‘Proud to be an American’

 

September 2011

 

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The morning after formally being sworn in as an American citizen Aug. 17 in Houston, Shwe Aung summed up his feelings in one word: “Fantastic!”

 

Aung is an International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) inspector for the SIU. If it sounds like a cliché to say he came a long way in his journey to U.S. citizenship, consider his circumstances in the year 2000. A native of Burma, Aung was in his late twenties and sailing aboard a ship that sank in Venezuela. He survived the ordeal, but his credentials and other paperwork were lost.

 

His only option for securing a new passport involved returning to Burma, where he would have been jailed because of pro-union activities. After a complicated sequence that included long stays in Venezuela and Brazil, Aung, with the ITF’s backing, found his way to the U.S. in December 2001.

 

Aung didn’t exactly begin living the American dream upon his arrival. He was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but – with key assistance from the SIU, the ITF and U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s office – was granted asylum in 2002.

 

Since then, Aung has been an effective ITF inspector (his honors include recognition from the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance) who embraces his chance to assist fellow mariners.

 

“I was a foreign crew member, and I know what it’s like to not get paid and to need the ITF’s help,” he explained. “Now, I’m the one helping. The cycle is complete.”

 

Congressman Green (D-Texas), an ally from Shwe’s earliest days in America, presented his citizenship certificate at last month’s ceremony, which took place at a local education center. SIU Vice President Gulf Coast Dean Corgey was among Aung’s other supporters in attendance.

 

Corgey noted that Aung had the honor of taking the citizenship oath not only for himself but also as a representative of the many other immigrants being naturalized that day. (For practical reasons, one person – Aung – was chosen to stand on behalf of everyone.)

 

“I think that’s a real tribute to his reputation, the great work that he’s done, and his standing in the community,” Corgey said. “We’re proud that he was selected and we’re proud to be a part of Shwe’s successful story and his journey to citizenship. He’s a great guy, and his family was so happy. This is what America is all about.”

 

Reflecting on the last nine years, Aung emphasized his gratitude to a host of backers including Rep. Green, Corgey, SIU President Michael Sacco and SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel, who also has been an ITF official for many years. Aung further noted the invaluable support of ITF officials David Cockroft, Steve Cotton, Anna Llewellyn and Antonio Fritz, local contacts Stefani Nguyen and Jimmy McAuley, shipmates from the MV Global Mariner, his family and others.

 

“There are so many people who’ve helped me along the way,” Aung stated. “I’m so proud to be in the SIU family and to also be part of the ITF. When I got here, the SIU took me in. Dean and Jimbo ( SIU Assistant Vice President Jim McGee) came to see me on a ship around midnight. They didn’t even know me. I had lost my hope, but they worked with me…. Without the SIU, I wouldn’t be here.”

 

Heindel, who serves as chairman of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, noted, “It’s inspirational to see that Shwe has made a good life for himself in the U.S. Meeting this young man in Brazil in late 2001 and hearing that Brazil was going to deport him back to Burma to face prison just for standing up for himself and fellow crew – something that we daily take for granted – was just too much not to assist him. I am proud that we, with the help of Representative Green, were able to assist Shwe in making his way to the States and being there when he landed. I’m sure over the years it has not been easy for him to be away from his family in Burma, but his is a great American story; he has assimilated into our culture and now started a family of his own.  Congratulations, Shwe!"

 

Aung concluded, “I’m proud to be an American. It’s really great.”


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