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Cathy Mangan
Genevieve Yedlicka
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Hre Mang
This is an overview of Umpium Mae refugee camp for Karen people near Mae Sot, Thailand. The wooden huts are typical dwellings for families living in the camps. Officials estimate about 20,000 refugees live in the camp. Photo by Y-Press alumna Emily Jacobi.
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Burmese refugees live in peace here, but kids feel isolated
Before moving to Indianapolis, Seh Seh Moo resided with her family at a different Thai camp-- Tham Hin Refugee camp, a 16-acre overcrowded camp in a montainous area about two hours west of Bangkok. In Thailand alone, more than 150,000 refugees reside in nine refugee camps.
Before moving to Indianapolis, Seh Seh Moo resided with her family at a different Thai camp-- Tham Hin Refugee camp, a 16-acre overcrowded camp in a montainous area about two hours west of Bangkok. In Thailand alone, more than 150,000 refugees reside in nine refugee camps.
May 4, 2008

Seh Seh Moo expected to grow up with her family in a village in Myanmar, formerly Burma, with other Karen (pronounced kuh-ren) people, a minority group in the Southeast Asian country.

But then repression by the military government -- the junta -- became worse. One of Seh Seh's uncles died because he refused to serve in the military, she said. He was forced to dig his own grave and was buried alive.
"The Burmese government was trying to take over the land, and they started fighting, shooting and bombing the villages. So, we just had to leave," said Seh Seh, who was 3 years old at the time.

On foot, Seh Seh's family -- her parents, two brothers and a sister -- made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand.

"It took almost a month for us to get into the camps because we couldn't just keep going every day. We were hiding and going, resting and going, for almost a month," she said.

After living in the camp for nine years, Seh Seh moved to Indianapolis' Northside with her family. They've lived here about 20 months.

Instead of fleeing violence and suffering from poverty, the 14-year-old, an eighth-grader at Northview Middle School in Washington Township, now plays soccer and piano.

"I've never known a child who smiles and laughs more," said her English-as-a-second-language teacher Angel Pickett-Chilton.

More than a million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities like Seh Seh's family, have fled their native country for economic and political reasons. They prefer to call Myanmar "Burma" because the military government changed the name. Most of these Burmese live in Bangladesh, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand. More than 150,000 Burmese live in nine refugee camps in Thailand, according to the U.S. State Department.

About 14,000 refugees were admitted to the United States in the 2007 federal fiscal year, between Oct. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007. That was eight times as many as in the prior fiscal year.

Indiana is among the top resettlement states for Burmese refugees since the movement began a decade ago. Last year, about 1,000 Burmese came to Indianapolis to live.

Nonprofit organizations say Indianapolis is home to more than 2,000 Burmese from two ethnic groups: the Chin and the Karen. About 1,300 Chin live in Perry Township; the remainder are Karen, in Washington Township. Fort Wayne has over 3,500 Burmese refugee residents.

When these families arrive in Indiana -- sometimes with only a couple of weeks' notice -- two organizations spring to help them: Catholic Social Services and Exodus Refugee Immigration.

Exodus helps its clients -- more Burmese than any other group -- secure housing, food, clothing, transportation, translation services, temporary welfare assistance, job training and placement, and school and medical care.

So far in 2008, Exodus has relocated 77 Burmese families to Indianapolis, and it expects hundreds more this summer, said Carleen Miller, Exodus executive director.

Naw Phaw is a Burmese community caseworker with Exodus. She is originally from Myanmar, and she said her native country's history is full of tragedy. The junta has burned down villages, separated families and forced men into labor and battle. Thousands of others are in Myanmar's political prisons, according to human rights reports.

Phaw said soldiers kill those who refuse to pay bribes by running them over with trucks, killing 10 or 20 people at once.

"Sometimes people run away and escape. That's why a lot of refugees became refugees, because they can't handle it anymore."

