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.

Locals reach out to refugees by forming friendships

Caleb Benningfield helps Po Khu, a Burmese refugee, during a Bible lesson on Saturday Nov. 2. Benningfield has been visiting refugees in their apartments on Lovers Lane for three months, although he and his wife Laura have been friends with them much longer. "Its helped me be more appreciative of everything we have in America," said Benningfield.

Caleb Benningfield helps Po Khu, a Burmese refugee, during a Bible lesson on Saturday Nov. 2. Benningfield has been visiting refugees in their apartments on Lovers Lane for three months, although he and his wife Laura have been friends with them much longer.

“I learned a lot about their story, about how they got here,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Caleb and Laura Benningfield, members of Living Hope Baptist Church have been helping a group of Burmese refugees in any way they can, primarily through their Bible and English lessons on weekends.

“Its helped me be more appreciative of everything we have in America,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Benningfield has been doing these lessons for three months, and his wife, Laura Benningfield, has been working with them for a year.

While the small group of Burmese refugees is Christian, they have difficulties participating in conventional Sunday services due to language barriers.

The students, who are adults in their twenties, include Po Po, Po Khu, his wife Ka Tay and other students. Po Po speaks English quite well and is able to explain vocabulary words to her friends. Po Khu may be an aspiring pastor for his people, and Ka Tay is trying to get her driver’s license. All the students listened intently to the lesson, which covered Bible stories like the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Christianity is practiced by 4 percent of the population in Burma, and is said to face persecution by the more powerful majorities in the country.

The lesson concluded with a prayer beseeching God for protection of one of the students, who is pregnant and expecting a child soon. Benningfield also asked for the strength to finish a marathon that he would be participating in the following day.

“It’s just been a fun way to develop a friendship with them,” said Benningfield.

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.