Refugee From Myanmar Leads The Way For Others In Rural Colorado

Oct 23, 2015

Saw Peter, a leader for the Karen community in Delta, Colo, prays at a Baptist church service.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

Saw Peter is Karen. That’s an ethnic group in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  And for more than 100 Karen refugees in rural Delta, Colo., he’s the go-to person for advice, translation and other essential information.

Like the other refugees in this community, life hasn’t been easy for Peter.

As a young man, he smuggled his family to Malaysia because the government in Myanmar seized their farm and threatened to kill them.

    

In Malaysia, Peter worked construction. He drove a car —  whatever he could do to make a living.

But, he worried about deportation and the safety of his family. 

"Malaysia was not safe for us actually," he says. "The police arrested me three or four times. We had to give them money. It was not easy for us. My kids [couldn’t] go to school."  

Saw Peter with his sons Blessing and Solomon and his wife Su Su.

Thanks to a refugee resettlement program, Peter and his family came to Denver in 2010.

"When I got to Denver I was happy," he says. "I’m was happy because I was free and here legally. Also I know that we are safe."

But as it turns out, Peter didn’t feel safe in the big city life of Denver. He was concerned about his kids and especially about gangs. 

Like many of the Karen, he grew up in a rural community, and he missed it.

"I like small towns," Peter says. "I want to live in a small town."

In Denver, he was active in his local church and there he met Janet Johnson. She could see that Peter and his family were well connected to the area’s Karen population.

"They were very in touch with the community," Johnson says.  "They had a heart for their people. [Peter] was just a natural leader for his people. He wanted to help them relocate."

Johnson did everything she could do to assist them in moving to Delta. 

And, according to James Conely, a local pastor, they were pioneers.

"Saw Peter’s family was actually the first [Karen] family that uprooted from Denver and came over and planted here," Conely says.

Once Peter settled in Delta in 2011, he helped other Karen refugees adjust to life here. 

 

Saw Peter, left, helps two Karen high school students with a reading assignment.

While his English isn’t perfect, the local school district hired him as a translator. And, he assists the Karen with everything from government forms to communicating with doctors. He interprets for women in the delivery room, and in one case for a young Karen man in jail.

"It’s a lot of work to be a true leader," Peter says. "For me, I don’t want to be a leader. I want to be a helper, a helper for [my people]."

And, Peter does what he does because it’s the right thing to do.

"The important thing is love because of love we can help each other or other people," he says.

He’s also found personal success in Delta. Peter is the first Karen in the community to purchase a home.

And, he also got his commercial truck-driving license and landed a good job. He drives semis for Foster Farms.

"This driving job is my dream job because I’m very interested in driving," Peter says. "I’m very happy."  

For much of the past two decades, Peter’s been on the move, but he says Delta feels like home. 

This story is the final story in a special three-part series about the Karen refugee population in Delta. The series is part of a reporting project for the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s 2015 fellowship on immigrant families.