In Myanmar, the Karen, who are often persecuted for their Christian faith, make up only 7 percent of the Burmese population, but they have been the most radical in seeking their freedom and rights, Phaw said. Parents teach their children to defy the government.

"And they are very proud of their children if their son can learn how to use a gun or fight," she said.

Myanmar has the highest number of child soldiers in the world -- about 70,000.
Burmese children, many of whom have escaped conscription or death like members of Seh Seh's family, still face many challenges. In America, they must adapt to different cultures and communities.

Most of the refugees cannot speak English and have difficulty speaking to other refugees from Myanmar, because the Chin, Karen and Burman (the predominant ethnic group) all speak different languages. Phaw is able to translate because she speaks all these languages; one of her parents is Karen, the other Chin. She translated for Y-Press.

Both of those ethnic groups are predominantly Christian and are affiliated with several Baptist churches in Indiana. Phaw's husband is Chin and a Baptist minister.

Many of the Burmese Chin are accustomed to city life and have more schooling. They already have relatives in Indianapolis, so their adjustment comes easier. The Karen, on the other hand, are farmers, and they often do not have family here when they arrive.

Still, this ethnic group has found ways to celebrate its heritage in Indiana by eating Karen dishes and wearing traditional clothing on special occasions. First Baptist Church conducts a weekly worship service in the Karen language.

One of the challenges for these students -- Chin and Karen -- is making friends.

"I don't really hang out with American kids so much because they don't seem to like us," said Bawi Ceu, 20, who is Chin and a senior at Perry Meridian High School. Bawi is older because of delays in his education with his refugee status.

When refugees from Myanmar arrive here, there often is little public awareness of who they are.

"Chin children are mistaken for being Hispanic or other Aisan ethnicities; not many people realize we are Burmese," said Biakku Ling, 18, another Perry Meridian senior.

Students rarely mingle with the newcomers.

"I thought people would welcome us, talk to us, hang around and have tea," said Bawi.

Hre Mang, a Chin refugee who has been in the U.S. eight years, urges others to reach out to teens like Bawi.

"They are pretty much isolated even in school," Mang said, noting he'd like to see students in the Indianapolis area schools learn more about Myanmar, and its conflict and culture. Then maybe Americans would feel more comfortable reaching out to their new neighbors, he explained.

"Sombody must do this thing, otherwise Burmese families will always stay isolated and will never interact with the global society and community and society here," Mang said.

But, in many ways, adjusting to American schools has been a refreshing change. Phaw and Burmese students said Myanmar's education system is corrupt.

"If you don't have the money, you will never get any education and will not pass your exam or test in school. Students have no rights to get a good education if they are not wealthy," Phaw said.

In Myanmar, kids are afraid to go to school because underpaid teachers beat them and accept bribes, she explained.

The schools in Myanmar are rigid. Students learn nothing about democracy.

"It is easier here because in Burma, we had to memorize everything, and I was really bad at memorizing," said Bawi. "I tried to run away from school a lot of times. I ran away more than I was in school."

Mang said that after living in India and now the United States, he better understands how restrictive the Burmese culture can be.

"In a Burmese fammily, parents will tell their child what to wear, what to eat, where to go and what to do," he said.

"School is designed to train children's minds to obey the government. In Burma, the intellectual development of children is really restricted."

Most Burmese children are unaware of democracy because they have never experienced it until now, Phaw agreed.

"They don't even know what human rights are. So, they need to be educated. And the more they're educated, the more they understand what they can do to help Burma become a good country," said Phaw.

Biakku is among those refugee students now committed to making positive changes in Myanmar. She is considering a career with the Peace Corps or the United Nations.

"I want to do a lot of things, but basically my main goal is to work in a career to help my country."

REPORTER: Tommy Mangan

ASSISTANT EDITORS: Pratik Cherian, 16; Jordan Denari, 17; and Ben Dorson, 18
Copyright 2008 Y-Press
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