Sunday, April 1, 2007

The surprising price of freedom

Saturday, March 31, 2007
Dentists Gabor Balogh shows kids the importance of looking after their young teeth. Balogh has volunteered his expertise and time to treat all family members.
CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun
Dentists Gabor Balogh shows kids the importance of looking after their young teeth. Balogh has volunteered his expertise and time to treat all family members.
Ma Sher Paw, 8, listens to music and clutches her teddy bear as she waits for the dentist to examine her.
CREDIT: Mark Van Manen, Vancouver Sun
Ma Sher Paw, 8, listens to music and clutches her teddy bear as she waits for the dentist to examine her.
Shar Yu and Patric Cho patiently wait for the dentist to arrive. They're in no hurry as it's the first visit to the dentist for Patric.
CREDIT: Mark Van Manen, Vancouver Sun
Shar Yu and Patric Cho patiently wait for the dentist to arrive. They're in no hurry as it's the first visit to the dentist for Patric.
Gabor Balogh checks out Ma Sher Paw's teeth on her first visit to the dentist. Balogh volunteered his time for the refugee family.
CREDIT: Mark Van Manen, Vancouver Sun
Gabor Balogh checks out Ma Sher Paw's teeth on her first visit to the dentist. Balogh volunteered his time for the refugee family.

This is the second in a series of occasional articles about Burmese refugee Shar Yu and her family, and their road to becoming Canadian.

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At Christmas, Shar Yu, was thinking a lot about the new life she hopes to build for her children and grandchildren. The variety of food in her local markets amazed her; the ability to walk out her front door and buy that food amazed her.

She finds her adopted country endlessly clean and bountiful; her children, even with very limited English, love their new schools, and revel in the energy and the freedom of their playgrounds. The watchful concern on their faces in the midst of rattling life changes has given way to happy smiles and laughter.

But it only took a few weeks in Canada for Shar Yu to discover one profound limit of a capitalist economy: everything costs money.

As government-assisted refugees, Shar Yu and her family are entitled to modest government income support for the first year that they are in Canada. Like all refugees who arrive in the colder months, they were given winter clothing when they first landed in Vancouver. The federal government also provides a one-time household start-up allowance that can be as much as $1,000 depending on the number and age of children, pre-existing medical conditions and variety of other factors.

In the months before they meet residency requirements for provincial health coverage, government-assisted refugees have access to an interim federal health system.

When all is said and done, Shar Yu and her four younger children, ages 7 to 13, must get by on $1,100 per month, of which $650 goes straight for rent on their one-bedroom apartment. Running a household of four children on the $450 per month remaining seems impossible from a comfortable middle-class vantage point, but Shar Yu is not complaining. She does, however, admit to being worried about the future.

The income assistance is available only for the first 12 months. After that, any refugee not able to support himself or herself must turn to the welfare system. Refugees are also contractually obliged to repay the federal government the cost of their travel to Canada. In the case of Shar Yu and her younger children, this is about $1,060 a person. While Citizenship and Immigration is very flexible about the terms, it is still a large debt that must eventually be repaid.

"Everything is fine in our life now," Shar Yu said recently, speaking through an interpreter. "Except for the finances, of course." She is characteristically calm, and given to a highly developed sense of irony. When the issue of how she is managing is raised, she smiles a little ruefully and looks out the window into the busy Surrey street beyond. "We get by, but all [of the Karen are] worried. We worry about the expenses that we are not expecting."

Neighbours and new friends have been very generous. Several benefactors appeared after The Vancouver Sun printed its first story about Shar Yu, two days before Christmas.

One of those benefactors is West Vancouver dentist Gabor Balogh, who read part of the article before passing the newspaper to his wife Tracey, a human resources executive with the Knowledge Network.

Tracey Balogh read to the end of the story and asked her husband if he'd seen the part about the children's dental worries. He hadn't, and so he read the article again, including the paragraph in which Shar Yu mentions in passing that one of her biggest concerns is for her children's teeth. None of them had ever been to a dentist, and the eldest daughter, Lwe Nye Paw, 13, recently had bouts of serious tooth pain. (Non-emergency dental care is not part of the government's coverage for refugees, and a single visit to a dentist might eat up several month's food.)

"Tracey said, 'There's a family here that needs dental work, do you want to do that?' And I said, 'Sure, let's do that,'" Gabor Balogh recalls.

Other benefactors, Bob and Carol Wiens of Kerrisdale, made a van available for the trip from Surrey to West Vancouver. And that's how Shar Yu, her four younger children, and Zipporah Min, a Karen refugee herself, who frequently translates for members of the community, found themselves in Balogh's oceanfront dental practice, near the pier in Dundarave.

