Refugees from Burma


 

Protest painting by refugee artist Kyaw Win

From late 2006 to about 2016, one of the largest set of arrivals to World Relief Atlanta and the US as a whole were refugees from Burma.  Most of the early arrivals came from two distinct people groups: the Karen and the Chin. Later, a wider variety of groups began to come such as the Karenni, Rakhine, and Rohingya. Other individual families came from some of the hundreds of other ethnic minorities in the country (Mon, Shan, Pa-O) or, in some cases, were from the majority ethnic Burmese (Bamar) but had to flee oppression following anti-government demonstrations in 1988 and 2008.


Burmese Minorities: 
Photos of resettlement of refugee families from Burma in Atlanta


All these refugees from the country of Burma (now officially called Myanmar) faced persecution at the hands of a military government because their communities dared to question, challenge, and fight for basic rights. Most faced a long history of abuse by the Burmese military as forced labor or underwent dislocation as the army took over village areas for its own use. Even though the leadership changed to a form of democracy in recent years (thanks in large part to pressure from those who left), it still does not represent the minority groups of the country well and tension and fighting continue. 

Despite coming from the same country, these groups all have different languages and traditions and even rather different refugee experiences in their countries of first asylum.  Now they are all arriving to Atlanta to learn and adjust together. Learn more about the individual groups by clicking the tabs below. 

Burma has quite a wide number of ethnic groups and languages within its relatively small borders. While there were many advocates for democracy from the majority Burman (Bamar) population who became political targets and had to flee the country, the majority of refugees from Burma come from certain ethnic minorities that had a long history of persecution or even armed conflict with the military government. in the border states of their traditional homelands. Several of these are highlighted below here.

THE KAREN: The first arrivals of refugees from Burma to Atlanta were the Karen. Coming out of refugee camps in Thailand that border the villages in Burma from which they fled, the Karen needed a lot of education to begin their journey to the US.  Many were apparently fearful that they would arrive to the United States only to become lower-class servants with few rights since this is the kind of existence they had seen both under Burmese rule and in Thailand. They had been in the camps long enough for most of the children to have been born there and never known any other life.

History & culture: The Karen are a minority population from Burma  from Karen state (on the eastern side of Burma bordering Thailand) who have been seeking promised independence for almost sixty years.  There are actually several sub-groups/dialects of Karen—though there are a lot of similarities in their language and cultural traditions. The vast majority of Karen refugees who arrived to America are “S’gaw Karen” (or Pwa Kin Yaw in their language). The “Po Karen” make up the next largest group of refugees. 

The Karen refugees largely come from poor rural backgrounds having grown up in villages in the jungle-filled mountains of  southeast Asia. Most of these villages were self-sustained—families growing their own food with occasional forays into the town—and without modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing.  Few had education beyond primary school; some none at all.   Karen state’s insistence on autonomy means that they have long been isolated and are much less likely to speak the majority Burmese language. While the wider population of Karen like the Po are Buddhist, the S’gaw Karen are by far margin Christian which also sets them apart from the Burmese majority.

While some Karen refugees participated in liberation armies, the vast majority have simply been civilians caught in an increasingly oppressive environment. Some tell stories of Burmese soldiers burning their village and forcing them to carry their guns and equipment to the point of exhaustion.  The Burmese government has fomented a civil war as well by encouraging a breakaway faction of Karen to fight the others. As violence against ethnic civilians has increased, most of the Karen (nearly 120,000) have fled to neighboring Thailand where they lived in refugee camps for ten or twenty years. 

Refugee camps:  In the Thai refugee camps, families still faced a hard life since food is scarce and the Thai government refuses to grant any additional assistance or permanent placement. (Families are not even allowed to erect buildings from permanent materials to emphasize this point.) Refugees are not supposed to leave the camp area which the Thai government controls closely.  (Though some do sneak out for work opportunities.) One advantage for the children is access to more education. Indeed, the camps have even grown to include Bible colleges and such which is a major avenue of ongoing education and access to outside resources.

Resettlement experiences:  With ongoing insecurity and the inability of the families to return to their homeland, the Karen were finally accepted as a group for resettlement to the United States around 2005.  Given their rural background, the Karen Burmese faced many challenges of adjustment to life in America: learning the use of modern facilities, adjusting to new rules for the home and childcare, understanding the complexities of city jobs and transportation, and so on.  There were definitely a lot of difficulties in upkeep of the home since this was a new concept. 

Many resettlement offices also initially noted the difficulty in communicating with the group since English is such a different language from their own and the families did not readily respond to non-verbal cues.  Most significantly, their heavy emphasis on respect and authority among the group meant that they often did not voice their needs or problems (or tended to wait to do so through intermediaries) which actually frustrated attempts at a quick adjustment.  

