45 days at sea: A Burmese refugee’s journey to freedom.

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Before settling in Buffalo, Zaw Win, experienced a long and frightening journey for a normal life. In his native country, Burma, Zaw Win was a political prisoner for almost five years.

Upon his release in 1995, Zaw Win returned home to an empty house. His family had fled to Thailand, his friends had graduated from the University and were starting their lives, and Zaw Win was seeking to start his own. A year after his release, he was able to make his way to Thailand to reunite with his family.

Zaw Win spent a short amount of time in Thailand before returning to Burma to learn how to drive and to take English classes. He said he wanted to improve his skills before starting over in Thailand. While in prison, he had learned to speak English from the other prisoners. However, the lack of educational resources and restrictions in the prison made this difficult.

“We had no pen or paper. They wanted to lock our brains and our future. That is why we had a lot of educated people there; school teachers, engineers and doctors who were political prisoners too.”

With financial aid from his family, Zaw Win migrated back to Thailand in 1997 as an undocumented worker. He soon found a job at a gas station with other Burmese immigrants.

After sometime, he and his coworkers were offered a higher paying job in Malaysia by, what he called a ‘Carrier’ who had walked into the gas station.  For 10,000 BAHT (Thai currency), they were offered a way into the country with no passport or visa, and guaranteed a higher paying job.

At the time, they thought they were paying 10,000 BAHT for a better life, and were unaware of the 45 day journey ahead of them.

Zaw Win had a realization, “Finally, I can say this was human trafficking.”

Zaw Win and eleven other people were transported from Thailand to Malaysia in the hold of a small boat with both the Carrier and the boat owner. Upon reaching the Malaysian border, they were turned away by border patrol. They waited four days before attempting to cross the border again.

The eleven individuals remained concealed under fishnets in the hold, taking turns sipping water they poured into a bottle cap.

“We had two bottles of water and some dry noodles. After a few days we had no water or food,” he remembered.

As the days passed, the chances of making it safely across the border were slimming by the hour. The men were told by the Carrier that it was not safe there, and they would be taken to a small town in the far south of Thailand called Patani for a short amount of time. The Carrier also said he had to return to Bangkok to earn more money to pay the boat owner, and would be bringing another group of people along.

Zaw Win and the eleven others woke up that following morning to find out that they were sold for 3K a piece to the boat owner and forced into hard labor at sea.

“We had no choice. We had to obey him because we had no passport or visa. It was a really hard situation. After three days I had no energy. I made a decision, I was going to jump into the sea and kill myself.  Before jumping, I saw my mother’s face.” He thought, ‘How would she feel if I made this decision?’  He took a second step, and saw his friends from prison. Zaw Win remembered a promised he had made himself, “I promised I would do something better after prison. I remembered my promises, and I changed my mind. My mom and my friends from prison saved my life.”

After three weeks of hard labor at sea, Zaw Win and the others were dropped off in Patani, where he devised a plan to return to Bangkok. He and some of the other indentured servants banded together, and as a group they endured the journey to Bangkok.

It was a long wait for the train to arrive, and once it finally did, Zaw Win and his group were spotted by train security.

“I saw the officers walking by, and I picked up a newspaper and pretended to read it. I was holding it upside down, I didn’t understand Thai, so I didn’t realize.”

Luckily, at the hands of the sympathetic officers, they were spared and continued the ride to Bangkok.

Zaw Win spent five years as an undocumented worker in Bangkok and in 1999 he started a migrant worker organization, “A lot of migrant workers are my people, they are very low educated, and I’m helping my people.”

Zaw Win resettled in Buffalo in 2005. He is the owner of the Westside Value Laundromat Project and spends much of his time there, often accompanied by his pug, Goku. Zaw Win is also the co-founder of the WASH Project. He also helps other Burmese refugees like himself adjust to their new lives by mediating conversations for LEP (Limited English Proficiency) individuals to assist them in several procedures such as car insurance, Medicaid, to name a few.

Zaw Win was also an extra in the Rainbow Bridge Motel, an LGBT romantic comedy filmed in Niagara Falls. According to the film’s Production Manager, Nikki Styliades,  Zaw Win was “the backbone for all the Burmese actors. He helped communicate with everyone. He was the one bridging all the cultural gaps.”

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