The WASH project: Zaw Wins efforts to unite the Westside
blog by Genna Mitchell • February 12, 2013 @ 9:22am
After I was released from the embrace of a man standing approximately five feet, four inches tall, I was able to see clearly just what was happening inside of the Westside Value Laundromat. I also thought to myself, “Wow! These Burmese men sure are friendly.”
The man who had hugged me was owner and operator Zaw Win, and we had just met for the first time. He knew I was there to share his story, so I listened while a group of Burmese men played pool, his mother chopped vegetables in the back, the next Picasso was at work in the artist studio and instructors were prepping for an ESL class. And, of course, while customers did their laundry.
Hard to believe so much can be done in the small confines of a laundromat, but Zaw and Barrett Gordon, an AmeriCorps service member working as Zaw’s project coordinator on what they have coined as The WASH Project will soon welcome an expansion to their infrastructure through a partnership with Computers For Children, Inc., made possible by a grant through the John R. Oishei Foundation.
“We are so grateful for this partnership,” Christine Carr, executive director at CFC, mentioned in my recent interview with her. “Zaw originally met with Paul Hogan at the Oishei Foundation requesting computers to send to friends in Burma. It didn’t take us long to understand Zaw’s passion for helping the people of the community, and so a partnership for the greater good for computer access and education was formed.”
Friends who Zaw speaks highly of as brothers or “freedom fighters.”
The walls of the laundromat tell the story of Zaw’s journey from his younger years growing up in Burma in the 1970’s to the start of his humanitarian efforts uniting students against the autocratic system in 1991, which resulted in imprisonment—community organizing of any sort was illegal in Burma. Zaw spent four years as a political prisoner. He eventually fled to the Thai-Burma border, where he lived for a few years, undocumented and vulnerable. He met a man who offered him an employment opportunity—so he united a group of men to work.
Zaw described the fishing net that covered him and his friends as confirmation of the man’s deception. They were trafficked—an atrocity too often resulting from situations like Zaw’s.
“All day, we pull in nets, lots of fish,” Zaw said. “Hot sun, little food, no energy, no pay.” Zaw remembers staring out at the ocean with dark thoughts of surrender, but imagined his mother, his family and his friends—especially the promises that he made to friends who were still imprisoned in Burma.
He was able to escape to Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burma border. Zaw claimed refugee status, and now,here he is in Buffalo—along with thousands of other Burmese refugees adjusting to new lives, a foreign school system, transportation issues, a different language and simple everyday tasks that most of us take for granted.
But his wall follows his life from Burma to Buffalo, and his achievements are in plain sight. When I saw a photograph of Zaw shaking Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s hand, I said, “Zaw, you don’t need me to tell your story, you’re already famous!” He laughed and said “No, please share. The Mayor came to my laundromat to celebrate Aung San Suu Kyi birthday.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, like Zaw, was imprisoned for her political views by the military junta known as the Union of Myanmar, which ruled Burma from 1962 to 2011. In 1989, the government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody. For years, the Union military tried to push Suu Kyi out of Burma, but she refused and continued to fight for her seat in parliament as a representative for the National League for Democracy.
In 1991, her ongoing efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize. In December 2007, she was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal, making her the first person in American history to receive such an honorary award while imprisoned. She was released from house arrest in November 2010, and on April 1, 2012, the NLD announced that Suu Kyi had won her election. On May 2, 2012 Suu Kyi took her oath and took office.
It has been seven years since Zaw resettled in Buffalo. A friend recently asked him why he is still on the West Side. Zaw replied, “This where my people are.” He described the West Side as opportunistic for the Burmese and other immigrants—and he still has many refugees come to his door asking, “What is happening in Burma?”
While computers won’t be sent to Burma, CFC will donate quality computers to Zaw’s establishment, enhancing his efforts by providing a means for the community to stay connected to their distant homeland and families. CFC looks forward to collaborating with the Buffalo public school system, the International Institute and other resettlement agencies to make the most of the Oishei Foundation grant by providing computer training to Burmese children and their families, with the incentive of taking a computer home at the programs completion—a component of the project that Zaw will be a part of, as well.
The Westside Value Laundromat offers much to the Burmese community and to those who have called Buffalo home their whole lives. Situated just a block from Five Points Bakery at the corner of Massachusetts and 18th Streets, it’s worth a Friday afternoon visit for the open mic sessions, to hear the sounds of Burma, to meet Zaw and Barrett and to make a few new friends.