July 4th has special meaning for Hkadin Lahtaw Lee. It is Independence Day in the United States of America of course, but on that date in 1990, it also marks the day Hkadin arrived in the U.S. with four of her cousins to begin their own independence.
Fast forward to 2013 and much of Hkadin's efforts are concentrated on working with newly immigrated refugees as the Lake Avenue Baptist Church Refugee Mission Coordinator and with the church's Fellowship Community. She is also an outreach counselor to Mary's Place, a refugee ministry of the Cathedral Community and Catholic Charities providing refugee services in the Maplewood-Edgerton area. Both organizations are based in Rochester. She is also a Burmese interpreter for many Rochester-area agencies including hospitals, schools, courts and the police. Hkadin says, "This is my calling I say... I was here almost 20 years ahead... so I can help them."
Hkadin also donates her time to attend cultural events locally and other parts of the U.S. where she performs traditional dances.
Hkadin is one of 15 children born in Burma, now known as Myanmar, or officially as the Union of Myanmar, in Southeast Asia bordering China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. She grew up in Mandalay, which today is the second largest city in Myanmar. In the 1990s, the population for the city was estimated to be 661,489; today it is more than one million.
Both of her parents grew up Baptist, she is not sure if her grandparents grew up Baptist or if they converted later in life. Her father is well known for his Burmese translations of Baptist hymns. Her connection to Lake Avenue Baptist Church originated with one of her uncles, Saboi Jum Lahtaw, who was a "peace maker" from the Northern part of Burma and while in the United States advocating for the Kachin, Hkadin's ethnic tribe, at a conference when he made a connection with someone from Lake Avenue Baptist Church.
Back home, Hkadin was experiencing political unrest in her homeland in the late 1980s and it cut short her studies at a university when the government crackdown on student protests turned deadly. To make a living in Burma, she began selling real estate and through family connections was able to find work selling Burmese-mined jade and rubies wholesale.
With $120 in hand, a 26-year-old Hkadin and her cousins first set foot on U.S. soil in Iowa for a short time before moving to Rochester, N.Y. They temporarily stayed for several months at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School on South Goodman Street in Rochester where she and her cousins would sneak into the kitchen late at night and prepare home-cooked meals that suited their palates at the time. One of their staples was Ramen, of which they would go to Tops Market regularly and buy a case of the instant noodles, prepared with vegetables and familiar spices. American cuisine, even Rochester's regional favorite, a Friday night fish fry, was something that was at first very strange. They soon had to abandon their late-night cooking when other residents in the dorms complained of the aromas wafting through the building late at night. They then moved to an attic apartment in a house across from Lake Avenue Baptist Church on Ambrose Street in Rochester.
The cousins, three females and two males, entered the U.S. on foreign student visas sponsored by Lake Avenue Baptist Church. In exchange for expenses, the cousins helped out at the church. "We really wanted to contribute," says Hkadin of the work she and her cousins did at the church that involved cleaning and helping with maintenance of the church. Since they were on student visas, they could not work in the U.S., so they traveled to Japan during summer breaks where relatives helped get them work as dishwashers at restaurants, much of it night work, so they could earn enough money to help pay for some of their school expenses back in the U.S. Hkadin spent two summers working in Japan.
Transportation was mainly the bus back in Rochester, until one of the cousins bought an $800 car, where most of the travel was back and forth to Monroe Community College where Hkadin was enrolled in the hotel management program that taught her how to run a kitchen and other skills. She worked at several area Asian restaurants as a waitress until she was hired at Gateway Banquet Center in 1994. She worked as a prep cook and later became the executive chef in 2002. She later worked at Eagle Vale golf course for a number of years as executive chef and says early on that Gateway Banquet Center owner Frank Dimino was very supportive and believed in her skills to be an executive chef.
Hkadin married Donald Lee, who is Chinese-American, and they live in Henrietta. She became a Lake Avenue Baptist Church staff member in 2008 to help coordinate the services for the growing population of Burmese church members. She says the church is about 60% ethnic Burmese nationalities.
Hkadin says she pretty much knows the community inside and out and says she's happy to be able to help those acclimating to life in Rochester. When asked how she balances the many needs of the community she works with, she says it took time to find a balance and set boundaries. She says she does what she can do to help the community and says the "community is still struggling, I give a lot of credit to them, they are survivor(s) ... (It's) never too old to learn something... (We) do what we can to educate the community."
In closing statements during the interview, Hkadin, when asked what would help the Burmese community thrive in Rochester, she said she'd like to see more good role models highlighted in the community. She says her community needs role models to look up to who are Asian. She says they need to "Not to forget where they came from but try to do the best they can to succeed in this strange country... they don't feel they belong."
Hkadin adds, "I will do what I can to guide our people. I came to this country with nothing in my hand... they can make it." She follows in her uncle's foot prints in that she, too, continues to advocate not only locally for recent refugees, but has been invited to Washington, D.C., to speak on their behalf several times.