At the same time, I saw that the Karen families seemed much less afraid to branch out and try things on their own than most rural families at arrival. As a whole, they were exceedingly conscientious in saving money for the future, keeping up with important paperwork and documents, and accessing public transportation—keys to success that many other refugee populations do not achieve so quickly.  

Because there is a large Asian population in Atlanta, the Karen families did have access to many of the products from their homeland as well as connections for jobs. They quickly made a name for themselves in the food processing industry throughout our state (mostly chicken plants) and the vast majority still continue in this industry today. The first wave of Karen were also very excited about the freedoms and comforts they found in America and were anxious for their family members to know that all is well here. 

Community: The Karen population of Atlanta swelled and became very well organized with the help of some community leaders who had already lived here for a number of years as well as local churches that they connected to. I became close to many in the community through work but also shared church connections. The families are always very kind and calm whatever the circumstances are quick to welcome anyone to a meal or especially a “Thanksgiving” where they have their entire community over to pray and eat food for a birthday, graduation, or any celebration of good fortune.  

A highlight for the Karen was starting up their annual celebration of the Lunar New Year.  These are great opportunities to see how the Karen are coming together in Atlanta and to learn about their history and culture as they share traditional dances, songs, and drama.  You can follow the link above for some photos and stories and more about the Karen in Atlanta. 

 

THE CHIN: Though from the same country, the Chin who arrived as a second wave from Burma starting in 2006 had a somewhat different history and refugee experience than their Karen neighbors.  They were exiting a tenuous refugee situation in the metropolitan city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and arrived to an already strong Chin community in the Atlanta area.  They thus came already having contacts and an understanding of what would lie ahead of them for the future.

History & Culture: The Chin are often presented as one group as they area all from the mountainous area of western Burma that borders India, but they area actually divided into a lot of smaller “tribes” with distinct languages such as Zotung, Falam, Tiddim, and Hakah. (They all speak Burmese together amongst themselves as a common language.) Each tribe has traditional cloth designs and headdresses that mark their group. Though their ancestors were animist hunters, all the Chin have a long history of Christian tradition and were closely tied to the British during the colonial era.  Indeed, many Chin fought side by side with the British and Americans back in World War II.  

Their section of the country normally called “Chin State” has been a bit more modernized with several important cities within it. Though the majority of families are still largely farmers in small villages, the group as a whole had more access to education and western lifestyles than some other refugees from Burma. 

Though initially left alone compared to some groups that were fighting to be independent states, the Chin soon began seeing the Burmese military press their authority over the Chin region out of fear that democratic movements might be growing there. They especially had suspicion of the extensive church networks of the Chin, both within country and outside, and began to accuse pastors and church leaders of secretly trying to undermine the government. (And indeed anyone who did dare to question the government or even talk about the sad state of the country was taking their life in their hands.)

To assert their control, the Burmese government and army thus began making their presence much more known in the Chin villages. This included conscripting young men to be porters for the army, forcing them to carry provisions through the mountainous terrains. In some cases, they were never seen again. Since the young men were particular targets for this kind of oppression, they were the main ones who initially left the country. Whereas the Karen arrived as large families, therefore, the initial groups of Chin were almost all single young men.  

Refugee status: Most of the Chin refugees fled to Malaysia around the large city of Kuala Lumpur after paying agents to sneak them through Burma and Thailand.  Unfortunately, despite allowing UNHCR to register them as refugees, Malaysia largely refused to recognize the refugee status of the Chin.  They were under constant threat that the police will arrest any Chin men that they discovered.  For this reason, the first refugees had to “hide” as a big group in the jungle areas outside the city, sleeping under plastic sheets, until they could get under the special protection of UNHCR. If caught before, they were jailed and deported to Thailand. Even afterwards, they were shaken down for bribes or would have the apartments that they rented in large groups raided at night.

Despite this odd living situation, the Chin men were able to go into the new areas of the city with less police presence to shop at the markets and obtain work in the numerous factories and restaurants there. Many stayed for years and began bringing their wives and families to join them. They eventually became a focus for resettlement to the United States and soon became one of the largest groups to arrive as refugees from 2007 onward.

  

 

Resettlement experiences:  Because of having had more exposure to modern towns and cities as well as more access to education, the Chin families quickly got established in the United States.  Some came with more English and a better understanding of how to adapt to life in the United States than some of their more rural neighbors.  As a result, I found that the Chin moved particularly quickly into taking care of their own needs and did not hesitate to make their own decisions.  There were of course differences that they had to adjust to over time: from the need for a more direct style of personal interaction to dealing with people from a variety of cultures to having patience for the slow pace of resettlement.  

Though many initially worked in food processing, the modern skills that the Chin acquired working in Malaysia meant that the majority quickly moved on to manufacturing and constructions jobs here. They have been the group to have the most entrepreneurs starting shops, restaurants, and small businesses as well.

