Adjusting To Life In America

Tin Myaing Thein, a native of Burma/Myanmar, says her job helping immigrants in Hawaii ‘was meant to be'

Tin Myaing Thein, a native of Burma/Myanmar, says her job helping immigrants in Hawaii ‘was meant to be’

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free —Statue of Liberty inscription

There is a segment of our population very familiar with the plight of being second-class citizens. Arriving in America with hope of a new start in the land of opportunity, they face the reality of what it’s like to be an “alien.”

It’s often not an easy and welcoming transition. Even the federal government currently is embroiled in debate over the issue of immigration reform.

The plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees — referred to as “illegals” — is the mission of Tin Myaing Thein, Ph.D., executive director of Pacific Gateway Center. Because of the work of her organization, many regard her as Hawaii’s lady of liberty who carries the torch of compassion for foreigners transitioning to America.

Some are victims of human trafficking and live in the shadows trying to dodge the constant threat of deportation. Where do they go for help to ease the way to naturalization and self-sufficiency?

Enter Lady Liberty.

Thein was raised in Myanmar (Burma) in a privileged family of four children, nurtured by a social-organizer mother and irrigation-engineer father.

One of her childhood friends is Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom she named a daughter and grandchild.

While many immigrants go from rags to riches, Thein’s path was just the opposite. When her father, a devout Christian, chose biblical principles to serve God and not money, the family made major sacrifices.

“We went from having a chauffeur to no car and riding the bus,” Thein recalls. “It was a major adjustment, but my father was preparing us all along by making us realize the plight of the underprivileged.”

That was a life-changing experience. Another took place in 1963 at the age of 20, when she left Burma to study at East-West Center in Honolulu. Little did Thein know, as she rode alone on that long flight to the Islands, that an intercultural awakening awaited her, leading to educational and social opportunities that would culminate at an agency that helps immigrants, refugees and low-income clients.

She met her husband, Jack Reynolds, a former Peace Corps volunteer, at East-West Center. Together, they advanced their education and professional pursuits in Pittsburgh, New York, Washington and San Diego.

“But Hawaii kept calling,” Thein reflects, “especially during those bitter winters in the East, when the lure of the Islands’ warmth and aloha made me want to return.”

Her husband agreed to return to Hawaii “if you can get a job there.”

With her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and microbiology as well as master’s in public health and sociology, plus a Ph.D. in medical sociology, she returned to Hawaii in 1986 to work at Child and Family Service in Nanakuli and later at Palolo MAC resettlement center for refugees.

In 1988, she was recruited to head what was then known as Kalihi Palama Immigrant Services Center. It is there that the training and experiences she had accumulated over the years came to define her destiny.

“It was meant to be,” Thein says.

Renamed Pacific Gateway Center (PGC) in 1999, the work of this nonprofit agency helps immigrants and refugees adjust to life and self-sufficiency in America. The portal to the land of opportunity comes with many personal challenges of adapting socially and economically.

“Language is a major barrier,” the executive director notes. “Can you imagine being the victim of human trafficking and not being able to explain to authorities who you are and how you are being violated or abused by employers?”

Yet, “Hawaii is a major hub of human trafficking, the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world,” says Thein. “Victims often go unnoticed because they usually work in jobs with low visibility to the general public.”

They are laborers in farm fields or sweatshops, dishwashers in restaurants, landscape workers and janitors. They are women and young girls who are forced into the sex trade.

Trafficking recruiters promise good living conditions and decent wages. After immigrants arrive, their passports are taken away and they are forced to work in terrible conditions for little or no pay.

“This is the dark side of paradise,” Thein laments.

Commenting on immigration reform, she states, “The system is broken in the bureaucratic sense. We must look for creative ways to certify a foreigner’s background when documentation is scant. Documented proof required by the American government can be ponderous and daunting.”

PGC knows this because among its services is assistance in processing immigration and naturalization applications to legally live and work in the United States. PGC’s staff of 25 are multilingual and versed in social services case management, workforce training, education and placement, as well as economic development initiatives such as its culinary kitchen incubator. The immaculate, fully equipped commercial kitchens are rented at modest rates by caterers, food truck operators, bakers, bottlers and even a pet-food producer. Among its clients is Keiki Lunchbox, an enterprising catering service that offers school meals using local, organically grown ingredients. Another successful enterprise is The Pig and The Lady at Lemongrass Café on North King Street, where a former pop-up and farmers market operation has partnered with PGC to provide restaurant jobs, training and produce supplies.

PGC services are provided annually to 5,000 clients, who might otherwise subsist on welfare.

Thein’s mission is neither political nor myopic. Her work with the haves and have-nots follows the basic principles of psychology that, before one can attain personal goals and self-worth, basic human needs, safety and emotions must be addressed.

Like the Statue of Liberty, America’s symbol of freedom, PGC is the portal to self-sufficiency.

“Our goal is to be less dependent on government funds and to make our social enterprise programs self-sufficient,” says Thein.

That is refreshing in an age when reliance on government funding and the burden of taxation weighs heavy on constituents.

The American-Burmese social leader is grateful for the government funding it has attracted in the past, but she knows with budget cutbacks and attrition there must be tracks to sustainability. This puts her in constant grant-writing mode, but the uniqueness of PGC’s model programs intrigues a receptive audience of supporters.

With the state’s diverse population built on a legacy of immigrants, it’s a story that only Hawaii can tell so well.

Nearly one in five Hawaii residents are immigrants (foreign-born), and more than half are naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. Immigrants are not only integral to the state’s economy as workers, according to American Immigration Council, but also account for billions of dollars in tax revenue and consumer purchasing power.

At a time when the economy is still recovering, Immigration Policy Center states, Hawaii can ill-afford to alienate such a critical component of its labor force, tax base and business community. Thein, Hawaii’s lady of liberty, and our isles-vacationing president of the United States probably would agree.