OSHKOSH – There’s a word that rings a bell with Wai Hinn Oo:
It’s not a word you’d expect to associate with the friendly 37-year-old as he greets you with a big smile and opens the door to his home on Spruce Street in Oshkosh.
But when he and his wife, Nang Shwe Thein, sit down, Thein plopping their 15-month-old daughter, Victoria, on her lap, the stories they share from the past decade of their lives can be summed up as one thing:
On Wednesday, the family marked five years since coming to Oshkosh as part of a refugee resettlement program. They are the first family that came to Oshkosh through World Relief Fox Valley, which works with faith-based organizations to resettle refugees.
World Relief Fox Valley, which had been open in Oshkosh prior to 2012 but closed for a few years, also celebrated the organization’s five-year anniversary of re-opening, marked by the date of the Hinn family’s arrival.
A decade ago, Hinn and Thein lived in their home country of Myanmar in a village outside of the city of Lashio.
Hinn was arrested — for the third time — and forced to carry supplies for the military. He hadn’t broken any laws, but he and other men who were arrested endured beatings if they refused to comply, he said.
Many times the men would hide in the forest when the military came to arrest them, he said. After that third arrest, Wai Hinn decided to run away altogether. The couple left on foot and hopped trains to Thailand, then to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
There was no water and little fresh air on the trains, Thein said. It was hard to breathe.
All they wanted was a safe place to live in peace, Hinn said.
“We only had hope,” he said.
The couple lived in Kuala Lumpur, undocumented for six years, in a house with just one small room. Water came from a well; food was cooked over a fire. Refrigerators, ovens and other kitchen appliances were “rich people things,” Hinn said.
Eventually their family would grow by one. The couple knew that Thein couldn’t give birth to their oldest daughter, Christina, in a hospital because they were undocumented. There was no option to go back to Myanmar.
A friend recommended the U.N. Refugee Agency, Hinn said, which provided services and connected them to the refugee resettlement program. After a two-year vetting process, Hinn and Thein gathered all of their belongings into five bags and got on a flight to America.
Hinn remembers well the four flights and two days of travel to get to Oshkosh. The couple had never been on a plane and spoke little English besides simple phrases like “thank you.” They were seated in different areas of the plane; he worried how the baby would handle the flights.
It was overwhelming, Hinn said.
The family finally arrived at the Appleton International Airport that February evening. To them, the weather was unexpectedly cold, but members of Oshkosh’s Water City Church greeted them with warm welcomes and winter coats.
Norm Leatherwood, then-executive director of World Relief, was one of those greeters. He said the Oshkosh community has been welcoming to refugees, and volunteers are always ready to lend a hand.
“I think it really is a wonderful thing that churches and caring communities … have been able to open their hearts and their communities to welcome people like Wai Hinn,” Leatherwood said.
The Wai Hinn family had a chance for a new life in Oshkosh. However, they’d have to build it on their own.
World Relief Fox Valley provided a two-bedroom apartment and a “Good Neighbor Team” that picked the family up from the airport. More volunteers on the team filled a fridge with food and made a hot meal for the family that was ready to eat when they walked through the door.
Hinn and Thein were excited to see and use all the appliances in the kitchen and to have a living space with multiple rooms. It was amazing, Hinn said.
“I still remember that feeling,” he said, looking off as he reminisced. “I can’t express the happiness I felt.”
World Relief staff also helped the couple set up a bank account, taught them how to budget and connected them with resources to start their new life. Hinn said they wouldn’t have survived without the organization.
Hinn’s first job was wrapping silverware at Lakeside Packaging Plus; then he was a chef at Manila Resto, which had just opened. Now he works at Bemis Company Inc., where he started two years ago. He’s earned two promotions, most recently to technician. Hinn also attends Fox Valley Technical College to earn a degree in auto manufacturing systems.
The couple bought a home within their third year in Oshkosh, and two cars were parked in the driveway this week.
Phil Stoffel, immigration and employment manager at World Relief Fox Valley, said the family serves as an example of what happens more often than not when refugees resettle — they are successful.
“I’m so excited for your future,” he said to Hinn and Thein on Monday, recalling how well they’ve done for themselves since he met them in 2013.
Hinn chalks their success up to setting goals and working towards them; he continues to set more. Hinn and Thein are working towards becoming U.S. citizens. They’d like to bring their families here from Myanmar but have to become citizens first.
The family of four enjoys camping and visits to the Wisconsin Dells. They practice Buddhism as part of their traditional culture while studying Christianity at Water City Church.
But their favorite past time is going to Menominee Park. It was there that the family made their first memories in Oshkosh playing with Christina, who is now 7, because it was near their first apartment. It’s a special place for them, Hinn said.
Leatherwood said Hinn and Thein have the qualities a refugee needs to be successful: They’re adaptable and have embraced a new lifestyle while sharing their own.
“They are the poster children for the global refugee resettlement program and the way it’s supposed to work,” Leatherwood said.
He called the couple delightful and noted they’ve worked very hard to be successful in Oshkosh. It’s the classic American story, he said, adding he finds them inspiring.
That success validates the work staff do at World Relief every day, said Tami McLaughlin, the agency’s executive director.
“Wai Hinn’s success is truly a milestone for World Relief, for Oshkosh and our country,” she said in an email to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “In addition to his other successes, we are confident he will soon become an American citizen and we will be enriched by his contributions, devotion and patriotism toward our country. We are the beneficiaries and will be better for it!”
Their new life didn’t come easy. It had obstacles like the language barrier, which is still a hurdle, Hinn said. Other challenges included the concept of banking rather than keeping all your cash, making appointments and getting immunizations, a driver’s license and a car.
But within the struggles were lessons — lessons of resilience.
Without suffering, there is no success, Hinn said.
“When you suffer,” he said. “You cannot surrender.”
Read more at Refugee family marks 5 years in Oshkosh.