Community: The Chin already had a bit of an an established community within Atlanta and the United States as a whole from leaders who fled earlier on. Members of the national Chin organization residing in Atlanta approached us from the start about helping in the resettlement of their community.  Many formerly arrived community members already owned houses and were work in good jobs when the larger wave of Chin arrivals began. As a result, new arrivals had the opportunity to take trips to downtown and the mountains, receive extra home furnishings, and link up with several large ethnic churches in the area from the start. Indeed, the strongest aspect of Chin community is how organized they are into church associations and community groups.

Once they arrived and their numbers grew, individual Chin groups were able to start multiple churches and ethnic organizations in each of their own languages. Pretty much each group has yearly gatherings and conferences in which members from all states get together. They also unified as a body under the Chin flag and have a yearly Chin National Day celebration. Each group presents their own particular dances, songs, and fashions and it’s always a fun event.

THE KARENNI: The Karenni were the largest Burmese group to arrive to Atlanta during the end of 2009 into 2010.  From Karenni state in Burma, they represent several sets of ethnicities or sub-tribes grouped together but most here speak some form of the Karenni language called Kayah.

History & Culture: The Karenni are from the eastern part of Burma called Karenni state.  Like all Burmese ethnic minorities, they are at odds with the government simply because they want to continue to use their own language and follow their own cultural traditions.  Their mountainous region of Burma remains extremely poor and rural and contains some of the most isolated areas of the country.  Despite this, in many areas village life has been disrupted by forced relocations by the Burmese military state which began in earnest in 1996.  (The government’s desire to exploit the natural resources of the region is another reason as well.) 

Most Karenni are Buddhist or Christian but there are also many of the older generation who still retain the animistic beliefs of their ancestors.  This includes the reading of chicken bones and special talismans as well as special festivals focused on a central pole. As a whole, the Karenni are famous for a variety of body-altering practices followed by the various sub-groups such as using stacks of gold rings to stretch their necks or using weights and plugs to stretch their earlobes.  These oddities have led to them often being exploited for the tourist trade.

Refugee experience: Many Karenni fled to refugee camps Thailand over the years, some having lived there for quite some time. Even in Thailand, the Karenni are in some of the most remote camp areas, particularly the camp called Ban Mai Nai Soi, and have thus had much less access to education and medical care services. This means that many of them were quite unprepared for the changes they would face after resettlement.

Resettlement experiences:  The arrival of the Karenni to the US presented a challenge to agencies nationwide because there were almost no native speakers of Kayah that had resided in the United States long enough to have very good English and interpretation skill.  While several Karenni spoke some rudimentary Burmese, there was a definite barrier in their understanding that agencies had to work around.  

The fact that the Karenni were largely from a much more rural background with less overall education and medicine compounded the problem. We noticed a larger percentage of this population arriving illiterate in their own language and with more than average disabilities such as blindness and deafness. Some had never even seen a car and there were immediately many ‘amusing’ stories of car sickness in the first ride from the airport. Of course, those younger Karenni who had grown up in the Thai camps their whole lives had a little bit more education and knowledge of the wider world. They soon began emerging as leaders for their community.

Community: One advantage for the Karenni arriving to Atlanta was that previous arrivals of Karen and Chin paved the way for them to access services and community programs.  Moreover, the Karenni were very geared towards getting themselves organized as a group as soon as possible.  It took almost no time for the Karenni community in Atlanta to grow from literally no one to quite a large and connected community.  Those that came a few months earlier to other agencies were already visiting and mentoring those that are following. 

The fact that everyone in their community was so new in the beginning (without access to cars and information) did lead to some tragedies as well as some people being taken advantage of. Still, people bounced back and eventually settled into the same routine of jobs and community connections as the others from their country.

SharingOne Karenni elder especially has shared a lot of stories and memories with me that he has allowed me to make available.

 

THE ROHINGYA: The Rohingya wave of refugees have a bit of a different story than many of the other groups on this list. They were not just persecuted by the government and army of Burma but were attacked by other Burmese citizens who claimed they were not really Burmese at all and didn’t belong in the country. Some fled on foot to other countries, including huge camps in Bangladesh, but famously many took to boats that turned into floating death traps.

History & culture: The Rohingya are Bangladeshi-background Muslims who mostly live in Rakhine State right on the Burmese border with Bangladesh. (Their language is pretty much the same a Chittagonian.) They are largely poor illiterate farmers and fishermen living in villages along bay area. 

 

The porous borders of yesteryear mean that many Rohingya have family connections in both countries, but in the 2000s Burma suddenly began pronouncing that all Rohnigya were foreigners who had to leave to go back to Bangladesh–despite the fact that many had lived for generations in the same village. Bangladesh of course said that the group didn’t belong there since they were Burmese. This left the Rohingya stateless and wide open for exploitation and attack. The Burmese government campaign fostered division and many of the Buddhist majority began believing Facebook posts that they were all Muslim terrorists and began burning their villages or demanding the army come in to chase them out with guns (as actually did end up happening). 

