Burmese refugees enjoy holiday
- By KATIE KENNEDY
- Advocate staff writer
- Published: Nov 26, 2010
Nhkum Lama said he was just 7 years old when he watched Myanmar soldiers kill his father as part of the ruthless persecution of Christians in the predominantly Buddhist country.
“We could not stay,” said Lama, now 33. “If you stayed, you faced death.”
Lama fled his hometown of Myitkyina when he was 19 and spent the next 14 years living as a refugee in Malaysia, where he faced constant harassment from the local police.
But Thursday, Lama gathered with 60 other Burmese refugees at a Baton Rouge church to celebrate his first Thanksgiving in his new home, where he is free to live and worship without oppression.
Catholic Charities, which resettled the refugees throughout southern Louisiana, organized the dinner for the group. The majority of attendees came to the U.S. less than a year ago, said Kristi Hackney, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities.
Burma has struggled with political and social unrest since the 1960s. The Burmese people frequently clash with the military, and the Christian minority has been the focus of fierce persecution.
On the day set aside for giving thanks, the refugees held a Christian service steeped in gratitude for their new freedoms.
“We’re thankful for being alive and safe,” Seng Rahkawi said. “It’s not enough to say thank you. Words cannot express how grateful we are.”
When Rahkawi arrived in Baton Rouge three years ago, she was one of only two Burmese families in the area.
Rahkawi said she’s watched the Burmese community grow in both numbers and strength during the past year, culminating Thursday with the first mass gathering of Burmese refugees relocated throughout southern Louisiana.
“We depend on each other,” she said. “This was my first time meeting many of the Burmese that live outside Baton Rouge, and it’s comforting to know they’re here.”
While the Burmese community is continuing to grow as more refugees are allowed into the United States, the opportunities available to them when they step off the plane are limited, Hackney said.
Catholic Charities immediately assists the refugees with finding housing, learning English and enrolling any children in school.
But acclimating to their new life, securing dependable transportation and finding employment are major struggles, Hackney said. “They want to work and are the most hard-working group of people, but they don’t have a reliable way of getting to work, and the language barrier is a challenge,” Hackney said, noting Catholic Charities is trying to get the refugees a van to use for car pooling.
Shwe Tha and his wife, Paw Yo, were forced to flee their home in Kayin State after war erupted between the Myanmar army and the people of Kayin State, Shwe Tha said through a translator.
The couple arrived in Baton Rouge in September after spending more than 10 years in a refugee camp in Taiwan, he said.
But their new life has a new set of hardships.
“I worry night and day, night and day, about how to provide for my family,” Shwe Tha said.
But when the 55-year-old is asked if he is happy in his new home, he smiles widely.
“We are finally happy,” he said.