By Ann Wang
Sai Kyaw is a tea farmer, a freedom fighter, a political refugee, a chef and a father of two. For the past eight years, he has settled down in Boston and opened Yoma, the only Myanmnese restaurant in New England. But life has never been easy on him.
He had to leave his tea farming village at a young age , to avoid being recruited as a child soldier for the local Shan State Army in Myanmar. When he was a student , General Ne Win took control of Myanmar and declared military control. Sai Kyaw and his companions organized democracy movement - “88 Uprising” in Yangon in 1988. After a series of events against the militants, to avoid being arrest, Sai Kyan went into hiding at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and later on sought asylum in the United States.
When asked his view about American’s immigration system, he answered without skipping heart beat, “It’s very good, every year United States hand out 5,000 green cards. This is the most generous country. When any place got trouble, United States will always lend a hand. That’s why I became an American citizen and I'm very proud of it.” He even stated that “If I have to fight, I will fight for United States.”
Sai Kyaw came to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1993. When he left his beloved country and ran away to Thailand, he had just one piece of clothing. The International Organization for Migration and various charity group helped him with the application for coming to the land of freedom, bought his flight ticket and found sponsorships for him.
His life in America, started in an over-crowed two bedroom apartment in Texas, with refugees coming from all over the world. They were given one bag of rice, a bag of potatoes and beans for each person and one telephone land line. Sai Kyaw had successfully made it into America, but he was in debt. “ I wanted to work right away,” said Sai Kyaw, joking “Even though I had jet lag and didn’t even know the day or the night, I wanted to work, even though I didn’t speak English.”
He worked late-night shifts at a newspaper circulation department, he recalled with frowned eyebrows “It was very loud. I had to put advertisements in between newspaper. You have to work really fast, cause the machine runs very fast. Nobody wants to work this job.” But because of the working conditions, he got paid eight hours for a 4-hour shift. Sai Kyaw would sleep in the morning but wake up in the afternoon to work at his second job, as a chef at a Japanese restaurant. Usually, it takes about one year for refugees to pay their debts to the Immigration system, but with two jobs, it took Sai Kyaw only two months to come clean with his $750 debt.
“ Back in 1993, we got paid 3 dollars per hour. Its nothing now, but we never have that kind of money, so it was good money.” He remembered arriving in America with a negative bank balance, but after a while he saved a lot of money and start sending money to his friends thats still fighting in the border line between China, Myanmar and Thailand.
The telephone rang non-stop at Yoma hours before the restaurant opened to businesses. Sai Kyaw was busy ordering cooking ingredients in Burmese. He opened Yoma restaurant in Boston, 2007. To bring authentic dishes to Boston and help community back home, he orders most of the spices and tea from Myanmar. “We never forget our country.” Sai Kyaw insisted.