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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nation of Immigrants

I had a chance to talk yesterday with Zo Tum Hmung who leads a local congregation of refugees from the Chin region of Burma.  I have blogged on this population settling in Howard County a few weeks ago.  What I learned today gave me some of the background to their story of persecution in Burma (Myanmar) and how they ended up in Howard County.

In the 1800’s the British Empire extended into Asia and Burma became a British colony until after WWII when the country won its independence.  In the 1960’s the Burmese military gained control and it has been under military control most of the time since the 1962.  The persecution of ethnic and religious minorities began in the 1990’s and the rulers changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar.  Persecuted refugees started leaving the county going to Malaysia and India.  As political refugees they were permitted to come to the United States.  Tens of thousands have been resettled in the US.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratically elected leader of Burma, was arrested in 1990 by the military and was under house arrest until 2010.  In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Burma.  The party she leads has just announced this month that they will compete in the upcoming elections to restore democracy to the country.  Last week Secretary of State Clinton visited the country to talk with the military leaders about the importance of the country returning to a democratically elected government to have the United States restore normal relations with the country.  This would also stop the refugee flight from the country.

Because of the presence of three Burmese churches in Howard County about 1,000 refugees have been settled in the County, mostly along the Route 1 corridor.  The relocation to this corridor is because of the job opportunities at warehouses along Route 1.  The Maryland Wholesale Food Center is a major employer of the refugees.

The refugee resettlement agencies support the refugees for three months and then it is up to the churches and refugee families to support the newly arrived refugees.  As one would imagine finding housing and employment are the two biggest challenges.  Most refugees arrive speaking no English and unprepared for the culture of the US and a very different climate.  The Burmese are used to the monsoons and floods that frequently kill thousands of Burmese.

Some local non-Burmese churches have assisted in this resettlement effort and my discussion today was how we as a community could increase the support and identify partners to work with the efforts of the Burmese churches in our area in the resettlement effort.

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