DES MOINES, Iowa – Burmese residents fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in their country have become the biggest refugee group arriving in the U.S., outpacing other refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan and even Iraq.
Many Burmese are Christians in a Buddhist majority country, and almost all are from minority ethnic groups.
“There are Christian churches, and on some hilltops we have a cross and a prayer places,” said Lal Rin Sanga, a refugee from the predominantly Christian Chin state who arrived in the U.S. almost five years ago and now is a welder with a wind tower company. “They tore down all the crosses, then they erected their Buddhist pagodas.”
The U.S. government grants legal refugee status to only a certain number every year, proposed by the president and passed by Congress. In the past two years, the ceiling has been 70,000 refugees, with 69,925 refugees in 2014. Over 11,000 Burmese have resettled in the U.S. in the past year alone – compared to around 9,000 Iraqis, 6,000 Somalians, and just under 600 Afghanis, according to the State Department.
Across the country, from Maryland to Michigan to Minnesota, Burmese refugees are settling by the hundreds and thousands, the State Department said.
In Iowa, the Burmese make up more than half of the entire incoming refugee population, the majority landing in cities like Des Moines, Dubuque, and Cedar Rapids.
“Since about 2010, Burmese refugees have been a very large population group for the state of Iowa, accounting for about 50 percent of the total refugees,” said Carly Ross, director of the Des Moines field fffice for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
Though the wars and violence ripping apart the Middle East are making international headlines, the story behind the flight from Burma (also known as Myanmar) is relatively unknown.
Burma is made up of hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, with one, the primarily Buddhist Bamar, dominating Burmese society and politics. The largest Burmese ethnic groups in the U.S. include the Chin, who live in the west and are persecuted for their Christian beliefs, and the Karen, who are fighting against ethnic cleansing and Burmese military abuses, according to the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) in Des Moines.
“I escaped from Burma with my family in 1988,” said Mu Law, a Karenni refugee at the EMBARC office.
“The civil war happened in the state between the Burmese army and the Karenni army – the civil war was going on in the villages, too, and it was too dangerous for my family to stay there.”
Hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees languish for years in camps in India, Thailand, and Malaysia, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although their host countries tolerate them, they are often not permitted to live outside the camps.
“All the camps were surrounded by barbed wire and we couldn’t go outside,” said Mone Aye, who grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. “My dad had to risk his life to sneak outside to work for Thai farmers to bring some money home.”
Once a person is granted refugee status, he or she is flown to the United States and placed under the care of refugee resettlement organizations. In Des Moines, resettlement is handled by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Des Moines and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. These organizations introduce the refugees to American culture and teach them how to function in American society.
“We really help them walk through the early days of the integration process,” said Ross. “We take them to apply for public school, we take them to the doctor, we teach them how to speak English.”
The cultural differences can make it difficult for Burmese refugees to adjust and find work in the U.S. Almost all new Burmese arrivals do not speak English – and each ethnic group has its own language, making it even more difficult to find translators, said Amy Doyle, spokesperson for EMBARC.
“Even though the apartment looks better than the camp, you’re not comfortable or happy, it makes you very sad,” said Law. “My kids kept asking ‘Mom, why did we come here? Why not go back home?’ They kept asking and crying.”
However, with help from relatives already in the U.S. and the agencies, many refugees find work teaching or at meatpacking plants, which doesn’t require English fluency. USCRI claims a 92 percent job placement rate for its refugees in Iowa six months after arrival.
Dake Kang is a Fox News College Associate.