Refugees from embattled Burma are lucky to land in Denver. Here they have a friend, Frank Anello, and his nonprofit Project Worthmore, to help them navigate their new life.
The refugees are fleeing persecution at the hands of Burma’s military regime, which has seized their land and livelihood and banished them to refugee camps. About 3,000 refugees have settled in Denver; 70,000 live in the U.S.
“They arrive here with no food, no English-speaking skills and no idea how to live in our culture,” said Anello, a Park Hill resident. “They are our neighbors and they need our help.”
Anello and his wife, Carolyn, became interested in working with refugees in 2010, when they helped a family through their church, Mile High Vineyard in Arvada.
“We didn’t know anything about the refugees from Burma who were living right down the street from us. It was just crazy,” said Anello. “We’d be sitting with our assigned family and others came to the door hungry. We realized they couldn’t read their mail, couldn’t enroll their kids in school. So many needed help.”
The apartment buildings near Colfax Ave. and Yosemite St. are home to many refugees. They are brought here by the U.S. government under asylum laws to protect persecuted peoples. As many as 300 to 500 new refugees come to Denver from Burma each year.
Burma is in southern Asia and is bordered by India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. The country has been embroiled in civil war for 65 years. Rich in natural resources, including oil, the land is desirable to profiteering warlords who seize entire villages and force their inhabitants into refugee camps.
The refugees are members of nine different ethnic groups. Approximately 120,000 people have been displaced from their homes and ultimately forced to leave their country. The ethnics prefer not to be called “Burmese” because that is the name their persecutors have taken. The refugees also prefer to call their country Burma and not Myanmar, the more recent name given to it by the military regime.
Farming families who are pushed off their land might spend years in refugee camps before they can be relocated to another country. Anello visited the camps in 2011 as a guest of the Partners Relief and Development agency.
“The conditions in the camps are deplorable. They live in bamboo huts with dirt floors and no toilets,” said Anello. “Often they are stuck in the refugee camps for 10 or 15 years. Many can never go back home because their villages were burned and the land is full of landmines.
“Seeing the camps rattled me mentally,” Anello said. “It rocked my world to know these people had nowhere to go.”
Anello, a waiter, and Carolyn, a dental hygienist, started Project Worthmore in 2011 to help refugees find their footing in Denver.
“These people were pushed aside and they felt worthless. We’re about restoring their worth,” Anello said.
Project Worthmore works with Lutheran Family Services and other agencies to provide short-term emergency help and cultural education. “The Lutheran Family Services caseworker is charged with helping about 500 refugees from all over the world, so there’s no way they all get enough support. We work closely with him and focus on the people from Burma,” said Anello.
The nonprofit raises money to provide families with 50-pound bags of rice. “Since food stamps don’t kick in for a while, 50 pounds of rice can keep a family of four going for a month,” Anello said.
Another priority is providing bus passes so they can start getting around. Project Worthmore also offers English classes on-site at the apartment buildings.
Thirteen teams of Project Worthmore volunteers sponsor 15 refugee families. The teams of four people provide “cultural mentorship” by showing people how to ride the bus, shop for groceries, open a checking account, enroll their children in school and clean their apartment.
“The most important thing mentorship teams do is check on the families once a week to make sure they have food and to help them read their mail. They assist with navigating the paperwork necessary to get food stamps and Medicaid benefits,” Anello said.
Volunteers commit to mentorship teams for six months at a time. Anello hopes to double the number of teams so they can help more families.
Several dedicated businesses and individuals are helping Project Worthmore grow. Watercourse Foods and City O’ City donated a portion of their sales every Monday for two years, netting the nonprofit about $800 a month. Artist and Stapleton resident Carmen Melton put together an art show at Core New Art Space that raised $6,000. Other fundraisers have included an Ice Skate-a-Thon, a benefit concert at the Mercury Café and a coat/rice drive.
“We’re taking care of our neighbors while building a sense of community,” said Anello.
Anello plans to open a center on East Colfax where refugees can come for services. In addition to the services already provided by Project Worthmore, the center will offer computer classes, homework help and job-hunting help.
He said the biggest need is funding for the new space, as well as continued help to buy rice for new refugee families. To learn more about how to help Project Worthmore, see their website, projectworthmore.org.
“Working with these people will shake you and it will shape you,” Anello said. “If you want a different view of life, it’s no farther than just across Montview from Stapleton. These folks are loving, honest and giving. All they want is to stop running.”