Monday, November 2, 2009

More than 100 Burmese refugees relocated to Western Mass. to escape reported abuse in Myanmar

masslive.com

Sugar Moon, 22, left, whose father is Thai and mother Burmese, is a translator at the Lutheran Social Services in West Springfield. She is talking here with recent immigrants San Naing Chaw, 35, middle, and Lae Way, 46.

The refugees have moved with the help of Jewish Family Services of Springfield and Lutheran Social Services in West Springfield.
Sugarmoon doesn’t have a last name. No one in her tribe does, but in the United States first and last names are required, so now her name is Sugar Moon.
“It’s very strange to separate my name that way,” the 22-year-old says.
Home for Sugarmoon until just a year ago was a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand.
Sugarmoon is part of the Karen tribe, a group of Burmese people who fled their country, now called Myanmar, seeking refuge from reported abuse by the ruling government.
Many were forced to work in labor camps and were physically and sexually abused by military personnel, said Duane Binkley, an agricultural missionary who has worked extensively with Burmese refugees in the United States. Most of those who fled first went to refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
Over the past year-and-a-half, more than 100 Burmese refugees have been placed in Western Massachusetts with the help of Jewish Family Services of Springfield and Lutheran Social Services in West Springfield.
Both organizations help hundreds of refugees from around the globe resettle here each year. The agencies help find housing, transportation, jobs and enroll children in schools, said Misha Gregorian, of Lutheran Social Services, who works with the Burmese refugees when they arrive.
Sugarmoon is among the lucky few who arrived here with a grasp of the English language.
“Language is the most serious barrier for Karen people,” Gregorian said, explaining how most refugees struggle for months to learn English.
Language is one of the three basic things he cites as necessary for the refugees to prosper here; the others are work and transportation. He has helped place the Karen children in schools where they are completely immersed in studies in English and also enrolls as many adults as he can in English classes.
Many of the refugees have also found a kind of home-away-from-home at Agawam’s First Baptist Church.
“It is such a blessing to have them here with us,” said the pastor, the Rev. Thomas N. Rice.
The newest members of Rice’s flock began arriving earlier this year.
“They are learning from us, but we are al
so learning from them, about their traditions and their way of worship,” Rice said.
Each Sunday, he encourages the refugees to read a passage of the Bible in their native language and sing a worship song to help immerse the American congregates into their culture and religious traditions.
Church member Darcy Davis finds it exciting to have the refugees in the congregation.
“It has been a learning experience for all of us,” she said. “It is wonderful to see the children running around the church and bringing a new life to it.”
Church members have also come together to provide clothing and other necessities to the refugee families, according to Edith Gottsche.
“They need shoes and warm clothes for the winter and car seats,” she said. “ We have gathered as much as we can to help them.”
Rice has an unusual connection with Burma as his parents were missionaries there in the 1940s and he was born there in 1947. “Having them here feels like a piece of my past,” he said. “It feels like the natural thing to do to help them and welcome them to our church.”
The Baptist faith has a long history with Burma. While Buddhism is still the primary belief system many Burmese have been Baptists since missionaries, including Adoniram Judson, first visited the country in the early 1800s.
“The Burmese government only accepts Buddhism as the national religion, and many of these refugees have been persecuted for their beliefs. We feel it is important for us to help them now,” Rice said.
Binkley spoke in Agawam this summer about the Karen tribe’s history in Myanmar and Thailand and the problems the refugees face today. Due to their fear of persecution many Burmese will not, in fact, admit that they are Baptist, so there is no accurate number of how many there are, Binkley said.
Binkley estimates more than 40,000 refugees have been moved to the U.S. in the past five years. Many come from separate camps in Thailand and Malaysia, he said, and their moves to the U.S. bring both opportunities and difficulties.
“They have to learn to pay utility bills and learn to speak English and learn how to use transportation all in a very short time period,” he said. “Many of the families rely on their children to learn English in school and translate for them.”
East Longmeadow High School teacher Ray Williams Jr., of Agawam, began teaching English for the refugees at the church on Sundays after the services.
“It’s really a very slow process, but they are the most hard working group of people I have ever met,” he said. “All of them have a willingness and a desire to learn even though it is incredibly difficult for them to construct even basic sentences,” he said, explaining how their language is monosyllabic, “so they have no concept of words with multiple syllables.”
Williams incorporates useful topics, like unit and sale prices and how to take a bus, into his teaching. Many of the families are still very isolated within neighborhoods of Springfield and West Springfield, he said.
“Some of them come to church on Sunday, and then they do not leave their house again until the next Sunday,” he said.
“There are many difficulties for us here,” acknowledged Ka Ba Aye, one of two Burmese ministers at the church. He is regarded as a spiritual leader for the group and conducts services in Burmese after the regular Sunday service in English.
“The biggest difference in our small service is the language,” he said through a translator, Aung Myo. “ We still worship the same God. We still read the same Bible.”
Ka Bay Ya is 59-years-old. He came to the United States less than a year ago with his wife and five children and says he’s found it a struggle to live a decent life.
“Many of our people do not have enough money to live every month,” Ya said. “We cannot find jobs, or, if we do, it is difficult to get transportation to the jobs.”
Currently only two members of the congregation have driver’s permits, Paw Htoo, a young father, and Myo, 21, who came to the U.S. a year ago and is a student at Springfield Technical Community College.
“They need to offer the permit in our language so that more of us can drive,” Myo said. “We also need a van because ours broke and it is difficult for people to get around.”
The congregation is desperately seeking a van to help transport families to and from church and work if they can find it.
“Right now several of us are taking three round-trips every Sunday to bring them to church,” Williams said. “They want to achieve some level of independence and being able to drive would be a great help.”
Rice said that while there are some problems to work out he is proud of the congregation for accepting the Karen people.
“ It has been an adjustment for all of us. The Karens have to adjust to a different climate, a different language and a different way of life. Our congregation has had to take on the challenge of helping them,” he said. “It is really our faith that has brought us all together and is transforming us into one community.”
Sugarmoon’s mother still lives in Thailand where she worked at a health clinic at the refugee camp and picked up English from British and Australian doctors and nurses. She taught English to Sugarmoon and her sister in hopes that they could move to the U.S. and attend college.
Sugarmoon is making her mother’s dream a reality. She is a student at Springfield Technical Community College, studying to be an engineer. She also works part time with Lutheran Family Services, translating for new refugees as they arrive.
“I am not an interpreter really,” she explained. “Some words I cannot translate, but I try to make them understand. The English language is very difficult especially for the older people who come because most do not have any schooling.”
At Lutheran Family Services, agriculturist Shemariah Blum-Evitts helped families start their own vegetable gardens this summer in Holyoke, West Springfield and Westfield. Most of the Karens are familiar with farming and requested certain gourds native to their home, according to Blum-Evitts.
“They are hard-working people, and they want to provide for their families. By helping them start their own gardens they can become more self sufficient,” she said.
Back home Ler Thaw owned a small market where he sold fruits and vegetables. He was also a Baptist minister. He arrived in January with two of his four children; the rest of his family remains in Thailand.
Through translation from Sugarmoon, Thaw said it has been difficult to live here without a job. “I want to work, but it is hard to find jobs here,” he said.
As for Sugarmoon, she hopes to bring her mother and sister here when she obtains citizenship, a process she said could take years. For now she is working on her English and adjusting to a new life.
“I still can’t believe that I am here in America. I sometimes wake up and I think I am back home,” she said. “But, then I remember I am here, and my mother’s dream is real for me.”

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