Local photographer Angela Buckley shares the stories of Burmese refugees to be archived at History Colorado
“No one chooses what situation they are born into and refugees have experienced highly intense situations in which I cannot fathom,” says Angie Buckley.
“These families made great sacrifices to come to a country where they do not speak the language fluently, their best option for safety is to leave many loved ones behind and their culture. Though they make a choice to come to America with the great hope for a better, safer life here, the personal sacrifice of what they must leave behind is equally emotional.”
Having learned more about Colorado’s Burmese community from Jill Toffa, who teaches English to the refugees, Buckley became interested in sharing their stories. She approached History Colorado’s Curator of Photography, Megan Friedel, who explained the museum needed to broaden the representation of the people in its collection of 1 million photographs.
She shared that although 31% of Colorado residents are non-white, History Colorado’s photography collection had very few other groups represented.
“When I told her about Jill Toffa teaching English to the Burmese refugees, Megan was extremely interested and excited to learn more about their story here in Colorado,” says Buckley.
“We invited Jill to the museum and as they say, the rest is history! Or it will literally, be history. The future citizens of our state will have access to these archives for many decades and will know our state, Colorado, hosted and helped refugees.”
Buckley recognizes the great work of Toffa. She says, “Jill Toffa is my ‘Denver Hero’ as she has worked with the refugees for the past 9 years! She is amazing and so dedicated to these families. My part in the endeavor is an observer to share this story and educate our fellow Colorado citizens about the refugees in hopes to bring more understanding, empathy and opportunities to them.”
Refugees love to use Facebook
Through spending time with the refugees, Buckley learned how much they use Facebook. Buckley reflects, “It is my main method to communicating with them. It is fun sharing photos and of course, stickers. I believe it is the way they are able to stay in communication with their families very far away.”
When Buckley first began photographing the Burmese families, it brought back memories of her own childhood living in an apartment with her Thai mother.
“We took off our shoes at the entrance, had a rice cooker always filled with delicious white rice, and other numerous details that were similar to my childhood lifestyle.”
Buckley also learned that refugees receive a special, legal status in the U.S. that helps them integrate and start a new life. “This special status is absolutely essential and helpful to these families,” she says.
“As I became friends with some of the women, they share so many values we do: they love their children, they want their children to get a great education and with good health care.”
Buckley notes, “Refugees living in America do not get much media attention and therefore, many people like myself are surprised when we finally learn we host thousands of refugees.”
“These families went through hell to get here and now face intense transitional challenges. Can you imagine yourself, here in the U.S. trying to survive through a violent situation, forced to move to Asia, giving up your life and leaving family behind and on top of it all, not speak the language? That is a small idea of what it is like to be a refugee.”
Buckley’s hope is to provide more understanding about their situation, help them transition and encourage more cooperation from the fellow citizens in Denver.
Buckley’s passion stems from her personal connection to the immigrant experience
Buckley and her sister, Lava Sheets, grew up with a hard-working mother from Thailand (Ubon Ratchathani) in the small, college town of Athens, Ohio. Their predominantly Caucasian family is made up of Appalachian Baptists. She and her sister were the first to go to college.
“I attended Ohio University for my bachelor’s in photography and then got my master’s in photography from Arizona State University with a Graduate Fellowship from New York University,” Buckley says. “College changed my life for the better and now as a college administrator, it is my passion to help our Denver youth. I am currently trying to help two refugee sisters enroll in college and want to see them through graduation.”
Buckley’s mother met her father at the end of the Vietnam War. She was flown to the U.S. while pregnant, before he returned.
“I can only imagine the shock my mother went through. The reality was my father’s Appalachian family was not the most welcoming to my mother.”
Buckley continues, “They were not use to people who are non-white since they were in a predominantly white, rural region. I remember my grandfather making racist comments about “the Japs” because he was in WWII.”
Buckley’s sister remembers another aunt saying that their mom spoke ‘jungle language and therefore they should never learn or speak the language (Buckley and her sister had spoke some Thai when they were young).
“Some of my family—my oldest cousins, aunt and uncle—were very nice to my mom and they were intrigued with her Thai food and it really helped as a child who felt ‘in-between’ two cultures.”
In graduate school, Buckley visited Myanmar, Burma with her mother and sister, which also intrigued her about the local Burmese community.
Meet Angie, Jill and refugee families at History Colorado event
On Thursday, Sept. 22 at 10:30 a.m., Buckley and Toffa will be present a public lecture at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203. You are invited to see and hear the stories about working with these Burmese women and understand why dedicating this time has been so important.
“We truly hope you make the time to come to our only public lecture about these amazing, resident and kind people,” says Buckley.
Photos to be displayed at History Colorado
The photographs will be in the permanent digital collection and available to the public for educational purposes.
“It is important for educators and schools in the remote, distant areas of Colorado to have access online to tell their students about this wonderful, unique group of people here in Colorado,” says Buckley.
Her future plan is to keep photographing them although, her time will be more limited as she recently accepted a full-time opportunity working in the College of Arts & Media at CU Denver.
Strengthening the cultural roots of our families and for our kids
Buckley’s sister recently had her wedding in Thailand, where they have been able to reconnect with their Thai family through Facebook.
“It has been incredible ‘seeing them’ on a daily basis through social media. It is the best tool we can currently use to feel closer to them,” says Buckley.
Her two young kids are highly interested in their Thai background and eager to learn more about the culture and are ready to embrace it.
“Being a parent inspires me to dream of a better world for my kids and to participate in creating and maintaining this better world. The more we learn about other groups—outside our own demographic—in Denver, the more we can maximize on our experiences to keep creating a beautiful, safe community for all to enjoy.”