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Coming to America

Marriott Summit Watch housekeeping supervisor Van Thuam Cin, left, translates for housekeeper Oo Mon Tuesday. Both Cin and Mon are refugees from Burma and are living in Utah. (Greg Marshall/Park Record)
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Burmese refugee Are Min doesn’t like much American music, but he does listen to T-Bone’s "Welcome 2 California" and a Shania Twain song on his MP3 player. He doesn’t know which Shania Twain song. Nor does he know when he was born, he guesses he’s over 30, but he does remember with certainty the day he arrived in Utah: Sept. 14.

Four months after coming to the state, Min found a job and a home in Rose Park. Now he says he plans to stay in Utah for the rest of his life.

Min is one of eight Burmese housekeepers and one supervisor working at the Marriottt Summit Watch. The refugees were hired in February through the International Refugee Committee of Salt Lake City. The agency helped resettle and place about 400 refugees in the state in 2007.

Min has a big smile and handfuls of wavy hair secured with gel. He doesn’t speak much English and must depend on his translator and supervisor, Van Thuam Cin, to communicate with his non-Burmese co-workers at the hotel.

Min said he’s used to being misunderstood. He has not lived in a place where people speak Karen, his native dialect, for years. He immigrated to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, where he lived since he was 9 years old.

"Being a refugee in Thailand, they didn’t have any confidence of mind," Cin translated for Min. "Here is a lot better. Everyone treats us with equal rights."

Min makes beds, vacuums, folds towels, tucks chairs under tables, empties trash cans and wipes windows in the Marriott’s two-bedroom suites. The rooms are larger than the home he shares with his wife and four kids in the Salt Lake Valley.

"They were fast learners," said Suzanne Wild, the director of services for Summit Watch who hired and oversees Min and the other refugees working at the resort. "We definitely had our struggles at first. But it has been worth it big time. We needed them as much as they needed us."

Similar to other resorts in Park City, the Marriott traditionally hires a slew of skiers and students on J-1 and H-2B visas each winter, Wild explained, and many of those employees leave the hotel in the lurch. Some even abandon cleaning jobs in the middle of work shifts, leave the hotel shorthanded. "It’s hard to recruit here for housekeeping and engineering," Wild admitted. "It was worse this year than before. We were really starting to panic. We didn’t know what we were going to do."

The answer to Wild’s employment crunch came from across the ocean. "They’re all kind of survivors," she said. "They got here and they want to stay here. They want to work. You can see how much pride they have."

Of the 13 Burmese refugees hired in February, nine are still cleaning rooms at the Marriottt, an incredible retention rate compared to seasonal employees. "It’s hard to recruit," Wild said. "But we found them. Or they found us."

For the first month, Wild had no translator for the refugees, no one to tell them how to flip a room. In the punctilious and fussy hospitality industry, where an unfluffed pillow can cost a concierge his head, Wild was unable to share the simplest instructions with her staff. She had to act fast, she said, and with some ingenuity, to overcome the language barrier. She bought a book of Burmese phrases and gave herself a geography tutorial online. She also took pictures. "I would just take pictures of how to fold the towels the right way. When I would talk, they would just look at me and smile. They didn’t know what toasters were. They put the toasters in the dishwasher."

Every mistake was followed with an explanation, a photograph, a new rule: No food should be left on the counter. Nothing with cords goes into the dishwasher. Wild would try to show the refugees what to do with action rather than language. To help the refugees practice English, she labeled an entire room, including utensils, with sticky notes.

But the real breakthrough came in March 2008 when Wild hired Cin, another refugee from Burma, to translate for her. Unlike the other housekeepers, Cin speaks English.

Cin has lived in the U.S. since 2005. He has a quick laugh, an athletic build and a nearly shaved head. He carries a clipboard and translates with the can-do attitude of a high school gym teacher trying to understand teenagers. He starts talking, stops mid-sentence, asks a question or two, and then continues.

He has learned the word for blender, threshold and "deep clean" and even picked up a little Spanish from other housekeepers on staff.

"The common language we all speak is hotel," General Manager Stephanie Johnston laughed. "We deal with a lot of different languages on our staff, so we kind of figure it out as we go along. But with Burmese we didn’t have any reference at all."

That made Cin a key component, Johnston said. Not that it’s an easy job. Burma, located in Southeast Asia between Bangladesh and Thailand, has seven different dialects.

"I don’t know everything," Cin said. "We face a lot of boundaries translating."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been under the thumb of a militant government accused of suppressing dissent and violating human rights for many years. The country, slightly smaller than Texas, made international headlines recently when a cyclone devastated much of the country and left thousands dead.

Oo Mon didn’t experience the cyclone. His former home in Burma isn’t close to the region decimated by the natural disaster. Instead, his village was destroyed in the mid-1990s by the junta that consolidated its hold over the country through military actions and ceasefires with ethnic groups, according to some human-rights groups.

After escaping from his village, Mon landed in the same Thai refugee camp as Min. He arrived in the U.S. around the same time and found the housekeeping job at Marriottt Summit Watch with the help of the IRC. He said he is happy to work but feels embarrassed about having to clean the kitchen.

A refugee like Mon doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to work, at least not at first. Josh Lloyd, one of the directors of the IRC, said most refugees start out in service jobs before they learn the language skills to advance.

He added that refugees often make dependable employees. "They’re coming here permanently," he said. "They have an interest in long-term stability. They’re coming to live better lives."

Nevertheless, Lloyd said the language barrier and transportation make it difficult to place some refugees in good jobs.

The Marriottt provides a shuttle for their Burmese housekeepers from Rose Park to Park City, Wild said. Her hope is that more hotels in Snyderville Basin choose to give refugees jobs that may help entire immigrant families find a foothold in the state.

Min’s oldest child is 13 and he has one more on the way. The yet-to-be-born baby will be the first the first in her family to have health care from the start, the first to be born as an American citizen rather than a refugee, and maybe, Min says, the first to like American music.

About the International Rescue Committee

Employment assistance Self-sufficiency is the goal for the refugee and employment is crucial to success. Relationships with the community are essential here and to widen the job pool an IRC employment liaison works with the community to locate sustainable job opportunities.

If your Salt Lake City-based company is interested in developing a relationship with the IRC please contact the organization at (801) 328-1091.

Health program Refugees often arrive without having had adequate medical coverage in their home country, a necessity for healthy living. One of the first steps after arrival is to assist refugees in obtaining important medical services. In the IRC’s Salt Lake City office, the health coordinator supervises this process and offers health orientation seminars and direct assistance with obtaining health screenings, corresponding vaccinations and immunizations, and follow-ups on other medical issues.

Volunteer program The IRC in Salt Lake City operates with assistance from volunteers and interns. Each volunteer and intern is asked to commit to a minimum four-month contract that enables him or her to get to know the IRC better and in turn to provide more effective services. Volunteers are then placed in a capacity where their background can be utilized most effectively. Assignments vary and can include English tutoring, acculturation mentoring, administering a database, or helping to develop job skills, among others. If you are interested in volunteering, or have questions about the volunteer program, visit http://www.theirc.org.


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