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Food reeducation as a refugee

Photo by Shuka Kalantari
Ja Tu Marip, a refugee from Myanmar, is learning how to maintain a balanced diet in America.

Many refugees are children who come to this country without their parents. And many have little to no understanding of how to eat well in their new home. Ja Tu Marip is one of those refugees. He used to live with his family in a labor camp in Kachin, a northern state in Myanmar. But when he came to the United States, he encountered a remarkable culture shock.

Shuka Kalantari reports.

JA TU MARIP: Kit Kat snack size. Oh yeah, right here. Gummi berries. I like these a lot when I get here. And gummi worms…

SHUKA KALANTARI: Fifteen-year-old Ja Tu Marip is walking along a candy aisle at his local K-Mart in Concord.

MARIP: Medium sized pack of M&M’s…

Marip is slender, with olive skin and short black hair. He stops and picks up a bag of M&Ms. The label says it’s “medium sized,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense – it’s about as big as four or five regular bags of M&Ms. Marip says he used to finish off a pack in a few days.

MARIP: Yeah, I probably finish it in like three days or something.

Marip says he and his friends stop at K-Mart on their way home from school most days. They buy snacks and ride their bikes in the parking lot.

Just a few years ago, Marip never thought he’d be inside of a K-Mart. Or inside of any mega-mart for that matter. That’s because Marip is a refugee from Myanmar. He’s among hundreds of refugee kids who arrive in the United States, often undernourished and used to eating one meal a day. Marip used to live with his family in a labor camp in Kachin, a northern state in Myanmar – also known as Burma. He says his family lived in the labor camp because they were Christians, an ethnic minority. In addition to forced labor, they had little access to health care or education. Marip says his sister, Seng Raw, had no choice but to escape after a soldier became attracted to her. His parents feared for her safety, and possibly her life.

MARIP: When my sister left, when I was back in Burma, the military just keep asking me where my sister is.

Marip was only 11 at the time. He says his captors threatened to make him a child soldier if his family didn’t reveal his sister’s whereabouts.

MARIP: So they just keep threatening me too, so I don’t want to live in Burma too. And I just want to, I just want to follow my sister.

With the help of a human smuggler, Marip traveled to the capital, Naypyidaw, in the middle of the night, and then took the next bus to Malaysia. After traveling over 1,000 miles, Marip finally joined his older sister at a refugee camp in Malaysia. Less than a year later, in 2008, the United Nations Refugee Agency found the siblings a foster family in California, in the East Bay town of Concord. Over 7,000 miles from home.

MARIP: When I first got here I was just scared that it was gonna be hard to communicate with American peoples.

Those communication challenges went far beyond language. They started with American culture. And cuisine. Marip says he was overwhelmed with all the food choices the first time he walked into a grocery store in the U.S.

MARIP: I thought I’m not gonna get used to it with the foods. The American foods. Those burgers and those kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s kinda shocking and culture shock.

But it didn’t seem like he had a much of a choice. That kind of food was everywhere. That’s quite a change.

EMMANUEL D’HARCOURT: The vast majority of the population in Myanmar do not have access to any supermarket, or processed foods.

Emmanuel D’Harcourt is the senior health director at the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit that works with displaced people. He says that large parts of Myanmar don’t have paved roads or health clinics, let alone fast food restaurants.

D’HARCOURT: The refugees come from areas however where they’ve had severe limitations in food. Particularly in some areas of Myanmar where there’s big problems with food insecurity.

About 40% of kids in Myanmar have stunted growth. D’Harcourt says that typically means that sometime during their childhoods, they didn’t get enough food. Or enough of the right nutrients.

D’HARCOURT: Some of this is caused by conflict and people being displaced. We’ve done surveys in areas such as Chin state in which we’ve found that much more than one in two children – many more than one in two children – are actually in need of nutritional intervention. So the situation is quite dire.

Ja Tu Marip says he didn’t have much of an education when he was living back in the labor camp in Myanmar. And he definitely didn’t get taught about nutrition. So when he came to America, he got a crash course in junk food.

MARIP: When I, when I came to America and when I ate junk food, I loved them.

He never thought about whether candy was bad for him or not.

MARIP: I loved them and I keep eating them until...

Until he ate so much that it made him sick.

MARIP: Until I know that they’re not good for me. That they have a lot of sugars. It’s not good for my health.

Back in Concord, Marip’s foster mom, Christine Lue, is washing dishes after a dinner of steamed vegetables and rice. Lue says after a couple of months in America, Marip was eating so much candy and soda that he stopped eating dinner with the family.

CHRISTINE LUE: But I noticed that sometimes he walk home from school and he’d stop by K-Mart, and get soda and candy. At the beginning I really didn’t notice because he put it in his room.

And when Marip liked a certain kind of food, she says he wouldn’t stop eating it until it was gone.

LUE: If he like the cookie he eat the whole bag. So which mean it fill up his stomach, and he won’t eat healthy food anymore. So I have to restrict him.

Marip didn’t have access to things like soda or candy in his labor camp in Myanmar. So he never learned about moderation.

DOCTOR EUGENE SHATZ: I don’t think the concept of a balanced diet when you’re in a refugee camp is really something that is high on their priority list.

That’s Doctor Eugene Shatz of the Hellen Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He treats refugee foster kids.

SHATZ: When kids get only one meal a day the priority is that one meal. And the nutritional value of that meal is not really high on their priority list.

Shatz says he provides basic nutrition education for children when they come in for their physical exams. He says he starts by asking them what new foods they’ve tried lately, and what they’ve liked.

SHATZ: And then that brings up the discussion of, you know, balanced diets of various nutrients, various foods and that the vast array of American junk food is nice for a snack once in a while but a constant diet of it is not healthy for anybody regardless of where you come from. MARIP: Fractioned coconut oil ... artificial color, Yellow 5, Red 40 and Blue 1...

Back at the K-Mart in Concord, Ja Tu Marip picks up an extra large pack of Gummi Bears and reads the ingredients on the back. His foster mom taught him how to read labels for nutrition facts. Marip says he hasn’t eaten any Gummi Bears in over five months, even though they’re his favorite candy.

MARIP: When you eat too much junk food, like, your teeth get destroyed. You get too much cough. Your throat get messed up. And I, I get those too. I get my teeth, both of them, root canal. So yeah, I kinda stopped. Well not kinda stopped but not as much as I did before.

Marip says he still goes to the supermarket after school with his friends, but now he buys Gatorade instead of soda. It’s a start. And no junk food, at least not until after dinner.

In Concord, I’m Shuka Kalantari, For Crosscurrents.

Shuka Kalantari is a health and culture reporter living in the Bay Area. This story originally aired January 6, 2011.

Crosscurrents refugee nutrition