Refugee experience: Before the large panicked crowds starting pouring into a makeshift refugee camp at Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh, many of the Rohingya were already leaving the threats and persecution by other routes. Some with resources went to Malaysia like Chin did and were actually able to blend in the Muslim majority country more than they did. (Until pressure from Burma and China started them trying to push them out.) Unfortunately, many young men and boys also escaped the accusations of being terrorist threats by packing into boats and taking to the sea to reach other countries like Sri Lanka. This turned out to be disastrous as many got stuck at seas with no food or water. Some were literally pushed back out to sea starving by the countries on whose shores they first landed. I’ve personally known young men who related the experience of having to wake up each morning and throw overboard the bodies of friends who died in the night. 

Arrival in other countries didn’t necessarily make things better. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, the Rohingya were put in detainment prisons where they had few rights (only refugee organizations checking in occasionally to make sure they weren’t totally abused–and even then this was not a guarantee). After suffering a lot of hardship in these ways, the Rohingya finally started being relocated to third countries for resettlement in the 2010 and onward after international press started to take notice of their plight.

Resettlement experience: The earliest Rohingya to arrive were the young men from Sri Lanka and they had to grow up quickly to adjust to suddenly being thrown into managing the resources and personal responsibility of modern life–not to mention the trauma they had suffered in their journey. Most spoke enough English to get by which was fortunate because interpreters were hard to come by. The skilled families that started to arrive from other countries thereafter had a little bit more knowledge of how to handle apartment life and community. Meanwhile, the much larger (and poorer) groups in Bangladesh camps are still awaiting their chance to resettle.

As the Rohingya started to arrive as refugees, it became clear that they had much more in common with other Muslim refugees in terms of their culture and personalities than they did with the other refugees from Burma that came before them. Even their conversation style was faster and overlapping and a bit of challenge to deal with at first.  As agencies, we had to adjust our expectations and approaches when working with them. For example, they did not follow the very passive tradition of ana which often required us to keep pushing the Karen to share their needs. Instead, the Rohingya were more apt to make strong demands for more than what they needed—of course with the expectation this would be required just to get the minimum. 

Community: As time went on, many of the young men who first arrived in the US quickly became leaders for their community–getting work in agencies to provide services as well as starting a couple of Atlanta Rohingya ethnic organizations to organize assistance and give a voice for their people here as well as to raise awareness of the situation back home in Burma. They also linked with Bangladeshi groups and local mosques here to aid in their adjustment. Like all of the refugees from Burma before them, they are adjusting, starting to share their culture and traditions, and are moving towards getting established in their own homes.

 

OTHER GROUPS: In addition to the lage groups of Karen, Chin, Karenni, and later Rohingya, there are multitudes of other ethnic minorities from Burma that have arrived to Atlanta over the years. 

  • Some refugees are from the Karen state division of Burma but belong to totally different ethnicities which they define by their religious differences, identifying themselves as “Burmese Hindu” or “Karen Muslims”.  Though identified as Karen by territory, they are quite distinct from the larger group of Karen, most not speaking anything but Burmese and possessing much more distinctly Indian features as a result of their historical ties to that country.
  • The Kachin are from the hills of Kachin State and have clothing, food, and traditions that are similar to the neighboring Chin in some respects and more borrowed from southern China in others. Like the Chin, the Kachin of Burma are almost all Christian. They did not initially have the same level of incursion like the Chin and thus left as refugees in smaller numbers. They have been more actively fighting the Burmese army after the establishment of a more democratic government because their traditional lands became a target for mining of jade and other precious minerals as well as villages being bombed to make way for hydroelectric projects. They have proven to be a formidable army in their own right when protecting what they see as their land.
  • Others refugees arrived from ethnic groups such as Mon and Shan and Pa-O and Rakhine.  These larger minorities are not persecuted as a whole but many individuals among them have faced persecution after having associated with student groups and other organizations seeking a democratic voice in their country.  They are almost all Buddhist and had to flee to various areas of Thailand or Malaysia for safety. 
  • Still others refugees who have arrived to Atlanta are ethnic Burmese (Bamar) who are targeted for their refusal to accept the unreasonable military rule destroying their country.  Most recently, a number of Burmese monks, usually highly respected among the population, led demonstrations in 2008 that resulted in a crackdown with many deaths and others fleeing for refuge in Thailand as well.  Despite the ethnic and religious differences, all of these families readily identify with the other Karen and Chin due to their common history of persecution and form another interesting layer in the fabric of Burmese refugees in Atlanta. 

 

You may also be interested to read the excellent culture profile on the Burmese by the Center for Applied Linguistics:

 

Refugees from Burma – Their Background and Experience

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