Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Sunday is family home evening at the Banyar Marn and Mi Haymar Chan home. That's when the young Burmese couple gathers their three teenage foster sons for a meeting and a game.
Ahlone Chan, 18, Ali Kareng, 19, and Rotmon Shwe, 19, pay little attention to the Dallas Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings football game on the big screen as they sit down on a couch in the family room. America's Team and American football don't really interest them. Soccer, they say, is the big sport in Burma.
Banyar calls the meeting to order in English to accommodate a visitor.
"How about your school?" he asks with a manila folder filled with papers spread open on the table in front of him. All three attend Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, which has a large immigrant student body. "Let me know if you need any help."
They then go over the schedule for the week, settling on Wednesday evening for a cooking lesson from Haymar.
The game comes down to "Life" and "Poker-Keeno." They young men quickly choose the latter, remembering that "Life" took three hours to play last time.
But they can't opt out of real life, and Banyar and Haymar see to it that they don't. They have rules for their charges for cooking, cleaning and checking in. They must be home before 9 p.m. each night, for example.
"It's my responsibility if something happens with them," Banyar said.
Banyar's desire to take in his cousin, Ahlone, led him to Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, which has one of a dozen refugee foster care programs in the country. Banyar and Haymar receive $22 a day for each son for food and such. "They eat more than that sometimes," Banyar said.
The program tries to unite refugees with relatives when they can locate them. Ahlone was living in foster care in Michigan when Banyar became aware of him last year.
"If I want him to live with me, I have to be a foster parent," he said.
Rotmon also is a relative and he lived with a friend, so both of them joined the family, too.
All three fled to Malaysia in their mid-teens with their families' blessing to avoid being conscripted into Burma's military government, which they believe is corrupt. They didn't want to be forced to fight against their own people.
"If you can hold gun, I think maybe they can take you," Ahlone said.
Added Ali, "You don't have opportunity. You don't have right."
They fended for themselves in Malaysia for a year or so, working odd jobs and living with friends. Knowing they couldn't live there forever or return to Burma, they sought out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After several interviews with the agency, they obtained refugee status and were resettled in the United States.
So Banyar and Haymar, who don't have children of their own, teach and tutor them, drawing from their own experiences as refugees and immigrants. A political activist in Burma, Banyar escaped to Bangkok just ahead of the Burmese soldiers headed to his house to arrest him. Haymar walked from Burma to Bangkok to find work and better living conditions. They met at a Buddhist temple and were married there in 2004.
Banyar obtained refugee status and settled in Utah. It took nearly three years before his wife was able to join him.
"When you come here you have to start a new life. You have to go to school. You have to work hard," Banyar says. "In this country you have good opportunities. If want education, you can go to school. If you want money, you can go to work. Some kids don't think like that."
That's what the couple is doing while mentoring their foster sons, who can live with them until age 21 provided they attend school.
Banyar works at Easton Technical Products and studies social work at Salt Lake Community College. Haymar cleans planes at the Salt Lake Airport and hopes to open an Asian grocery store some day.
"The first thing is to be a good example for them to follow you, to listen to you," he said.
So far, so good. Ahlone, Ali and Shwe are gaining a command of English, holding jobs and making progress in school. Though they're homesick sometimes, Ali says, "Life is good here."
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