If Shar Yu's tidy ground-floor apartment in Surrey is a world away from the mud and sickness of the Thai camps, the boulevard-lined, sea view streets of Dundarave must be two worlds away.

Gabor Balogh and his staff spent several hours working on the family, loading the children down with fancy toothbrushes, sparkly pencils, colourful rings and bracelets and other souvenirs of their trip to the North Shore. The children were goggle-eyed with happiness.

Never having had dental attention before, and not yet brushing regularly, they will need a fair bit of attention. A couple of the sisters may need root canals. Balogh had them all back this week, to complete the work.

Balogh is self-deprecating about his considerable generosity. Asked to contemplate the unlikely links between a West Vancouver dentist and a refugee family from the jungles of Thailand, he says it's a closer relationship than many people might imagine: He also began his life in a refugee camp.

His parents fled Hungary in 1957, in the aftermath of the uprising the year before. He was still an infant, but family lore recalls that the sight of baby Gabor, sound asleep on the biggest of the suitcases, dissuaded border guards from disturbing the child and looking into a trunk that would have cast doubt on the family's cover story of a weekend visit to the grandparents.

The family passed through a transit camp in the former Yugoslavia and spent almost a year in a refugee camp near Trieste, before coming to Canada. They settled in London, Ont., where Balogh's father, a physician and dentist, eventually set up a dental practice of his own. He worked into his 80s, before retiring.

"I'm not totally sure why I do this," he says.

"I guess I take after my dad in some ways because he used to help refugees, back in London, when he was working. Especially when Bosnia and Croatia were going through the war and a lot of [people] were coming out, my dad was doing entire families. [People] would come in and they didn't have any money, and he'd say, 'No problem.'

"He was just such a generous guy -- just helping people out, because he'd been in the same situation."

Gabor and Tracey Balogh moved from Ontario to the Lower Mainland in 1989, and he practised in North Vancouver and Burnaby, before setting up shop in West Vancouver.

When the dental work was finished for the day for Shar Yu and her family, Balogh came out to the waiting room with a big smile and a friendly good-bye for the children. They walked out into the fresh air, their feet barely touching the ground.

It was an afternoon of firsts: The first time the children had been to a dentist, the first time any of them had been so close to the North Shore mountains -- which on that particular February day were suitably impressive under a high overcast sky and a new cloak of powdery snow, and the first time the children had ever seen the ocean up close, or dipped their fingers in to taste the salty water.

For children who are normally very quiet and well-mannered, Shar Yu's young ones found the beach at Dundarave a liberating experience. Patric Cho, 7, and Ma Sher Paw, 8, were leaping from log to log, flinging pebbles at the water, while Shar Yu marvelled at the western horizon. And everyone, even Shar Yu, wanted to taste the seawater.

An impromptu language class on the sand, with new words such as "ocean," "beach" and "seagull," had the whole family doubled over with laughter.

"This is why we came here," Shar Yu said, with a radiant smile. "How beautiful it is, and how free. I want to have a picture of us here to show people back in [the camps] why coming to Canada was the best decision we ever made."

Karen language translation for this article was provided by Zipporah Min.


Shar Yu is an ethnic Karen, from Kayin state, in the hilly southeastern border region of Burma. The Karen, ethnically and linguistically distinct from the majority Burmese population, are an independence-minded people. Their desire for autonomy has pitted them against Burma's repressive military regime for more than a generation.

Burma's scorched-earth treatment of the Karen borders on ethnic cleansing. More than 100,000 Karen have fled the country for jungle sanctuaries across the border in Thailand. Shar Yu, with an infant son under her arm, made the dangerous trek in 1980.

She spent the next 26 years locked inside a series of crowded, disease-ridden refugee camps. Five of her six children were born there, and have known no other life. In 1999, Shar Yu's husband, Eh Say Way, died in a motorcycle accident, leaving her with their newborn son, and three young daughters. The two elder sons, now in their 20s, have families of their own but continue to look to Shar Yu for guidance.

On Nov. 1, Shar Yu and her children and grandchildren arrived in Vancouver as government-assisted refugees. When we last visited, a few days before Christmas, the family was settled in a housing complex in north Surrey, and the younger children had registered for local schools.

None of them spoke a word of English, but they were settling into their new home, and their smiles had broadened considerably from the confusion and culture shock of their first few days in Canada.

The elder sons and their wives enrolled in ESL courses, and while they were studying full-time, Shar Yu stayed home with her three grandchildren, watching snow fall for the first time in their lives, and relishing the freedom of life outside a barbed-wire compound.