Welcome to America.
Here's how to lock your door. Let's practice.
Here is the stove. Turn it on like this. Always turn it off.
The shower is here. This is hot, this is cold. Flush your used toilet paper. Do not throw it away.
These are baby wipes. These are diapers. These are bottles. These are toys, beds, lamps, the thermostat.
It is 1 in the morning, and two days of travel from a Thailand refugee camp are finally over for the Htoo family. Peh Htoo and wife, Ka Na Htoo, and their four children, ages 8 years to 14 months, have landed in Omaha and are settling into their new apartment.
This family is weary. They have endured conditions unimaginable to most of us: huts made of banana leaves and bamboo. No electricity or running water. A fire that killed 60 people.
Now they are in Omaha, confronting a lifestyle and culture that, beyond foreign, requires quick adaptation.
But here to help is a local family, people who have firsthand experience as strangers in a strange land.
Attorneys Stu and Dari Dornan are working with Lutheran Family Services to resettle the family. The couple's travels to Romania and Russia to adopt five of their nine children have taught them about the world and the needs of traumatized people.
The Dornans don't know a word of the Htoo family's language, nor do they know much about the forests of Myanmar from which generations of ethnic Karen fled, nor do they know what it's like to live with your family in a hut.
They do know something about inexorable waits — it took two visits to Russia to bring home son Nikita. They do know something about paperwork rigamarole, given the complicated international adoption process.
The Htoos, like refugees worldwide, had to complete applications, pass background checks and wait two years, if they're lucky, to get a ticket to the United States.
Now they're here. And despite the hour, the cold weather and the first lesson about America — car seats, an unhappy discovery for Baby Moo Ta Lay Say — the Htoos are relieved.
Grateful, they say through the interpreter, “Jester,” an Omaha artist and ethnic Karen who was a refugee himself.
Jester says Peh Htoo is thrilled.
“He's never dreamed this before,” Jester interprets inside the two-bedroom, two-bath apartment near Benson Park.
It's tight for a family of six. Yet it's four times their space in Thailand.
The Dornans found it, furnished it and stocked the pantry with donations and their own contributions.
One of the Dornan teens lets it slip that the family dropped $500 at a dollar store.
“We went to Family Dollar with our list,” Dari says, “and we just piled up.”
The result is practical and lovely. A fully furnished living room. A little plate, fork, spoon and yellow sippy cup on the high chair tray. Beds, one with a pink Disney Princess spread. Hair barrettes and ribbons in the medicine cabinet, Legos in the toy bin. Fish sauce, oyster sauce and hot chili sauce above the sink.
Lutheran Family Services settles the most refugees in Nebraska. It coordinates with families or nonprofits to “sponsor” the families. It's unusual, said spokeswoman Bev Carlson, for an individual family to step in like this.
Stu Dornan, a prominent defense attorney who formerly served as the Douglas County attorney and was in the FBI, sits on the organization's board of directors. He and Dari, an attorney for Northern Natural Gas, asked to sponsor a family. The experience, he said, would be good for their children still at home: Matt, 18, Edita, 17, Maddie, 16, Kelly, 16, and Nikita, 13.
Their adopted children have scant memories of their homelands, having come to the United States to live at ages 7, 6 and 3.
Edita, who came from Romania, remembers balloons and welcome-home signs. She also razzed her mother about her coming-home outfit.
“I was wearing,” she groaned, “an American flag shirt.”
Kelly made the Htoos' welcome-home sign. She was a bit unsure about how accurately she had captured the Karen language, which looks like bubbles and squiggles. “I hope,” she said, “it says, 'Welcome to America.'”
That first hour at the Htoos' new home was a blur of safety instructions and people.
Karen relatives and friends poured in, bringing a steamer of cooked rice and other hot food. One Karen friend carried an iPad, capturing everything on video.
The four Htoo kids, all in shorts, scattered among the rooms. Three-year-old Nee Gay Doh Mya, the only boy, immediately plopped in front of colorful toy bins. Mar Naw Soe, 6, combed Strawberry Shortcake's pink hair, and Salo Lay Htoo, 8, let Edita paint her nails.
“You're very lucky,” Jester the interpreter told the young children's parents. “Some people don't have sponsors.”
The Htoos are most likely traumatized by life in the Thai camp, the fire and the globe-crossing move, Lutheran Family Services workers say.
And there is a grief in leaving the familiar and starting over.
Peh Htoo and Ka Na Htoo looked beat. Dari Dornan fretted about buying diapers that were too small. Stu Dornan watched and listened.
As they so often do, children led the way in bridging the formidable gaps between the two families.
The Dornan teens seemed to know what their new friends needed. They knelt to be eye-level with the children. They offered toys, crayons, paper. They tied balloons to the children's wrists, held the baby and showed how toy cars work.
Mar Naw Soe grabbed two teddy bears and brushed their fur. She carefully wrapped the arms of the bigger bear around the body of the smaller bear in a hug.
Satisfied, she went on to explore her new home.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH