Refugees in Bowling Green move forward one lesson at a time

I’m thankful to the refugees I’ve met for the willingness to share their lives and experiences with me, even when that is difficult. It’s hard for me to imagine surviving the situations some of these refugees have described.

Caleb Benningfield feels the sam way. “They even told me before ‘I do not like to talk about this it makes me want to cry’”, he said.

Recently, Po Khu answered some questions I had about his life before coming to America.

“We live bad,” Po Khu said. “Where I go I can’t (be) free.”

After fleeing Myanmar, Po Khu dealt with Thailand officials while living in a refugee camp.

“Refugees from Myanmar in Thailand have been confined to nine closed camps since they began arriving in the 1980s” the UNHCR said. “This constitutes one of the most protracted displacement situations in the world.”

“I don’t have money, you know,” Po Khu said. “I have kids. Nobody help me, but I can pray.”

Po Khu said that he was inspired to come to the United States because he heard about the freedom here. He wanted to live freely.

“Right now God sent me a good thing through Laura and Caleb,” Po Khu said.

Po Khu is a young man in his 30’s and although life was tough in Thailand, he still wants to do things with his life.

Po Khu’s wants to learn English so he can grow spiritually.

“I’m learning speaking English right now for Bible,” he said. Po Khu also said he wants to be more independent and not have to rely on translators so heavily.

I also asked Po Khu why so many refugees from Burma live in the Lovers Lane apartments. Aside from the help of the International Center, Po Khu said that he lives there for religious community, since they don’t have a church of their own.

When I asked the Benningfields what their future plans were for helping their friends, they said that they wanted to raise up a preacher and that Po Khu may be the perfect candidate.

Behind the scenes: How do refugees come to America?

In previous posts I’ve talked about how refugees create new lives for themselves by building businesses and fellowship. However, before they even get the chance to make a new life in America there’s a process they have to navigate. Rejection can be costly, according to the International Center Volunteer Manual.

“If the answer is no, refugees have other options: a. Return home. b. Stay where they are. c. Try another country.”

For refugees the process begins the same way. They are threatened, for many reasons like racial, religious, political, or other persecution. Often they take only their immediate families and the clothes on their back, according to the International Center.

After leaving everything behind the process of resettlement begins. After refugees make their way to a neighboring country they apply for protection through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and solve refugee problems worldwide,” according to the UNHCR.

If, and only if, they are granted protection they begin living in a refugee camp. Safety is not insured. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

“They probably don’t have enough to eat; it is usually illegal for them to leave the camp,” said the International Center.

Waiting is a part of each step in the process. Sometimes resettlement can take many years.

The UNHCR determines which cases are suitable for resettlement by conducting screenings and interviews. After filling out documentation they speak with a U.S. official.

“Eligibility for refugee status is determined on a case-by-case basis through an interview with a specially-trained USCIS officer,” said the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“The interview is non-adversarial and is designed to obtain information about an individual’s refugee claim and eligibility for resettlement to the United States.”

If they are accepted, a VOLAG agency takes over the next step of the process.

According to the International Center, “The VOLAG Agency to which they are assigned decides where they will go and with what resettlement agency. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), with which the International Center is affiliated, is one of these resettlement agencies.”

Refugees that pursue resettlement face a rigorous process. For many, however, it is better than the life they come from.

The following video is courtesy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Bowling Green Burmese Refugees Support each Other

This week I spoke with Vung Dim of the Bowing Green International Center. My interview with Dim focused on gaining more information about why Burmese refugees particularly settle in Bowling Green, and why they choose to live in the Lover’s Lane apartment complex. I also gained some insight into how diverse language is within Burma, as not everyone from Burma speaks Burmese.

When she lived in Texas, Dim volunteered as a translator and interpreter for people from Burma. She decided she wanted to go into this as a job.

Currently at her job at the Bowling Green International Center, Dim works as a scheduler while helping out with translation and interpreting as needed.

One thing that Dim wanted to get across in our discussion was that not everyone from Burma speaks the same language.

“Not everyone speak Burmese,” said Dim. “They have their own language and dialect.”

Burma is very diverse in terms of the languages people speak. One of the things Dim does is decide which language someone speaks based on their name. “I am Zo,” said Dim. “I belong to Chin.” Zomi is a language within Chin, which is a group of people who live within Burma.

Burma gained its named from the Burmese who make up the majority in Burma. Although many minorities live within Burma the name stuck over time.

“We cannot just change,” said Dim. “We cannot change it easily.”

When I asked Dim about why Burmese refugees choose to settle in the Lover’s Lane apartments she had the following to say.

