A refugee's story

Photo by Greg Eans, Messenger-Inquirer.com | geans@messenger-inquirer.com Kyaw Oo stands in the front aisle of his business, Kinsman Asian Grocery Store, Tuesday. The business located in Williamsburg Square.

When Kyaw Oo came to Owensboro eight years ago, he couldn't speak, read or write in English.

But today, through sacrifice and determination, he and his brother, Nai Oo, own their own business -- Kinsman Asian Grocery Store in Williamsburg Square.

They are among roughly 2,000 refugees from Myanmar -- formerly Burma -- who have settled in Owensboro in the past decade or so.

"It had become very difficult to live in our country," Oo said.

He worked in construction and laid tile back there.

Eventually, his family fled Myanmar.

And after several years in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Oo finally made it to America in 2011.

The International Center brought him to Owensboro that year, he said.

"I feel very lucky to be here," Oo said. "I'm looking for education for my children's future."

He landed a job at the Tyson plant in Henderson County, working alongside other Burmese refugees.

"I worked at Tyson for three years," Oo said. "They paid really good money, but I wanted to grow. I wanted to learn English. I wanted to deal with the American people."

So, against his wife's objections, he quit the job at Tyson.

"It was a very big change for me," Oo said. "I had no experience. I couldn't speak English. My wife had to take care of the two children, so she couldn't work. But I know if I work hard, people are going to love me."

He found a job at Don Moore Automotive detailing cars.

"It paid less," Oo said. "But I learned English to support my family."

The people at the auto dealership "loved me like a family," he said. "But I wanted to do something different, to have my own business. I wanted to try something different."

Oo's dream was to open an Asian grocery.

While he was working and saving his money toward his dream, several other Asian groceries opened in town.

"But I decided to do it anyway," Oo said.

On July 4 -- Independence Day -- he and his brother opened their store.

With his background in laying tile, Oo did the floors himself to save money.

"I can meet a lot of people and learn from them," he said. "I try to find what food people like and get it. It took a lot of money to start my business."

But Oo, who will be 40 in December, said, "I want to be a successful business owner."

Kinsman Asian Grocery is large for a neighborhood market.

Its aisles and freezers are stocked with drinks, fruit, vegetables, seafood, frozen squid, shrimp, pasta, beef, fish, goat, chicken, pork, noodles, coffee and other staples.

Kyaw is pronounced similar to "Ja."

But Oo has Americanized it to "Joe."

"People can call me anything they want," he said, "as long as they call me."

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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