Priscilla Lalthanmawii launches business in Greenwood two years after resettlement
Priscilla Lalthanmawii and her 12-year-old son arrived in the United States on Feb. 24, 2015. The day was long-awaited. They fled Burma in 2008 and were living in a Malaysian refugee camp for five years before being granted a resettlement appointment with the United Nations. That meeting led to their 800-mile trip to join the nearly 15,000 other Burmese people Exodus Refugee has helped resettle in Indianapolis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as:
“a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
In other words, refugees leave their homes because they fear for their lives. Moving to America is a welcomed relief, but it isn’t without the challenge of starting a life over. Exodus Refugee says the first 90 days are critical in establishing a foundation for long-term self-sufficiency—that’s why staff and volunteers from the organization are available every step of the way, working to minimize barriers.
Exodus staff welcome refugees at the airport upon arrival and take them to a furnished apartment, where the newcomers enjoy a hot, culturally appropriate meal. Exodus assists with other basic needs provided through donation drives, such as food and clothing, and provides a range of services to assist refugees in rebuilding their lives. Services include a two-day cultural orientation, case management services, transportation assistance, adult English classes, job placement and employment services, mental wellness and health services, a women’s program, a youth program, citizenship classes, immigration services, and more. Some services are available to refugees for up to five years after arrival.
“When I came to Indianapolis, they picked us up and took care of everything. They arranged everything for me, and after one month, we started learning English from Exodus. After two months, I began looking for a job.”
Exodus Refugee uses a small federal stipend of $925 per person to help the newcomers get established and to provide a minimum of four months of rent and two months of utilities. The stipend is supplemented with supplies donated by individuals, families and corporations. Additionally, refugees coming to America are required to pay back their travel costs through a payment plan. As a result, Exodus strives to help refugees become financially self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
“It’s a little bit scary and challenging for me with my son.” said Priscilla. “For me alone, one person is no problem. It’s very hard sometimes, but I think [he] makes me want to try more.”
Lalthanmawii enrolled her son in school—his education being one of her biggest motivations for leaving Malaysia. And for herself, she worked with Exodus Refugee’s employment developer to find a new job closer to home that highlighted her skills and passion for needlework. Lalthanmawii found, what she called her “dream job,” at David’s Bridal as a seamstress.
Lalthanmawii is a natural leader, but she still began her employment journey like everyone else—with the same English assessment and a tutorial of how to fill out basic employment forms. Many of of Exodus Refugee’s clients find their first job with one of the organizations’ more than 50 employer partners, but these jobs are not handouts. Every client chooses where to apply and earns their spot on a company’s payroll.
Lalthanmawii’s hardworking attitude is driven by her desire to give her son a chance at a new life. “He tries very hard with his studies and I try my best at work,” she said. “Whatever I do, he wants to do too. Wherever I work, he wants me to succeed.”
And she has become quite a role model for her son when it comes to chasing dreams and following her ambition. Earlier this year, Lalthanmawii left David’s Bridal to open her own boutique in Greenwood, Jay Mi Boutique (also called Main Street Alterations) where she makes custom dresses and does alterations.
“Given the opportunity, refugees like Priscilla can achieve amazing things in their new communities,” says Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus Refugee. “This is what resettlement does—helps those displaced by injustice to start again and to infuse communities with resilient and amazing people from all over the world.”
The services Exodus Refugee offers not only help refugees understand their new world, but they also promote self-sufficiency and provide a foundation for a high-achieving life. In 2016, Exodus Refugee helped resettle 947 refugees in Indianapolis and recently moved to a larger facility. The Indianapolis Foundation, a Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) affiliate; Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, a special interest fund of CICF; and The Glick Fund, a fund of CICF, among others, have made grants to Exodus Refugee, which help make the abundant wrap-around services available to resettled refugees.