Recipe for freedom: Former Burmese refugee finds a home as sushi chef at Walmart

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By Vicky Gits

Born in Burma 54 years ago, Hla Win loves his native country and still misses it desperately, but he is profoundly grateful to America, the country that took him in as a political refugee.

A former starving, jungle-based freedom fighter, Win has been a sushi chef at the Evergreen Walmart in El Rancho since 2007, where he is “boss, manager and worker,” as he puts it.
Win makes custom party trays and 40 different kinds of sushi. Everything is sold the same day it’s made, he said. He doesn’t believe in being skimpy with the wasabi or ginger, either.
After a couple of slow years, business is very good, he said. He owns a house, a new Subaru and a refrigerator with plenty of food in it. Someday he hopes to own his own restaurant.
“Thank God, I am so lucky one!” Win writes on the notebook paper he hands to a reporter. “Thank you very much who help to me in USA.”  
“Because of I am citizen of USA, now I am very happy. This is great country, freedom country. I can see democracy government and human right. This is my new life,” Win writes.
Freedom was elusive when Win was a young man growing up in a village near Rangoon. He aspired to be a lawyer. But the brutal military takeover in 1988 and resulting political repression drove Win into the streets to demonstrate.
The military rulers changed the country’s name to Myanmar, a name that Win does not accept.
Life under the regime is harsh. There is no free speech, no Internet, only one channel of TV, news is controlled by the government, and those who speak out are subjected to long prison sentences, Win said.
Not wanting to wind up in prison, Win escaped to the countryside with seven friends and walked for 12 days without food. One of the seven died on the way. Fighting and weapons became his way of life, until he saw an elderly lady wounded in a gunfight. She convinced him to fight for freedom in another way.
Win headed for Bangkok, Thailand, and the United Nations Refugee Agency, where he was able to get potential entree into several countries, including the U.S. He was arrested three times and kept in a prison room with 200 people and nowhere to sit or lie down.
As of 2008, there were 120,000 Burmese refugees living in camps on the Burma-Thailand border, according to the UNHCR website.
Win stayed in Portland for a while, then moved to Denver to be with a friend. He had a case manager and help from a volunteer. He found work.
“We do whatever we need to do,” Win said. He has worked for a picture-frame company and a medical device maker in Lakewood, among other things.
Win is married and has a 12-year-old son who attends a Jeffco middle school.
In 2007 he took a job with Southern Tsunami Sushi, which trained him to make sushi and set him up with a tiny, 5-foot-long space in the deli section of the Evergreen Walmart in El Rancho, in between the packaged meat and cold-cuts.
Life is going pretty well, Win says, although he tears up at thoughts of his family in Burma, especially his elderly mother, because he will probably never see her again. It would be too dangerous.  
In America, he can travel to other states on a whim. In Burma, residents must go to the police station, report their whereabouts and pay off the police for the privilege, he said.
“The Burma military government (is) very bad,”  Win writes. He urges the public to condemn the Burmese government.
But America, he loves.
“This is a great country. This is a free country. Everybody has the Internet.  I can talk. I can go to every state,” Win said.
He has been to Denver to demonstrate in support of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and symbol of Burmese freedom who has been in detention for 15 of the last 20 years. She was released last year. He keeps a picture of her near his sushi shop.
According to news reports, there are signs that the regime is loosening its grip and granting new freedoms. Suu Kyi has said she is considering joining the upcoming elections process in Burma. “The people (today) have been able to come out to meet me and see me. This is change,” she said in the London Telegraph on Nov. 16.
While he misses his six brothers and sisters living in Burma, Win has adopted his co-workers and customers for the time being. “I like my job. I’m happy. My customers are like family to me,” he said.  

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.