Portraits of Burmese Refugees and the Things They Couldn't Leave Behind

Photojournalist Bryan Dickie turns his camera toward local refugees who have escaped war-torn regions of Burma—and the precious items they've brought with them.

by Bryan Dickie
04 March 2016, 12:00am

Lala Win poses for a portrait in front of her Buddhist shrine in her Toronto apartment. Her village was attacked the day after she gave birth to her first child, forcing her to flee to the Thai border. After the Burmese military realized she had fled with her child, the soldiers then executed her father as a punishment to the family.

Over the last five years in Asia, I've had the opportunity to cover the Burmese refugee crisis by visiting camps and interviewing people stuck on the border. When I arrived back in Toronto, I decided to visit some of the Burmese families that have made it over to Canada through the UNHCR refugee resettlement program. Although I interviewed families and individuals with different religious and ethnic backgrounds, their stories of refuge all share a same theme: sorrow.

These brief anecdotes of survival and resettlement by no means encompass the entirety of their grief. As Canada begins to accept a new wave of refugees, the inevitable conversation will shift to the logistics of our country's refugee program, which, frankly, is a conversation that needs to be had.

Below are portraits of Toronto's Burmese refugee community with the few personal items that made it with them on their journey to Canada.

Myint Lwin waits for customers at a Great Canadian Bagel location in Toronto. He arrived in Canada in 1998 after years of being stuck in limbo on Burma’s border, where he was forced to be a drug mule for an ethnic militia.

Buddhist prayers were inked into Myint Lwin's hands and arms to keep him safe during his time in Shan State. These are now the only physical souvenirs he has from his homeland.

Myint Lwin wanted nothing more than to “fight for freedom for my country” when he was in Burma. Yet because of the insistence of his friends, he was able to make it through the UNHCR refugee resettlement program and is now a homeowner and soon to be business owner in Canada.

U Nyunt Hla and Daw Molly pose for a portrait in their home in Toronto. During the couple’s escape from their home country after the 1988 uprising, U Nyunt Hla and Daw Molly were forced to give up their newborn daughter to friends, since the Burmese military was following them. To this day, they cannot find any information on their daughter and are unsure if she is still alive.

Daw Molly holds the spoon she fed her infant child with for the few days they were together.

Photos chronicling U Nyunt Hla and Daw Molly’s political activities while living as refugees in India

U Nyunt Hla and Daw Molly at a rally in New Delhi protesting the arrival of Burmese General Ket Sien to India

Aung Tin was a regional secretary for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that the famous Aung San Suu Kyi heads. After the Burmese Military refused to recognize the 1990 general elections where the NLD won a landslide victory, Aung Tin and his family were forced to flee the country. During one year of living in squalid conditions on the Burma-Thailand border, Aung Tin contracted malaria so many times he had lost count.

Aung Tin holds an 'Asiaweek' magazine that contains an article featuring him and his exiled NLD colleagues. He is on the left of the top picture in the magazine.

Little Burma is a convenience store run by Aung Tin and his wife on Lansdowne Avenue in Toronto. Aung Tin was the only refugee I talked to who never intended to flee Burma. He was planning to reenter the country after the NLD’s victory in the 1990 election was announced—an instance that sadly will never come.

Lala Win holds a Buddhist statue, the only item that survived her journey from Burma.

Roza Min and Yalim Say pose for a portrait in their apartment in Toronto. Both sons of Lala Win, Roza was alive for just one day before the Burmese military attacked his home village and forced his mother to flee with him to the Burma-Thailand border. Yalim Say was born in a refugee camp along the Burma-Thailand border.

One of Roza Min’s T-shirts that celebrates the student uprising of 1988 made by the Toronto Burmese community

Ah Naw (name changed for safety) poses for a portrait in his Toronto apartment. Ah Naw’s village of Dee Pono was a regular site for the Burmese military’s harassment, where the residents were regularly forced to become porters (Ah Naw being one of them) or worse—to be forced into sexual servitude.

Ah Naw displays a Buddhist symbol inked into his hand from his time living in Burma. He explains that the tattoo symbolizes him being a good father to his children.

PoPo Hla (name changed for safety) rests in her bedroom in her Toronto apartment that she shares with her husband Ah Naw and their children. The family’s village of Dee Pono was surrounded by Burmese military and about to be razed when the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) was able to blast through the flaks of the Burmese military and create an escape route for the entire village to flee into Thailand.

Popo Hla’s traditional Karen handbag, one of the few items she has from her time as a refugee along the Burma-Thailand border

Popo Hla holds photographs of her and her children from their time in the refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand border.

Because Naw Tawng Labya is blind from complications stemming from malaria as a young child, his escape from Burma was a precarious journey. Naw Tawng Labya's brother was continuously being forced to be a porter/mine sweeper for the Burmese military, which made the family decided to flee the country via human smugglers to Malaysia. Naw Tawng Labya is now a pastor for a small congregation of Kachin refugees that meets in his living room every Sunday.

Naw Tawng Labya holds a copy of the Bible written in the Burmese language. This Bible is one of the very few possessions Naw Tawng Labya still has from his life in Burma.

Mie Tha Lah poses for a portrait in his office at the Spot youth center at Yorkgate Mall. Due to his father’s involvement in the 1988 uprising, Mie Tha Lah, along with his mother and siblings, were forced to flee to a refugee camp along the Burma-Thailand border, where he lived for 13 years before settling in Canada.

One of Mie Tha Lah's only possessions from Burma is a traditional Karen shoulder bag.

David Saw poses for a portrait beneath two posters of General Aung San and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi. David was an active member of the All Student Burma Democratic Front (“ASBDF”) after the 1988 student uprising. Witnessing his best friend lose a limb in an explosion, he decided that he could no longer watch his friends and loved ones die around him, so he decided to leave the ASBDF in search of peace.

David Saw displays a portrait of himself and friends as ASBDF soldiers in the jungles of eastern Burma. Only three of the men in this portrait are alive today.

The ever-famous red bandana worn by the students during the uprising of 1988

Sheila sits for a portrait in her family’s home in North York of Toronto. Sheila was the first of her family to arrive in Canada in 2004 and is currently finishing up her PhD at York University.

Sheila holds two photographs showing the boats that her father made for a living. It was one of these boats that Sheila and her family used to flee from persecution in Burma to the refugee camps just inside of Thailand.