Friends teach each other through study and fellowship

Caleb and Laura Benningfield have learned so much from their friendship with their Karen friends.

“I guess I’ve just had a change of perspective,” said Laura Benningfield. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of them than they’ve gotten out of me.”

“It’s given me a lot of perspective on how blessed I am to be in the position I’m in,” said Caleb Benningfield. “Growing up the way we grew up is a blessing in itself.”

Their friendship is an example of the good that can happen when people of different backgrounds teach each other. In the time they’ve known each other, the Benningfields have noticed changes for the better in the lives of their refugee friends, especially the women.

“I see a willingness to try new things, a willingness to speak out,” said Laura Benningfield. “Whereas before, some of the women may have been too timid to do any of those things.”

However, life for their friends Po Po, Po Khu and Ka Tay wasn’t always so certain.

“Some of them still have family back in the refugee camps,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Po Khu spoke about his life in the refugee camps of Thailand, which currently host 84,900 registered refugees, and the food shortages he had to deal with among other problems.

One of Laura’s greatest joys is sharing simple western customs like baby showers, trick or treating, birthdays or even just baking cookies.

“It’s just a simple pleasure of life that they’ve never had,” said Laura.

As for the future, the Benningfield’s plans center on continuing to learn English, nutrition, citizenship and teaching their friends to drive. They have also expressed interest in finding a preacher that speaks the same language as their friends. Primarily though, their goals are aimed at helping them assimilate into American culture, Caleb Benningfield said.

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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.