired a stream of Burmese at Zuli who did not respond.

Robson then mentioned to the doctor that the Primary Care Network, a low-budget insurance plan provided by the Utah Department of Health for jobless refugees, covered Zuli.

The doctor stopped smiling and began typing furiously at his computer.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing else I can do, then,” he said. “That’s the worst insurance on the planet. It doesn’t cover anything.”

The doctor had been planning to refer Zuli to an orthopedic surgeon to inject medicine into his shoulder and to have Zuli return for colonoscopy. Because of the insurance, all he could recommend was to have Robson help Zuli file an appeal to the local insurance representative to have the treatments covered, he said. Kamar was still explaining the treatment plan to Zuli who said, “Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. All I know is that I hurt. And I don’t want it to hurt anymore.”

The doctor said if the appeal was denied, the best he could do was to schedule an appointment to have the injection done by a non-specialist doctor at the clinic. He asked whether Robson would accompany Zuli at that time or if it would be some other, “clueless translator.” Robson asked the doctor several more questions about Zuli’s options, to which the doctor replied he did not know.

At that moment that I became suddenly disenchanted with the whole process. The translation had been fun and somewhat exciting, if cumbersome, but now I felt as though Robson was the only one who understood Zuli’s needs and no one seemed able to tell him what to do.

We took Zuli to the pharmacy to buy the Tylenol the doctor recommended and some medicine for his wife. We passed the LDS service missionary who was still waiting with her client for a non-existent translator. A friend of Kamar happened to walk by at that moment and offered to help translate.

Robson decided to stop by the Asian Association to report to Zuli’s caseworker. This was Robson’s first time to meet the person primarily responsible for Zuli’s needs, but was his tenth time to help Zuli. Even the caseworker had difficulty giving Robson clear direction of how to help Zuli further.

* * *

Before we headed home, I decided to seal my lack of objectivity and journalistic disinterest by inviting Zuli, Kamar and Robson to lunch. We ate at an Indian restaurant called Curry in a Hurry, which, Zuli was delighted to find out, serves Halaal food.

Back at the apartment, Robson began explaining to Zuli how to take the medicine. Zuli wrote the directions on the bottles in Burmese. I noticed six or seven other orange bottles that held medicine similar to what we had just picked up. Robson asked Zuli to throw them away.

We were about to leave when Zuli insisted he wanted to give me something. He went into the back room and returned with a plain white T-shirt. He presented it to me as a token of his thanks. He could not remember my name so he called me “my son” and restated his intention to get me something “really good” for my wedding. We left.

Robson told me he would be paid only for the time he spent translating, excluding transportation time, or about three of the six hours that he had spent helping Zuli that day. But he gets more than money out the deal, he said.

“There’s something compelling about the refugee, something charismatic about spending time with them,” Robson said quietly as we drove, listening to a mix of Thai patriotic music played by a squeaky brass band. “It helps me keep things in perspective – if school or my social life isn’t going how I want, it helps me realize how outrageously well-off I am.”

He summarized the day by saying, “It’s pretty healthy, I think, to hang with these people.”

I think so too.

Burmese refugee liking life in America


Every year immigrants and refugees come to the United States seeking change, looking for opportunity and trying to discover some success in their new country. And as most Americans wake up on weekdays and head to work to make a living, Sebastian Palsuk, a Burmese refugee, is right there with them doing the same.

Palsuk, 31, has been living in Salt Lake City since he arrived from Malaysia in 2007. He is currently working for the LDS church at the Humanitarian Center on 1665 S. Bennett Way. He works in the production area, where he sifts through carts full of clothes sent from all over the country. He sorts the clothes, separating items that are in better shape from those that are more worn. The clothes are then moved to be sold at Deseret Industries stores located around the country.

He enjoys his job and everything about the United States.

“Whatever I want to do I can. Policy is very good for me,” Palsuk said. “If I want to work I can.”

Palsuk left behind a world of frustration where he was beaten and jailed. He once lived in a place where every move he made was monitored. Palsuk was told what he could and could not do. Here in the United States his world of aggravation has morphed into a land of freedom.

However, this was not always the case. He was a teacher at a primary religious school in a Christian village in Burma during the 1990s. One day the Burmese military showed up at the school and told Palsuk that he needed to allow Buddhists in his school. Palsuk did not like the idea, because he does not agree with Buddhism and did not want students of that religion attending his school. He was beaten for being uncooperative. Members of the military struck him in the head and pulled him out of the school. He was then arrested and sent to jail for four months in Burma.

Palsuk said that is something he will never forget, but wishes he could.

After he was released from jail things did not get any easier. His father advised him to move to Malaysia. There he was arrested again for not having a passport. He was sent to jail for a year.

Palsuk said the prisoners were always sweaty from the heat and dizzy due to the lack of food.

At night, when guards and prison workers could not see them, a group of Christians would gather and secretly pray and worship. The jail tolerated no religion of any kind, and if caught the prisoners were punished more.

“Every day we make worship and devotion,” Palsuk said.

When he was released from the Malaysian prison he learned he was not allowed to return to Burma, unless he wanted to go back to jail there.

So, he applied to get into the United States as a refugee. He was eventually granted permission to make the journey to America.

When he arrived in 2007, he worked with the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City to get started on the right foot. In December of 2007 he joined the IRC as an interpreter for incoming Burmese refugees. He found this helped him to learn to speak English more fluently. The IRC is an organization that helps the resettlement process for refugees by arranging places to stay, resources and providing finances.

