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Originally published Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 7:14 PM

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Life is no picnic for refugees, but local Rescue Committee holds one anyway

Dozens of refugees turned up for a picnic on Saturday, hosted by the local office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps refugees rebuild their lives once they land in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Joseph Lal tried to express what he could in English.

America is great, he said, smiling as dozens of recently arrived refugees mingled Saturday at a welcome picnic in Burien. He's happy to be here. He has an apartment and a job. He hopes he can stay forever.

But when asked why he wanted out of his native country of Myanmar, Lal paused. Explaining the political strife and human-rights abuses was beyond his reach. So he made it simple.

"The army is fighting with the rebels," said Lal, 26. When hungry civilians took food rations from the rebels, "The army beat us."

Lal first fled to nearby Malaysia, then decided to seek asylum in the U.S. He arrived in Seattle in November, leaving behind his parents, two brothers and a sister.

Lal's story was similar to many refugees who turned up during a rainy summer afternoon at Seahurst Park. The picnic was hosted by the local office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that helps refugees rebuild their lives once they land in Seattle.

The nonprofit assists about 550 people — who are granted asylum by the U.S. government — every year. Most come from Myanmar and Bhutan, but many are also from Nepal, Somalia and Eritrea, said Bob Johnson, director.

When the refugees arrive, he said, they are excited to be here but at a loss on how to create a life for themselves. So IRC caseworkers find them housing in Tukwila, and assist them with food and clothing. Finding jobs and settling children into schools come next, he said.

The refugees rely on the IRC intensely for the first six months, then start to acclimate after they find work, he said. IRC connects them to entry-level jobs in restaurants, hotels, and factories.

Even when someone comes with a higher education, "We encourage them to take any kind of employment because it's better than welfare," Johnson said.

The summer picnic is one of the IRC's ways to introduce refugees to American culture.

Saturday, smoke from the charcoal grills wafted above the picnic shelter, as people piled salad, hamburgers and veggie hot dogs on their plates.

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Women in traditional Bhutanese clothing watched the waves roll back and forth on Puget Sound and nearby, young Nepali boys played soccer.

To Lal, the scene was pure American, something he wouldn't be able to do in his hometown of Kalay.

He does miss it though. He talks to his parents by phone, he said, but it's hard to be so far away from home.

For now, he said, he has to look ahead and be grateful for his job making wall panels at a company in Magnolia, even if it does take him an hour and a half to get to work everyday by bus.

He focuses on how well his employers treat him, he said. And he hopes that one day, his family will get to see what life is like over here.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

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