For refugee entrepreneur, it’s about education and redemption for his people

For Zaw Win, there’s life “before Buffalo,” and life “after Buffalo.”

Before Zaw Win came to Buffalo 13 years ago, he was held as a political prisoner in his place of birth--Burma. He experienced torture, starvation, and human trafficking at the hands of ruthless dictators. The situation became so dire that at one time he thought of ending his life.

How does one find the fortitude to carry on when life holds little to no meaning? For Zaw Win, he dug deep down into his heart and found the inspiration to keep drawing breath.

Thoughts of family and friends inspired the young man to hold onto every strand of hope there was. He knew he could not end his life because of the pain it would cause his mother, and he remembered that, during prison, he had promised his new friends that after he was out, he would do better for himself.

The story of how Zaw Win made it to the City of Good Neighbors never gets old because it continually inspires one and all to look beyond adverse situations and dream that something better is coming. But Zaw Win puts feet underneath his dreams.

Whether one understands the exact chronology of the journey and all the details of who did what to him, it’s obvious that Zaw Win is no average man. To have endured all he endured physically and mentally, to have left his home and resettled in a foreign land, and to have become a self-made man, is nothing less than remarkable and awe-inspiring. Zaw Win is a testament to all that is good with the world.

Even though he had a life before Buffalo, it’s his life since coming to Buffalo that brings big smiles to his face.

Zaw Win walks into an eatery on Elmwood in Buffalo to meet me for our interview. He is apologetic because he’s late, and his smile is soft and inviting. His family follows behind him and sits at another table after he introduces me to his wife, Naing, and his niece and her husband. While he and I chat, they talk to each other and routinely consult their phones, just like typical families plugged into the Internet anytime, anywhere.

Zaw Win looks tired but energized. It’s no wonder he’s tired: he says he sleeps five or fewer hours a night. He doesn’t seem disgruntled by this, because he knows it’s what he must do to achieve his goals. He becomes energized when asked about his businesses.

Since coming to Buffalo, Zaw Win has beaten the odds of many refugees who only dream of a better life in America. Although he is considered a success story, that doesn’t mean his life has been all roses since coming to the United States.

He speaks and writes English, but he has had to overcome financial hurdles—such as raising his credit score—and learn how that affects his ability to borrow money.

Despite the odds and his setbacks, Zaw Win opened the WASH Project, a laundromat on the West Side of the city, in 2010. It’s unlike any laundromat, because it is also a cultural center for the Burmese population in the city. Here, in this special place, while clothes are churning in washers or going round and round in dryers, there is also the beauty of art and music, language and culture in the air. For the Burmese, it’s a safe place to clean their clothes and be together. Generous sponsors included Houghton College, Belle Center, Buffalo AmeriCorps, and Friends of the Buffalo Story.

The WASH Project is also a forum for Zaw Win and his people to protest the current situation in Burma. Posters in bright array shed light on a nation that is still in chains. Zaw Win is happy to show the stories and to talk to people about the military dictatorship. Even though he is in the United State, he has not forgotten his people in Burma.

You might think that starting and running a laundromat would be enough for one person. But then you don’t know Zaw Win.

He believes if you’re not lazy, you can succeed. Just last year he opened Westside Value Redemption, a redemption center for cans and bottles that caters to the refugee and migrant community. For many refugees, this business has put food on the table and helped clean up the city. It’s a win-win (pun intended) for Zaw Win and the neighborhood. Recently Westside Value Redemption opened a second location.

It’s no wonder that WEDI chose Zaw Win as the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year. He received the honor during WEDI’s Winterfest in February 2018, a signature fundraising event for the organization that helps entrepreneurs’ dreams become reality. WEDI provided Zaw Win with two start-up loans and a third loan for expanding the redemption center. The organization initially helped him develop a business plan and provided collateral for him to get a microloan.

“His dedication to his community through the creation of enterprises that support job creation and make Buffalo a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place,” said Yanush Sanmugaraja, WEDI’s Economic Development Director, “while also generating new dollars in Buffalo’s economy, are all reasons why we admire Zaw Win as a business owner. We’re excited to continue to see him grow, which we know he will.”

As our interview comes to a close, Zaw Win dons a huge smile and tells me that he is a Freedom Fighter. Just five years after arriving in Buffalo, he helped organize a weekend conference of democracy advocates in Buffalo to plan the liberation of their home country. Zaw Win is passionate about fighting for democracy in Burma even as he seeks to give meaning to “living the American dream.

“My big dream,” he says, “is to build one of the education foundation in my country and to help those people who are very poor although they wish to become educated.... That is my big dream and I wish I could set it up one day.”

And he has advice for anyone who thinks they want to own a business: “You need to study first. Manage your time. Whatever your business success is your success as well; share with the people who work for you and your community too.” Currently he employs five Burmese refugees. “If my people are happy,” he says, “I’m happy.” They learn counting skills and English as they work alongside a true leader on the West Side.

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
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