The first job Palsuk landed was working for a Crystal Inn in Salt Lake City as a housekeeper. However, he was not learning about America and lacked communication with Americans, so he decided to quit and try to find a job where more interaction with people existed. Learning to speak English is Palsuk’s top priority.

His current job at the Humanitarian Center is ideal.

“I get more experience and also know more English,” Palsuk said.

Bart Hill, the center’s development manager, enjoys working with Burmese refugees.

“They are hard working,” Hill said. “They want to improve their situation. They have as good or better work ethic than others.”

Palsuk is doing just that.

He has his high school diploma, and is taking English classes at night through the Humanitarian Center. He plans to attend Salt Lake Community College. He said he wants to be a businessman, but could not find the words to explain exactly what kind.

His job at the Humanitarian Center is temporary; Palsuk is allowed to work there for only one year. But, he knows that what he has learned working there the past seven months will help him when he is forced to seek other employment. The LDS church will assist him with his job search when the time comes.

When he is away from his busy day sifting through used clothes or learning English, he is at his North Salt Lake apartment hanging out with his two Burmese roommates, Mangcung and Zawzawnaing. He likes to gather with them and others and play soccer in the park on Saturdays. He also keeps himself occupied during his free time by working on the Toyota that he was able to obtain through a bank loan.

This is also something Palsuk has found to be a privilege in the United States.

“I want to buy a car, I can,” Palsuk said. “Everyone in my country can’t buy a car. Whoever is working they can buy a car.”

His favorite aspect of this country, though, is the people. He has found Utahns to be very kind and helpful.

“People are good for me,” he said. “When I need help they help me. In my country no way. If you got into trouble they didn’t help.”

And for the people who know Palsuk, the feeling is mutual.

Elease Thompson, Palsuk’s job coach at the Humanitarian Center, loves working with him.

“He is one of the kindest men I have ever met,” Thompson said, making Palsuk blush. “I don’t know why some girl doesn’t snatch him up. He is so willing to help a woman.”

Palsuk’s goal is to become a U.S. citizen in five years.

Although Palsuk has bad memories of Burma and Malaysia, he is on a path to create good memories in his new country.

IRC helps Salt Lake City refugees enjoy local culture


On a warm fall Saturday morning a handful of Burmese refugees gather outside of the International Rescue Committee building in downtown Salt Lake City.

They are meeting to catch the light rail system of public transportation, TRAX, across the street on 400 South to go to a University of Utah football game. The university donates the tickets to the IRC. This is just one example of an activity refugees experience when arriving in Utah.

Throughout refugees’ first few months of resettlement in the United States the IRC provides activities and recreation for the foreign families and individuals for a number of reasons.

“When people are spending time with Americans and feeling comfortable it avoids the awkwardness or fear rather than giving them a sense of an outsider,” said Jonathan Codell, acculturation PORTAL coordinator at the IRC located in Salt Lake City.

Located at 231 E. and 400 South, the IRC, is an organization that provides refugees with aid throughout the resettlement process. The IRC works with refugees for the first six months of their residency and helps to offer essentials such as food, shelter and employment.

According to the United States Department of State a refugee is a person who may be fleeing from their country to escape from war or persecution on account of race, religion or nationality.

Codell said the IRC brings certain cultural groups to at least one activity per month, but typically it is more than that. Other activities the IRC offers to the groups is trips to the parks, mountains, and bringing them to the library for educational purposes.

A piece of the big picture the IRC wants to reach by providing these outings is to relieve some stress of the movement procedure for the refugees.

“The resettlement process is dramatic,” Codell said.

Nyaw Paw, 33, a Burmese refugee who has been in Salt Lake City for two months feels getting out and being with Americans helps the process.

Paw said through Han Win, a Burmese speaking IRC interpreter, that she feels happiness, a sense of freedom, stress relief and enjoys just being part of the American culture.           

Paw grew up in Burma, but moved to Thailand with her family when she was 6. There she was not allowed to get out and be involved with the activities like the IRC provides.

Paw finds the freedom she has discovered in the United States lets her do anything that she wants. 

Within the activities the IRC reaches out to makes sure the refugees feel more welcome and feel home in the United States.

“The more someone feels comfortable the more likely they’ll return and be more integrated into our society,” Codell said. “They won’t be so marginalized.”

A key for resettlement is introducing places around the homes of refugee is a key for resettlement, Codell said. Even something as small as a park close to home where they can go have a picnic will help he said. He feels showing the refugees places to go does help, especially, when he sees a refugee doing this on it own.

This is what the IRC is aiming for.

“One big thing is it shows them what is out there,” said Emily Fishbein, education program coordinator for the Salt Lake City IRC. “It shows what they can do on their own.”

An American football game is something many refugees have never seen.

The only football game they are familiar with is soccer. Codell admitted that seeing American football can be strange and maybe confusing to the refugees. However, it allows them to be out there with the public, which benefits the resettlement process.

“This is a way for them to see what being in the U.S. is all about,” Fishbein said.

Bringing activities and recreation is only a small part of what the IRC does, Codell said. However, it does show where the refugees can access resources when they want them. It also brings camaraderie throughout the groups.

“A main aspect is just bringing them all together so that they can be in a social setting and get to know the other refugees,” Fishbein said. “It’s sort of nice for them all to be in one place together.”

%d bloggers like this: