Refugee from Myanmar helps others acclimate to Pittsburgh
The first night is always jarring.
For Ro Ding, the journey to America — after years of seeking refugee status in Malaysia, followed by 36 hours on airplanes — marked both a culmination and beginning of his dreams for a new life.
When he arrived, it was dark in America. A caseworker picked him up at the airport in the middle of the night. They drove down silent streets to an apartment.
“He said, ‘I must leave. It’s too late, (but) tomorrow I’ll come back and tell you the things you have to know,’ ” recalled Ding, 30, of Troy Hill. “He left me a banana. I was so tired. I wanted to take a shower and then sleep.”
He stepped into the bathroom, but nothing made sense. Asian bathrooms are entirely different, Ding said, and he did not understand this setup.
He turned a knob in the shower. Cold water rushed out of the faucet.
“It was so cold, I could not wash all my body,” he said. “The water touched me, and it shocked me. … The next day, my caseworker explained, ‘You should know, there are two (knobs). One will be hot and one will be cold.’ I did not know. This is very different.”
So today when Ding, who fled Myanmar in 2007 to escape religious persecution, drives to the airport to pick up other weary travelers (nearly 100 people in three years), he tries to help them in ways that he was not.
“Many things are different, not only the shower,” Ding said. “The way of living style — everything. I had to adjust many times. I had to learn a lot of things, things I have to adopt, to be aware of. Still I’m learning: language, how to behave, how to treat the people. I’m still learning. I’m still adapting.”
Ding volunteers for agencies that help refuges in Pittsburgh adjust to their new homes. Just last week, he said, he made the now-familiar drive to Pittsburgh International Airport and picked up a young man, also from Myanmar, and drove him to his new home in Carrick.
If they come from Myanmar or speak English, the drive into the city is full of advice. Ding warns them about the showers, for instance. And he assures them that while everything might seem strange, it gets easier to understand.
If they do not speak a common language, Ding communicates with body language and gestures. He smiles. He tries to comfort them, because even if they cannot share words, they share the experience of that first night.
“One Somali guy, I picked him up from the airport, and he was directly coming from a camp. He never had a city life, and he did not speak English,” Ding said. “I drive him through the Liberty Tunnels. I show him, ‘This is a tunnel,’ and he was, ‘Wow!’ He looked around and around. He was very amazed.
“But they are also stressed. They think, ‘I don’t speak English, so how am I going to adjust my life in the United States? How am I going to take care of my children when I can’t even take care of myself in this country?’
“So many thoughts. I also had those thoughts: ‘Who is going to teach me? Who is going to direct me to adjust my life?’ ”
Ding’s parents remain in Myanmar, in the town of Matupi. He last saw them in 2005, when the country was under military rule. With democratic reforms in recent years, he hopes to see them again someday.
“I can never replace the two of them,” he said. “But I have to struggle here a little bit and save some money, and then I can visit them in the future. If God is willing.”
Ding is pastor of the Pittsburgh Myanmar Christian Fellowship. It holds services at a church in Troy Hill, where other refugees from Myanmar live.
“We came as refugees, and we were empty-handed,” he said. “We didn’t bring a single penny. But the government provided us food stamps, medical care (and) that made me appreciate this country. Someday, some way, I need to react to what they did for us. I have to repay everything they did. This is my goal and my idea.
“In my country, we saw American people, and we thought they are like from a different planet. But then I came to America, and it is very friendly, and now I see Americans as my brothers and sisters. I consider all of them my close relatives and friends.”
But political climates change, particularly in an election year.
So Ding and other refugees are watching the presidential campaign carefully, with concern.
“There are rumors that the new president might not be so welcoming of refugees,” he said. “Some people are very welcoming, and some people are not. Those people — we don’t pay attention. If we pay attention, it will make us unhappy. So we forget and we forgive them, and we don’t pay attention to negative thoughts and comments and ideas. If we pay attention, we won’t have a better life in Pittsburgh; it will be the same as our old country.
“So we only are thinking positive. Then the results become positive, too.”