Visit Catherin in her home and she will offer you a cold beverage, and either a big plate of fruit, or an exotic sugary sweet from her neighborhood market. She will sit and chat with you while her 16-month-old daughter, Juliana, bounces on her lap and drops seaweed chips at her feet. Nearby, in the corner of the living room, on a folding table, is her sewing machine and a stack of colorful fabric squares, which she will sew into Roundies for GAIA.
When Catherin talks about first arriving in Dallas, her pretty face lights up and she becomes animated. She will wave her hands when she tells you how scared she was to be in a country where she didn’t speak the language or know a single soul. She will tell you how sad she felt to be away from her mother and father. But she will do it with a smile on her face — because Catherin is almost always smiling.
Catherin was the inspiration that led our founder, Paula, to create GAIA in the first place. A Burmese refugee who arrived in Dallas in April 2009 with two young children, Catherin became Paula’s mentee through the International Rescue Committee. She needed to learn English and find work, among other things. Paula wanted to help. And that’s how GAIA was born.
10+ Years in Refugee Camps
Catherin and her siblings first fled Burma for neighboring Thailand in 1995. (Burma is a republic in Southeast Asia also known as Myanmar. Civil war has raged there since the ’40s, and it is among the least developed countries in the world.) Catherin was just 16 years old. She spent more than a decade in various Thai refugee camps. During that time, she met and married her husband, and they had two children, Bambina, now 13, and Basolus, now 9.
She remembers the day an NGO group came to visit the camp where she was living. “They talked about families coming to the U.S. They said they could take a lot of people and asked us, ‘Do you want to come?’ They showed a movie, and we needed to sign a lot of papers before we could be considered,” she says. From there, the process of immigrating to the United States took about a year. “We were interviewed three times,” she says. “And there were lots of medical checks — X-rays and blood tests.”
A Tough Start in Texas
Catherin and her children arrived in Dallas separately from her husband, who came six months later. Sadly, he died from liver disease shortly thereafter, leaving Catherin as the sole provider for the family. She recalls that period of her life as very difficult. “We were scared, and we wanted to go back to the camps. We had to pay a lot for rent and electricity and a phone, and we had no money. The jobs available to us paid very little.”
She also recalls a time when a man broke into her home and she had to call the police. “I said all the time, ‘I want to go back.’ I wanted to be with my brothers and sisters. I really felt like I’d made a mistake.”
But under Paula’s wing, Catherin found stability and hope. Her work at GAIA — initially making cloth napkins — paid a living wage, and having someone she could turn to for help made all the difference, she says. “Paula gave me a good thing.”
Since then, Catherin and her new partner have had two more children — baby Juliana and her brother Christopher, who is 5. She has also become a United States citizen, passing her citizenship test this past summer and voting for the first time in this past election. “Overjoyed” is how she describes her feelings about that, and she laughs when she talks about the fact that Juliana or Christopher could some day be president of the United States.
That’s not something that ever could have been possible had the family stayed in Thailand. And though she misses her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since 1997 and who has never met any of her grandchildren, as well as her siblings, who are now scattered from Nebraska to Burma to Finland to Yemen, Catherin says she has found happiness.
And we at GAIA are beyond happy to work with Catherin and our other refugee artisans. These women are why we exist. If you haven't already met Bothina and Feza, be sure to click over and read their stories. And keep reading for future pieces about the tenacious women who inspire us every day.
To learn more about about refugee resettlement and how you can help, go to rescue.org.