From Myanmar to DuPage: A Valentine's Day love story
Feb. 14 has a special meaning for a refugee family in DuPage County.
Valentine's Day signifies more than the wedding anniversary of Lian Mung and Sian Nu, a young couple from Myanmar (also known as Burma): it's the date they arrived in the United States seeking safety from violence and persecution.
For the past half century, ethnic and religious conflicts have forced hundreds of thousands of Myanmarese to uproot their lives trying to escape devastating human rights abuses.
Lian, a Christian worship leader, fled his homeland in Tedim, Chin State, a mountainous northwestern tribal area of Myanmar. In 2008, he made the treacherous journey to Malaysia by way of Thailand smuggled in a van during the day and on foot at night in the jungle.
At only 24 years of age, Lian left behind his wife, his mother, two younger sisters, and the only life he had ever known.
Four years later, Sian joined Lian in Malaysia -- reunited in their enduring love. After six additional years displaced in a United Nations refugee camp, they were finally granted asylum. On a snowy Feb. 14, a four-months pregnant Sian and her beloved Lian landed at Chicago's O'Hare airport with only a suitcase and a few clothes to their name.
World Relief in DuPage County resettled the couple, providing them with food, housing, legal assistance and job search support. One of the biggest milestones for refugees and asylees is getting a job. A job roots them in the fabric of their new community. With only three months to find employment, Lian trimmed beef in a meatpacking plant while Sian cared for their newborn. Without warning, the meatpacking plant closed down and Lian lost his job.
In stepped Dan Peterson, the couple's World Relief employment counselor. Struck by Lian's English proficiency and bachelor's degree, Peterson recognized the couple's great potential and referred them to workNet DuPage to establish new careers. Lian and Sian engaged with the Lisle-based career center -- stewards of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) grant for DuPage County -- to complete vocational training.
Sian fit perfectly with a hands-on Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) training program, a skill in high demand by area manufacturers. According to Lian, "In our house, if something breaks, she's the one who fixes it." With a WIOA grant covering the cost of tuition, she enrolled in CNC training at Symbol Training Institute. Lian cared for their 10-month-old and worked as a machine operator at night in a meatpacking plant to support the family.
After Sian finished the program in August 2019, she quickly secured a full-time job at Tru-Grind, a machine shop in Arlington Heights. She enjoys the job and works the late shift. "At first I was so scared thinking I cannot do it; now I'm OK."
Her workNet DuPage counselor, Marianne Eisley, witnessed Sian's transformation from a shy and apprehensive young mother to a more confident, happy, and assertive woman. Breaking boundaries in the manufacturing sector, Sian is now the family's primary wage earner.
At her graduation ceremony, Sian approached Marianne and said, "It's my husband's turn to train now. Please don't forget."
Lian was always interested in computers and thanks to the workNet DuPage program, for the first time in his life, he has a chance to pursue a career in IT. With a WIOA grant, he enrolled in Able Career Institute's IT Career Lab, a fast-paced training program that includes the most in-demand certifications for entry-level IT jobs. He expects to graduate later this month and is eager to find employment and excited about the prospect of a new career.
The help the Lian family received is not unique. In 2019, World Relief and workNet DuPage combined their expertise and resources to improve the quality of life for asylees/refugees and better serve the business community.
To date, over 30 asylees and refugees have received job training to begin careers and contribute to the local economy. The majority have pursued manufacturing; others have completed information technology and health care programs. As a result, our community's newest members are improving their earnings potential, gaining pay raises, and becoming self-sufficient. Employers are recruiting skilled and reliable talent.
In less than two years, Lian and Sian have made remarkable strides. They are pursuing different career tracks motivated by their love for each other. With hard work, tenacity, and support from workNet DuPage and World Relief, they are contributing to their new community and see a brighter future for their son.
More than 8,000 miles from their home village in the Tedim Township of Myanmar where their journey began, they are rebuilding their lives in the Village of Glen Ellyn, the couple's new home.
Lian and Sian chose to get married on Valentine's Day, but they didn't choose to be refugees. Valentine's Day is an appropriate day to celebrate their relationship and the new life they are building together. For the couple, Feb. 14 will always represent something doubly meaningful.