Burmese refugee and Carolina Inn caretaker gives back to the community

By Britney Nguyen

The antique wooden and marble floors of The Carolina Inn wouldn’t gleam if not for Simon Lamh.

As a caretaker of the building, Lamh waxes and buffs the floors, a job that allows him to show his appreciation for the almost 100-year-old building.

After he was furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lamh was able to use these skills to show his appreciation for another historical building, and for a community that supported him as a newly arrived Chin refugee from Burma in the United States.

For the past 6 years, Lamh spent an evening, every six months, cleaning, waxing, drying and buffing the hardwood floors in the Martin Luther King Community Room at University Baptist Church (UBC) in Chapel Hill.

Lamh was always limited from fully repairing the floors and fixing other parts of the room because it was often used as a communal gathering space. When COVID-19 forced UBC to cancel services and activities at the church and the community center, Lamh had the opportunity to repair the rest of the MLK Community Room.

Through a translator who helped him with his English, Lamh said he wanted to do the repairs because the church community had offered to let him use the room for free to host gatherings for the Chin Christian Fellowship group.

Lamh and his wife, Dim Lam Cing, are full members of UBC and lead 20 other Chin refugee families who are also church members. Lamh’s involvement with UBC started when he first settled in the U.S. and met another refugee from Burma.

A long journey.

For almost ten years, Lamh has lived in the U.S. with his wife and their three children, two of whom were born in the country. Before he resettled as a refugee in the U.S., he lived in Malaysia as a Chin refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the name Lamh uses when referring to his homeland. Lamh grew up as a Christian in the Tedim Township Khuasak Village in the Chin state of Burma.

“There are many reasons why I left the country,” Lamh said through a translator. “There were no jobs, no work and there were many things we were being forced to do.”

It was better to work outside of Burma and better to leave the country. It was also difficult to be a Christian.

“Christians cannot build churches legally all over the country and there are many limitations,” he said. “Before, there were many church buildings, but the government confiscated them to use as school buildings.”

In 2007, Lamh left Burma for Malaysia.

“The reason why I chose Malaysia is that it is a place where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was taking refugees and accepting refugee registration,” Lamh said.

Lamh paid an agent to smuggle him out of Burma. He was carried in the trunk of a truck with two other people. He risked being arrested like many people who tried to leave before him because he left this way.

“If you leave one country into another country without a proper way, you cannot return if you like,” Lamh said.

Lamh left his wife behind when he left Burma. Eventually he asked her to join him in Malaysia when he could settle there.

For 18 months, Lamh stayed at Welcome Community Home, which he described as a non-governmental organization in Malaysia. He had to wait here to register for refugee resettlement through UNHCR. While there, Lamh worked in restaurants, in construction and did truck driving.

“In the rainy season, it’s not good to drive, so I didn’t work during the rainy season,” Lamh said.

After his wife joined him, they had to go through an interview with the UNHCR to explain their situation and why they should be considered refugees.

Lamh explained that living conditions in Burma were very difficult. He said he had to do forced labor like repairing roads. There was a military camp close to where he lived, and Lamh said the military would force him and other people from his town to go out and gather bamboo for them.

Lamh said the village chief and community leaders collected money by force, especially when someone of a higher government rank was visiting. The police also collected money.

When Lamh and his wife were informed that their application was accepted, they waited for UNHCR to continue their resettlement process.

“From there, they sent us to North Carolina, we didn’t choose the place,” Lamh said. “I just decided wherever they sent us, I will stay there until I die.”

New beginnings in North Carolina.

Lamh and his wife arrived at Oak Creek Village, an apartment complex in Durham, in 2011 with their daughter, Cingthian Muang Lamh, who was born in Malaysia just prior to their arrival in the United States.

Lamh got to know two other refugees living in Chapel Hill who told him about University Baptist Church. One of the refugees was also from Burma and had also gone through Malaysia to be resettled.

“They told me I would do very good if I got enrolled as soon as possible,” Lamh said.

Lamh and his wife were mostly aided by case workers from a resettlement agency, but after Lamh and his wife joined UBC, church members in the community helped the family by giving them clothes and furniture.

When he arrived in the United States, Lamh wanted to work in farming or gardening. He applied to different jobs at The Carolina Inn and at a 30-acre farm in Raleigh.

“I got both jobs but I was advised that The Carolina Inn would be a better option,” Lamh said.

Lamh started working as a caretaker of the building at The Carolina Inn in 2013. Before he got his job at The Carolina Inn, Lamh worked at the Hampton Inn where he would have to walk everyday.

“It was not easy, especially in winter,” Lamh said. “It took about an hour to get home.”

Giving back to the community.

Lamh just wanted to do something to thank the community that helped his family.

“I don’t get involved here and there socially, only at church,” Lamh said. “I consider religion a big part of my life even when I cannot go to church.”

After 7 years at The Carolina Inn, Lamh was furloughed from his caretaking job because of COVID-19. Lamh finally had the time to fully restore the MLK Community Room at UBC.

He recruited a fellow Carolina Inn worker, Saw Ka Iu, also from Burma, to help him with the repairs.

For weeks, the two men stripped the peeling plaster off of the walls and floors. Lamh purchased a professional cleaning and buffing machine to clean all the carpets in the 5,000-square foot room. He washed the windows and cleaned the HVAC vents.

In a letter to the UBC congregation, DeWanna Banks, one of the members of the church who helped Lamh’s family when they resettled in the U.S., wrote, “The Lamh family has chosen to reinvest the struggle and suffering they endured on their pilgrimage to Chapel Hill in the beautiful restoration of a community icon.”

Edited by Makenna Smith