Two Refugees Separated for Years Reconnect While Living Their 'American Dream': 'It's Surreal'
Best friends and coworkers Eh Say Plaw and No Val go back — way back. The pair grew up in the same refugee camp in Thailand and in 2008, they separately fled to the United States in search of a better life before reconnecting years later.
Now, Plaw, 27, and Val, 23, are working together at Chobani, the upstate New York-based yogurt company, where they fulfill their dreams of making a better life for themselves.
“[We’re] living the American Dream,” Plaw, a case packer operator at the company’s New Berlin plant, tells PEOPLE of their success.
But the success did not come easily.
Plaw and Val met when they were boys at a Karen refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese boarder in the late 90s. Like thousands of others, the pair’s families fled their homeland to escape a civil war.
When they weren’t with their families or at school, they friends tried to live a normal life, playing soccer, hanging out at each other’s homes and watching movies with friends.
But both remember from a young age wanting desperately to leave. They had heard about the opportunities in America from family who fled there years before.
“[They said], ‘Come to America, it’s the best place,’ ” Val recalls. ” ‘It has education, you can do anything you want if you work hard.’ ”
And work hard they did. In 2008, through a program with the United Nations, Val and Plaw’s families decided to move separately to the United Sates.
Originally, Plaw thought Val and his family were moving to the U.K., but because of complications, Val’s family ended up in upstate New York, where, unbeknownst to Val, Plaw was also living.
“My family decided we would come to America and follow our dreams and so we came,” Val tells PEOPLE of the move, which he said was hard for his family members who don’t speak much English.
Three years passed before Val and Plaw saw each other again. During that time, Val enrolled in high school, while Plaw, who dreamed of being a doctor, started night school before dropping out to support his family.
All along, the pair worked on their English, earned money to support their families and never gave up on their dreams.
In 2012, while working multiple jobs, Say’s cousin introduced him to Chobani yogurt and suggested he apply for a job.
The company was hiring temporary positions and paid well. A spokesperson for the company tells PEOPLE between 2008 and 2012, Chobani saw a surge in production and began employing hundreds of temporary employees. Many of whom came from local refugee resettlements and have since continued working there.
Plaw immediately fell in love with his job and his team, which was comprised of other hard-working refugees and immigrants like himself.
One day, while practicing soccer on a local field, Val and Plaw bumped into each other. Plaw says it was “amazing” to see his friend, whom, he thought was still living overseas.
The pair caught up and when Plaw heard about Val’s hour-and-half commute to his current job, he helped his friend apply for a position at Chobani, which encourages workers to enroll friends and family.
“It’s like a family [here],” Val says from the New Berlin plant. “You work with your own brother and sister, so we’re all family here.”
Employees are encouraged to share their cultures’ customs at work, Val and Plaw tell PEOPLE. Last week, plant workers organized a potluck lunch with different dishes from their countries.
Speaking to 60 Minutes, Chobani’s CEO Hamdi Ulukaya said as an immigrant himself, he wants everyone to have opportunity.
“Anybody in the community who wanted to work for those years would find a job at Chobani. Anybody, we were hiring,” he said. “Because [my] number one thing is I was gonna hire everyone local before I go outside.”
Ulukaya set up a network of 16 different translators and transportation services for local refugees who hail from 19 nations, he told 60 Minutes.
With translators, a warm work environment and opportunities to grow, Val and Plaw love coming to work.
“The good thing about working at Chobani is everybody is helping each other” Val tells PEOPLE.
Val and Plaw are currently applying for citizenship. Their earnings are going towards education for their families, they tell PEOPLE.
Last month, the pair appeared in Chobani’s latest ad campaign, which highlights its employees’ diverse backgrounds.
“My family is really proud,” Plaw tells PEOPLE of the recognition from his company. “We are like are the first Karen [people] to make it in a commercial. It’s surreal.”