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In which John goes to the airport--not, for once, to fly somewhere, but in hopes of seeing a family of Burmese refugees reunited. Thanks to Saw Kyar Aye and Thet Thet for sharing their story with me and for inviting me to the airport on that fateful day. SOURCES BELOW!

Sponsor our 10k run here: All proceeds go to Exodus Refugee International, a local nonprofit working with refugees resettled in Indianapolis:


Forced labor remains a huge problem in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and those conscripted by the army into labor are often beaten and sometimes executed for desertion (or just for being injured):,8599,2082814,00.html

Refugee resettlement does not increase crime rates in the United States. This study explored the relationship between crime in communities and refugee populations, finding an association (but not causation!!!!) between refugee resettlement and lower crime rates:

In general, immigrant populations commit crimes at a lower rate than native born populations in the United States: and also

Then there is the question of whether immigration reduces wages. This is VERY HOTLY CONTESTED, so I'm going to try to be careful here. The best/most readable overview I've found is here: but it focuses on the effect of refugee populations on European economies. Because refugees entering the United States are more thoroughly vetted and also more likely to be highly educated, in the U.S. refugees are less likely to decrease wages--i.e., they almost certainly don't. More info here:

Then there's the question of whether a large influx of immigrants affect wages or unemployment. That's not super relevant to the U.S. right now, because we have relatively few refugee resettlements here, but it's an interesting side note. The WSJ has a good overview of the cloudiness here: The Brookings Institute claims that "on average, immigrant workers increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans." Other studies have found that large influxes of immigrants do depress wages for some low-skilled workers: And then of course there are studies that show the problem with the studies that show the problem with the other studies. It's complicated. Some day I'd like to make a video about the incredibly complex relationship between immigration and wages/unemployment/economic growth, but not today.

For those looking to learn more about the current political situation in Myanmar, here's a more recent, deeply disturbing story about forced labor of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar: To be clear, the family I discuss in this video is not Rohingya; most Rohingya are Muslims. Saw Kyar Aye and his family are Christians of Chin ethnicity. But Chin people have frequently been targets of forced labor initiatives.

Huge thank you to Sara Hindi and everyone at Exodus Refugee International for making this video possible. Thanks also to Mark Olsen for his videography and editing genius. Any mistakes are mine alone.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

So I am a total sucker for airport reunions and because I've spent about a third of my adult life in airports I've seen a lot of them over the years.

But a couple weeks ago I got to see... Well OK. This is Saw Kyar Aye, waiting at the airport for his wife and son. He was born in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and as a young man he was taken from his community, by the army, and forced to work on road construction. The conditions for forced labour in Burma are horrible and it remains a problem despite the steps towards democracy the country has made in the past decade. Beatings by soldiers are common and deserters have been executed.

Persecution of religious and ethnic minorities is also common and Saw Kyar Aye is both, he is a Christian and a member of the ethnic Chin minority. Saw Kyar Aye escaped his forced labour crew in 2008 and eventually found his way to Malaysia, where he registered as a refugee with UNHCR. But because he couldn't legally work in Malaysia he had to live on the margins of the social order. Then again, he couldn't risk returning home because now he would be considered a deserter.

He did consider himself lucky, though, to find unofficial work in a restaurant, where he met Thet Thet, a fellow Burmese refugee who was a waitress in that restaurant. They fell in love and got married, but their refugee cases were being processed separately. The bureaucracy faced by refugees is often quite dizzying. There are so many layers of vetting and checking and only a tiny fraction of people are ever approved for resettlement.

Also, critically, if you do get approved for resettlement, that news can come at any time and when it does you have one chance to take it or leave it. So in 2012, four years after escaping to Malaysia, Saw Kyar Aye received permission to come to the United States, but because Thet Thet's application was being vetted separately, she did not. Together they decided that Aye should go, partly because they'd been told that it was easy to reunite spouses once one was in the United States.

So in December of 2012, with Thet Thet 8 months pregnant, Saw Kyar Aye left Malaysia for Indianapolis. There are more than 13,000 Burmese refugees now living here in Indianapolis. Saw Kyar Aye joined that community, but he also joined the broader Indianapolis community. He found a church and friends and a job, he works in a Clif Bar factory, but the very first thing he did upon arriving was file for family reunification.

Quick pause to note that refugee resettlement has not increased US crime rates in Indianapolis or elsewhere. In fact it is associated with community crime rates dropping. And also there is little evidence that refugee resettlement negatively effects employment or wages, sources in the video info below.

Right, so its the beginning of 2013. Thet Thet is in Malaysia caring for her baby son, Saw Kyar Min, working when she can. The family seems certain to be reunited soon but delays keep happening. Until finally in April of 2014 Saw Kyar Aye learns that his wife and son will be coming to the United States. Except there is a clerical error. It turns out that there are two Saw Kyar Ayes in a refugee data base and Thet Thet has been listed as being married to the other one so the trip is cancelled and the process starts again.

At last in 2016, Thet Thet and Saw Kyar Min are again approved for resettlement. Visas are issued, travel plans made, and then comes an executive order halting all refugee resettlement into the United States for at least 120 days. Saw Kyar Aye said he started to wonder if he would ever get a chance to see his son. He'd prepared
everything for the kid to start school in Indiana, but now they had to wait, again. Would the refugee resettlement programme ever restart? If so would people already approved still be at the front of the line?
Or would it be 2014 all over again?

But then, as suddenly as the executive order arrived, a court ruled much of it invalid and days later Thet Thet and Saw Kyar Min were on a plane, first to New York and then to Indianapolis. Saw Kyar Aye and I have both worked with a local refugee resettlement organization called Exodus and through them I was invited to the airport for the reunion and walking in I was so nervous. Would there be another executive order, a different court reaching a different ruling? No. This time I got to witness the best airport reunion, as Saw Kyar Aye saw his wife for the first time in over 4 years and held his son for the first time ever.

No one can seriously think that reuniting this family poses a threat to the strength or the prosperity of the United States. But to be a refugee is to have much of your life defined by powers far beyond your control. Yesterday a new blanket ban on refugee resettlement was announced for at least 120 days, meaning that many families who had been praying for, and told to expect, reunions like this one will now have to wait.

Now we can have, and we need to have, a discussion about how many refugees should be resettled in the United States each year, but a blanket ban is a terrible way to start that conversation. Instead I believe that conversation must start by seeing refugees as people, with individual stories who love their families and want to them safe.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.

P.S. Over at my best friend, Chris, and I are on a health and fitness journey and on day 100 we're going to run a 10K race. You can sponsor us, all the proceeds will go to Exodus, the refugee resettlement organization here in Indianapolis, link in the dooblydoo below. Thanks, bye!