The Charlotte Observer
South Charlotte News (North Division)
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Thanei Taithio proudly stands behind the counter at his convenience store, Taithio Family Store on the corner of Richland Drive and Monroe Road, greeting customers in their native tongue – Burmese and Chin.
He opened the predominantly Burmese ethnic store three years ago. He said he’d always wanted to open his own business.
“If you work hard and stay healthy, this is the land of opportunity,” he said.
Taithio knows. He’s lived where there was no opportunity.
He grew up in northwestern Myanmar, formerly Burma, in the Chin State in a town called Falam. It is a metropolitan area but is too small to be classified as a city. It’s a site where roughly 100 villages converge to do business. There, he studied theology at Zomi Theological College, married his wife, Manghrin, and they had their firstborn son, Zalan Luai Taithio.
In August 1988, after years of ethnic minorities being suppressed under the reign of Ne Win, student democratic groups led an uprising known as “8888.”
The groups demanded restoration of democratic government. The effort failed and resulted in continued military reign. Many ethnic minorities were killed for having democratic affiliation.
Taithio said, at age 22, he had been part of Falam’s democratic student group and had to flee with his brother, Run Bik.
Taithio had to leave behind his wife and child, and he and his brother moved to nearby Mizoram, India. Taithio lived there for three years. His family joined him in 1992, and they moved to New Delhi a year later.
There he found work as an interpreter and translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He worked and studied theology at Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and he came to the United States in 2001.
“When I was young, in Burma, we couldn’t hope; we didn’t know where our next meal would come from, and we were dependent on our parents,” he said. “India was worse. Our future there was uncertain.
“Here, we have a chance to grow, and our children can prosper.”
Taithio, 49, has lived in Charlotte since June 2006. He has three sons and rents a house near Fairview and Providence roads.
Before opening his store, he worked as a caseworker at two refugee resettlement agencies, Interfaith Refugee Missionary in New Bern – their first home in the U.S. – and Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency in Charlotte.
“I was very happy to help them settle here, find jobs and enroll their children in school,” Taithio said. “I could help them, because I know what it feels like to be there – feeling stuck in-between and suspicious.”
Taithio said he has helped approximately 2,000 Burmese refugees settle in Charlotte.
In 2013, he said he decided to concentrate on building his business and spending more time with his family. However, he still helps the community.
“I have a family of five (Burmese refugees) staying in my home now while they wait for their apartment to be ready,” he said.
He also has worked to create a Chin Christian service at Park Road Baptist Church every Sunday and established the Chin Community of North Carolina, which he said will hold a Chin New Year in Charlotte in October 2015.
“I want my children to know where they come from. We are American citizens, but we are also Asian. And that’s important,” he said.
Fellow Burmese families enter the family store. The adults look through rows filled with rice steamers, fish broth, sesame and bean nut snack packs, and candied dried fruit. One young mother approached the counter with government paperwork. She needed Taithio’s help filling it out.
“I still help people, when they need it. They know they are always welcome here,” he said. “That’s another reason I opened this store, to give them the sights and scents of home.”