“This Is Freedom!”: From Refugee Camps to Serving Akron, Ohio’s AAPI Community

Ajino Wah is the chairman of the Karen Community of Akron and a program manager at Jin Huo Community Senior Center, where he is serving the local AAPI population by providing a space for refugee and immigrant seniors to socialize and craft a community with each other. Wah told Midstory his story, from fleeing persecution in Burma to advocating for the AAPI community in Akron, Ohio, where he’s found home and freedom. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Drishti Bansal for Midstory.

This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.

For Ajino Wah, memories of home are tinged with bittersweet contradictions.

On the one hand, he remembers hospitality, lush rivers and gardens. In particular, a love of peace stands out in his sense of home among the Karen people, one of the first ethnic groups to settle in present-day Burma (also known as Myanmar). 

On the other, he recalls a decade spent in a refugee camp on the Myanmar-Thailand border, fleeing the sound of gunshots coming from his home village. 

“I miss everything about my homeland,” Wah said. “Back in the day, I had my parents, we have a big land, all the fruits that they grow. And any food, you can name it, [was] in our garden. We live along a river [that] is beautiful. But since that has been taken over by the Burmese Government, everything got destroyed. I don’t know what to miss anymore.”

Prior to British colonization, there were several ethnic groups, including the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese and Karen, who resided in modern-day Myanmar. With the arrival of colonists, however, all ethnic groups were politically consolidated under “Burma.” 

During World War II, the Karen people aided the British while Burma sided with the Japanese, and tensions amounted after the war when the British granted independence to Burma but no land rights to the Karen. Since then, the ethnic minorities in Burma and the Burmese military have found themselves in continuous political turmoil and conflict, posing a human rights crisis.

Wah and his family left behind their home to live in the refugee camp in 1997. But when you’re a young child, the politics don’t matter, Wah said. Despite growing up in squalid conditions, Wah described a carefree childhood: “You enjoy anything – you don’t care about life, don’t care about anything.” 

But as he grew older and graduated high school, he also grew to recognize the reality of his surroundings. In the camps, he and other residents found themselves in a kind of limbo.  

“For us, those that live along the border, a lot of us that are Karen wasn’t considered as either citizens [of Burma or Thailand]. So, we lived in there as citizens of nobody — just the Karen people,” he said.

In 2006, he and his pregnant wife were able to move to the U.S. It didn’t matter that all he brought was a couple of old shirts. They’d start their lives anew, Wah said. 

“Like, this is freedom! You live in the camp for 10 years — your whole life — you don’t even know. You can’t even go anywhere. You live in there, you want to explore outside, but you can’t get outside the perimeter of the camp. If you did, if you got caught by the guard, you can be sent anywhere,” Wah said. “So, coming to the United States is like you are free from your cage.”

Although Wah found himself all over the nation throughout his journey, from California and Denver to Indiana and New York, he ultimately settled in Akron, Ohio. After five years in the States, he was able to apply for citizenship. 

“I can be called an American citizen. I am a citizen of somebody,” he said.

Yet Wah never forgot his roots. He is the chairman of the Karen Community of Akron and the program manager at Jin Huo Community Senior Center in Akron, which is dedicated to creating community and spaces for socialization among immigrant and refugee seniors. Every morning, he gives seniors rides to the center. 

“I love working with the seniors,” Wah said. “I like to bring them together here and see the happy face[s], the way they’re talking to each other. They interact with each other. It’s making me happy, especially since I love happy seniors.” 

Wah has also worked with Asian Services in Action, a non-profit social service organization dedicated to serving the immigrant and refugee Asian American Pacific Islander community in Northeast Ohio. 

Through his work, he seeks to advocate for equal treatment of AAPI immigrants and refugees in the area and hopes to see empowerment in their communities. 

“We want every community to be treated equally — to be close, inclusive into the region, to the city. We don’t want the authority or the people in power to look at this group as powerless,” he said. 

Reflecting on his journey, Wah looks on his past with great pride. He hopes that young Karen Americans will also come to appreciate and pass down the Karen culture and language.

“I’m very proud of — what can I say? — of everything,” Wah said. “To have freedom, to have a family on my own, to take care of my family — I used to not even dream about this life when I was a child. But this is once in a lifetime.” 

You can read a selected transcript from Ajino Wah’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.


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