By: Matt Preprost
Winnipeg Free Press, Monday October 26, 2009
Reproduced with permission.
Photo: Phil Hossack/Winnipeg Free Press
It started with three simple words from dozens of different people: “Welcome to Canada.”
After spending 10 years in a refugee camp in the jungles of northwestern Thailand, Kay Seng knew she’d find the help she needed to help the friends she left behind.
Through United Way and partner agency SEED Winnipeg — an organization that helps low-income families gain financial independence — Seng was able to do just that. In only three years, she has started her own business to help her friends still stuck in Mae La Oon, a refugee camp along the Thailand-Burma border.
“When I came to Canada, they said, ‘Don’t forget us,’ ” Seng said of her friends. “They know when I left I had to find a way to help them get money.”
Seng, 59, fled her home country of Burma in 1995 and spent 11 years in Mae La Oon. At the time, and still today, Burma, now known as Myanmar, was embroiled in a civil war. A military regime has held power in the country since 1962.
Seng said it was common for military troops to rampage villages and kill civilians. Seng and her family fled out of fear of being killed in 1995.
“When we fled, we didn’t care nothing about the food, we just cared about our lives,” she said.
“We didn’t want nothing, just to flee for our safety.”
But when she came to Canada in the fall of 2006, Seng had few skills and fewer job prospects. In fact, the only skill Seng said she had was using the back-strap loom, a simple form of weaving that produces intricate patterns and designs.
“Before I came to Canada, I worried a lot about how to earn without education,” she said. “In the refugee camp, some visitors from many countries liked my weaving so they bought my scarves and bags.
“I thought maybe if I brought my loom to Canada, maybe it could be something to earn with,” she said.
Seng was soon connected with SEED Winnipeg, whose programs are designed to help people secure a job, start a small business, save money and manage their finances.
Seng told her counsellor she wanted to make her weaving profitable.
“I told her I would like to help this weaving become my business, to earn my living in Canada,” Seng said.
Seng attended training classes and had to save $1,000 over a year. For every dollar Seng saved, SEED matched it by $3. By the end, Seng had $4,000, which went straight into starting her weaving business and helping friends still in Mae La Oon.
While Seng weaves her own products, she also buys woven products from her friends in Thailand and sells them across the city at community craft sales.
Through SEED, Seng now has skills in bookkeeping and financial management. It’s enough for her to help sustain her family as they continue to adjust to their new lives in Canada.
“I learned that we must buy what we need, not what we want,” Seng said. “It was very helpful. It made me stronger.
“Canada is full of helping minds,” she said. “It’s really touched my heart.”