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.

Nahedh smiles for a picture taken in his International Grocery Story on Russellville road across from Kids on the Block.

Iraqi Grocer caters to Bowling Green’s diverse palates

Visit any of the mainstream grocery stores in Bowling Green people use to stock their refrigerators and cabinets. Which ever one you pick it’s sure to have aisles and aisles of food and other items you find appealing. However, what if you eat according to certain rules? I don’t mean avoiding the powdered donuts, because you’re trying to drop a few pounds. I’m talking about rules or customs from your religion or culture? Would your favorite grocery store carry the things you need if you were from the Middle East or Southwest Asia? Where would you buy your food?

This is the case for Muslims who eat according to Halal, which means to honor Islamic rites and rules. Ghazwan Nahedh and his friends decided to do just that. “The area was in need of an international store,” said Ghazwan, an Iraqi refugee. “We found it a good opportunity.”

Nahedh, who used to teach physics at a university in Iraq, came to Bowling Green two years ago. The Bowling Green International Center helped Nahedh with his paperwork and resettlement. “Then from there I took care of myself,” said Nahedh. Nahedh worked in factories shortly after arriving. From there he and his friends decided to start a business that would cater to people looking for a piece of home. Together they shop as far away as Nashville, Tennessee and Michigan for diverse products.

Although Nahedh appreciates the opportunities in Bowling Green and America, he still misses his home. He hopes to return to Iraq someday if the issues with Al Qaeda can be resolved.

Designer at Noor’s Alterations serves Bowling Green with her talent

Talented designer Wesal Muhi, who goes by Emmy, has been working and living in Bowling Green for four years ever since the International Center helped her move from Iraq.

However, her experience reaches back much further than four years. Muhi worked as a seamstress in Iraq for 30 years before moving to America. She says her family, specifically her mother and grandmother, were instrumental in her training. They showed her how to measure with only her hands. “I know what size you are just by looking at you,” she said.

I’m a designer,” Muhi said. Muhi  crafts custom dresses at Noor’s Alterations at 1027 Broadway, across the street from Taco Bell. “I design party dresses, bridle dresses, prom dresses,” Muhi said. “I have big students discounts.” Wesal Muhi often designs dresses for Muslim women and girls who aren’t able to easily find good clothing elsewhere in Bowling Green.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 84,902 Iraqi refugees have arrived in the United States to start new lives.

When I asked Muhi if she overcame any challenges she said the International Center made things a lot easier. “The difficult part is the language,” Muhi said. Muhi holds down another job at Duke’s Sporting Goods. Between running her business and her second job, Muhi struggles to find time to take more English classes.

I asked Muhi what she likes most about her business. “I like all my business,” she said. “You have to love your job.”

If you are interested in learning more please call Emmy at (270-320-4976).

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.