An interview with Burmese community activist Ze Yar Swe about the practical applications of skills acquired in Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program.

Ze Yar Swe, originally from Burma, has been living in Buffalo for the past eight years. He is currently working at Journey’s End Refugee Services as an Employment Specialist. A graduate of the University at Buffalo, he is working to increase the services and resources available to the refugee community. Through his participation with the Myanmar Student Society, he is working to build a unified and powerful Burmese community in Buffalo.

In December  2015, Swe  graduated in the  inaugural class of Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program, a  first-of-its-kind, comprehensive social justice   academy.  He recently sat down with Open Buffalo’s Monique Owens to discuss his ongoing  work to uplift and empower  Buffalo’s growing  community of refugees from Burma.

How did you find your way to community work?

The refugee community is very new here. Refugees are from the most underdeveloped countries and most of them are uneducated, very poor and have been in a war zone. When they came here, they encounter a lot of barriers. I am from Central Burma and have some education, so my experience was somewhat different. But when you see the people from your country in trouble and they have no idea how to find the solution, it motivates you to take action. The system in the United States is totally different, because in order to access services you have to speak the language. I am currently working for a refugee agency so I see a lot of people with those problems, which has motivated me to want to work with the community.

What is something about Buffalo that you want to fix?

I want there to be more support for the refugee community in Buffalo. I think that there needs to be a focus on improving education, in terms of computer literacy. Most of the refugee community do not know how to use computers, so they are at a huge disadvantage. I want to see a real investment for the refugee community in terms of programs and opportunities. Another issue is the lack of civic education in the refugee community. Once a refugee becomes a citizen, there is no support in teaching them about their right to vote. I want the refugees to exercise their right to vote here. I never had the opportunity to vote in my country, because there was never an election in Burma. The refugee community should not miss the opportunity to practice that right in the United States.

Why did you decide to apply for the Open Buffalo Emerging Leaders program?

I was looking for the opportunity to learn how to organize and work with the community. I am involved in the Burmese community, but it has been very challenging to try to get everyone to work together. So I wanted to gain the tools and skills that I would need to be more effective in the community.

What is the most memorable lesson that you took away from the Emerging Leaders program?

The opening weekend had the most impact on me, because it introduced organizing and leadership skills. I learned how to fuse the “story of self,” “story of us,” and “story of now,” in order to motivate people into action. I also found the snowflake (leadership) model, coaching, and one-on-one techniques useful, and have been applying it in my work with the Myanmar Student Society. All of the notes and materials I used during that weekend are safely stored at home, because I plan to continue to use it as a reference. This information is great for leadership and empowerment, and I hope to one day have the information translated in Burmese.

How have you applied the tools and skills gained from the Emerging Leaders program?

I am working to organize the youth in the Burmese community through the Myanmar Student Society. These are college students from most of the colleges and universities in the area. Since the students are from different ethnicities within the Burmese community, I am helping them find their shared purpose. It is important to work with them, because sometimes they are left behind in the classroom. The school does not always have the tools to address their needs or the language barriers. I want to give them the skills and tools that they need to be successful in life.

What advice do you have for future Emerging Leaders?

I would suggest to focus and absorb all of the information that is going to be thrown their way. Listen to everything because every word is worth it!

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Monique Owens, Documentation and Learning Specialist for Open Buffalo