Category Archives: off the record

Side remarks, not really part of our actual work.

A new home…

after spending six months living together in the asylum center in usti nad labem, the 40-odd refugees who arrived in summer last year will soon move to their new homes in several towns across the czech republic.

with one exception, each family will move to a town where they will be the only burmese family. while this will no doubt help with their integration into czech society, as they will have only czech neighbours, colleagues, and friends, it will be difficult to be without a burmese community and support network. the refugees have had 600 hours of czech lessons, but they are of course not yet fluent in the language and this will initially affect the depth of relations they can establish with their new neighbours or schoolmates.

that being said, the refugees are heading to their new communities with a great attitude. last sunday, they organized a going-away ‘party’ for themselves, featuring prayer, song, and friendship, and all crowded into the TV room at the asylum center. very kindly, we were invited to join them. before a delicious burmese lunch, a member of each family spoke for a few minutes to the group on the times they have shared together so far and the challenges ahead – and how saying ‘dobry den’ and having a positive attitude will go a long way in easing the transition. everyone is really excited about moving to their own flat (which they have already visited), and feels strong and ready to start their new life. while my own move to the czech republic was in no way similar to theirs, i was able to say a few words on how, with time, they will feel at home in this country.

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how to make ‘svačina’

a second group of burmese refugees arrived on august 17th, straight from a refugee camp in thailand. like the group that arrived in july, these new asylum seekers will spend 6 months in an integration centre in usti nad labem, while their applications are processed. during this time they will also receive czech lessons and try to adapt to their new home country.

this being september, around the world kids have started up at school again, and for the burmese children it’s no different. some of these kids, however, have lived their whole lives inside a refugee camp, and have no experience with formal education. likewise their parents aren’t necessarily aware of what is required for ‘back to school’. and so it was that sabe and i were at the integration center in usti, first to show this new group the documentary film that we showed to the previous arrivals, and also, perhaps more importantly, to show them how to make ‘svačina’ for school.

while showing the refugees how to make a sandwich, we taught such words as ‘rohlík’, ‘sýr’, and ‘šunka’. most were trying these foods for the first time. apples were a big hit. sabe made most of the sandwiches initially and then was slowly able to get the women up to try making one on their own. i thought our biggest achievement was at the end, when one lone man came up and made a sandwich. after we wrote down some of the czech food words for him on a piece of paper, he laughed and said “i’ll just serve my family bread!”.

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a different kind of culture shock

so i’ve lived in quite a few countries on several continents and at various levels of development. i consider myself flexible and able to adapt to different ways of life. but having just visited burmese families recently resettled in the czech republic, i realized something: i am used to adapting downward, to doing without certain conveniences or luxuries. but never have i had to adapt upward, figuring out systems or technologies that i’ve never encountered before. and this in a foreign language. the average north american expat has a tendency to complain when unable to find someone who speaks english in a local department store or government office – but what if your native language is burmese? zero chance of finding someone who can help you in your own language.

most expats try to learn the local language when they are living in a given country, but usually have english to fall back on (even if it’s their second or third language). but for the burmese families that have just arrived here via either malaysia or a thai refugee camp, the challenge is twofold: learning enough czech to get by in a small town (where the asylum seekers’ integration centre is located), and learning how to use such wonders as public transportation systems or electrical appliances.

and that’s just the beginning…after six months in the integration center the adult refugees will need to find jobs, while the children and teens will start school – in czech. i know i had enough worries at school with also having a language barrier to deal with! and english speakers are extremely lucky to always be able to fall back on teaching english when they need a job; most burmese refugees in the czech republic start out with manual labour.

during our visit last week to the newly arrived burmese families, we shared with them a short documentary film produced by BCP, to try to give them an idea of what to expect during the resettlement and adjustment process here in the czech republic. the film will soon be available for public viewing, if you’d like to get a better understanding of the whole process from the point of view of the refugees, NGOs, and the government. watch this space! in the mean time, you can check out our other short films at

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