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Originally published April 28, 2013 at 8:12 PM | Page modified April 28, 2013 at 8:22 PM

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Patriarch to Seattle’s Burmese community dies

Saw Aung Khin — one of the first Burmese immigrants in the Seattle area, a patriarch to his community, a nurse and a maker of remarkable egg rolls — has died at 79.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saw Aung Khin, one of the first Burmese immigrants to move to the Seattle area and regarded by many in the community as its patriarch, has died. He was 79.

Known as Grandpa to many ethnic Karen refugees from Burma living in the Seattle area, Mr. Khin, who died Thursday (April 25), helped them adjust to a new land while keeping their community together. He interpreted for them in job interviews. He shared his famous homemade egg rolls. And he often led communion at the Karen Community Church of Greater Seattle.

“He was the admired, beloved patriarch of the obscure Karen community of Western Washington,” said Randy Jaffe, 59, a Seattle native who became friends with Mr. Khin in 1988 by accident.

Jaffe was visiting his grandparents at a local assisted-living home when their nurse, Mr. Khin, came into their room. Jaffe, who met and married his wife in Thailand, asked Mr. Khin about his background. When Mr. Khin told him he belonged to the Karen ethnic minority, Jaffe introduced his wife, who’s also Karen.

“Without hesitation, we were adopted into his family,” Jaffe recalled.

Extended family meant everything to Mr. Khin, who early on suffered staggering losses, according to his son, Simon:

Born in the early 1930s in a village about 90 miles northeast of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), Mr. Khin lost his parents, an older brother and a younger sister to disease when he was still a child. He and an older brother were adopted by an uncle who didn’t have children.

During World War II, battles between the Japanese and the British left much of Burma in ruins. After Burma, now known as Myanmar, gained its independence in 1948, Mr. Khin became part of a regiment of ethnic Karen assigned to help rebuild the country.

A 1948 photo, taken by an unknown photographer, shows the young, proud corporal standing at ease in crisp military pants, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, a wide-brimmed hat tucked under his right arm. It was Mr. Khin’s favorite.

Because he picked up English more quickly than his peers, he was assigned to the Insein Jail. When an American missionary was arrested and brought to the jail, Mr. Khin was assigned to process the paperwork and speak with the American consul trying to free the missionary.

As Mr. Khin got to know the American consul, they became friends, and soon the American Baptist Churches started working to bring Mr. Khin and his family to the United States.

In October 1977, Mr. Khin, his wife and their five children flew into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and were met by members of the Seattle First Baptist Church. The next morning, Mr. Khin woke up the kids and told them they were going to school.

“I brought you guys here,” he said, as his son recalled. “Now it’s time for you to do your part.”

Mr. Khin, in his 40s, worked odd jobs and went to school. He’d only had a fourth-grade education in Burma, but he eventually became a licensed practical nurse.

He and his wife raised chickens and vegetables at their home in SeaTac. Mr. Khin also loved riding motorcycles and made egg rolls by the hundreds, even sharing his recipe on Facebook.

A student of geopolitics, Mr. Khin lobbied the Seattle City Council unsuccessfully in the late 1990s to sever city ties with businesses that supported the military junta in Burma.

As more refugees came to the Seattle area in 2006, Mr. Khin’s leadership helped many of the new arrivals.

“Yesterday I got a call from a Karen refugee in Minnesota,” said Maggie Po, pastor of the Karen Community Church. The refugee came to Seattle in 2007, Po said, and Mr. Khin took her to job interviews, interpreted for her and helped her get on her feet.

“When she heard he passed away, she cried and cried and cried and called me and asked to pass condolences on to his wife,” Po said.

Mr. Khin is survived by his wife, Alice, also a nurse; daughter Lily, also a nurse, in SeaTac; son Melvyn, an electrician, of Federal Way; son Simon, a software engineer and philanthropist, of Seattle; son Thain Dan, a financial planner, of Lorton, Va.; son Timothy, a financial planner, of Seattle; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on May 25 at St. Thomas Parish in Tukwila. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to http://kiva.org/lender/SawAungKhin .

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt

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