Burmese refugees, just like everyone else, seek out people like them, because community is so important in our lives.

New Beginnings for Burmese in Bowling Green

A girl sells jade necklaces to tourists in Myanmar. She wears thanaka makeup, a powder made from a local plant to protect the skin from the sun. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons and author Serinde, released into the public domain.

A girl sells jade necklaces to tourists in Myanmar. She wears thanaka makeup, a powder made from a local plant to protect the skin from the sun.

In a previous post I talked about how Burmese refugees in particular make up the largest group resettling in Bowling Green Ky.

“Burmese refugees are among the top five nationalities to be resettled to the United States in 2013,” reported Saw Yan Naing of Irrawaddy Magazine, which reports on happenings in Burma and Southeast Asia.

Why is that? Why do Burmese refugees choose to settle here? To learn more, I spoke with the Bowling Green International Center’s Executive Director, Albert Mbanfu.

When I spoke to Mbanfu I learned that there is a heavy flow of Burmese into the United States because a high number is approved to resettle here.

A refugee’s family can have a huge influence on their resettlement decisions. If they have family within the United States they often choose to relocate near them. However, if refugees don’t know where to resettle they are assigned to agencies at random. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees plays a central role in refugee migration.

After fleeing their homeland into neighboring countries, refugees begin the long and uncertain process of resettlement. “They may wait months, or even years in camps, languishing in uncertainty,” according to the International Center. “not knowing if they will merely continue to wait, be repatriated, or be given a chance to start a new life in another country.”

What makes Burma, also called Myanmar, unique is its long history of oppression and political and religious persecution.

British colonization of Burma, which began in the early 19th century, fostered long-standing resentment among the local Burmese. This resentment was expressed in Rangoon, the country’s capital, through occasional riots up to the 1930’s.

Since 1962, when General Ne Win seized Burma, the country has been under military control.

In a country so greatly impacted by imperialism and war, one may wonder how well Burmese refugees acclimate to life in America and other countries. Although Burmese refugees tend to have less access to education than Iraqis, they are still able to find jobs in factories and warehouses. More skilled refugees may take up work as mechanics.

In Bowling Green, Burmese family and friends help refugees feel something familiar in a country they don’t know very well. Their shared experiences and backgrounds form the foundation of their community.

Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons and user Serinde.

Turmoil across the globe brings diverse refugees to Bowling Green

According to the Bowling Green International Center “An estimated 1 out of 220 people on the planet are classified as a refugee.” 

While it’s true that Bowling Green hosts a wide representation of refugees from across the globe, some nationalities hold more of a majority than others. I spoke with Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the Bowling Green International Center, to get an idea of refugee diversity in Bowling Green, Ky.

One problem I discovered with monitoring Bowling Green refugees long term is that refugees often decide to leave Bowling Green altogether. Some refugees find that their nationality doesn’t have enough local representation to suit their needs. This influences them to move to larger cities where a certain community may be more robust. When I spoke with Mbanfu I learned that Somalis often fall into this category.

However, while some refugees decide to move on others decide to stay. For example, Burmese refugees in particular often stay within Bowling Green. I was provided with a list of the largest groups to arrive in Bowling Green. Of the 3,407 refugees to arrive in Bowling Green within the last ten years 1,651 were Burmese. The large Burmese community in Bowling Green may be a factor in the resettlement process.

To someone who has been uprooted from their former life and culture, community and a shared experience must be essential. For refugees, the resettlement process may feel isolating and strange. These small communities could help ease that transition and help them take their place in the larger community of Bowling Green.

Below, Barbara Day of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration explains the America’s refugee resettlement policies.

What is a refugee?

What is a Refugee?

You probably know that people from across the world immigrate to America each year to pursue a better life. Some people, however, have less of a choice and come to America to escape dangerous conditions in their homeland.

According to the Bowling Green International Center volunteer manual “A refugee is a person who is outside his or her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return there due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or a political opinion.”

Bowling Green has acted as a host to refugees from Bosnia, Burma, and Iraq. Here, refugees resettle with the help of programs that teach them English and help them find work. The goal is to help refugees assimilate so that they can live the lives they dream of, and become responsible citizens in the community.

What makes Bowling Green such a great candidate for resettlement? The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said Bowling Green’s, “Plentiful jobs, along with affordable housing and a low cost of living, have made Bowling Green a prime resettlement area for immigration.”

Although people are often uprooted by the world’s chaos and turmoil, it feels good to know that Bowling Green is able to be a sanctuary for these people. It’s also humbling what we can learn from their experiences.

In the following video actress Angelina Jolie explains refugees are displaced and how we can help.