October 16, 2007
Catching up with Burmese refugees in the U. S.; Also, a guide to Burma vs. Myanmar
Many news outlets, including CT, have covered the Department of Homeland Security's refusal to grant refugee status to anyone who gave "material support" to terrorists under the 2001 USA Patriot Act.
The law was riddled with problems: many who are seeking refugee status are doing so because they were forced to give ransoms and temporary housing at gunpoint.
And then there's the problem of governments that operate much like terrorist groups, including Myanmar's military junta. Chin Duh Kam, a Burmese pastor in America, told me about government officials forcing Christians in Chin State to make ropes and transport military equipment. The New York Times referred to another UN report that
3,000 villages of the Karen and nearby tribes have been destroyed, and more than 500,000 people have been driven from their homes. Government troops are accused of systematically raping girls and forcing children to join their ranks.
So the law's broad ban on everyone giving "material support" unfortunately includes those who are victims of terrorists.
But there is good news for some refugees: Homeland Security has begun to issue waivers for those who were clearly forced to give material support to terrorists, said Jenny Hwang of World Relief.
The Associated Press reports that the U. S. State Department also "waived provisions of the Patriot Act that barred 9,300 ethnic Karen from entering the U.S. because of their association with Myanmar rebels." These Burmese refugees fled their homeland long ago; they are not among those who participated in the August to September protests.
The AP story says the exponential growth in refugee immigration to U. S. cities such as Utica, St. Paul, and Minneapolis is overwhelming aid groups:
Resettlement agency Exodus Refugee has doubled its Indianapolis staff to eight people over the past 11 months but still can't keep up, job specialist Zach Tennant said recently while handing out envelopes with $25 spending money to each adult refugee arriving at Indianapolis International Airport.
In Utica, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has received 300 people over the past 11 weeks, including 109 one week, before the end of the federal fiscal year brought a respite. Director Peter Vogelaar said the biggest challenge is finding them safe, clean homes and jobs. He's finding work for 30 to 40 refugees per month.
"Refugees are survivors and they are incredibly resilient," Vogelaar said.
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I wondered whether "Burma" or "Myanmar" was more proper, so I asked.
Chin Duh Kam prefers "Burma," which he pronounced with great warmth. "I use the old name," he told me. Pastor David says he uses "Myanmar" in the country and "Burma" outside it.
It turns out that as far as Burmese grammar goes, "Burma" is the colloquial name of the country; "Myanmar" is the formal, literary name. But the names took on a political cast when the government decided in 1989 that it wanted the country to be officially known as the Union of Myanmar. The U. S. State Department still calls it the "Union of Burma."
As far as adjectives go, "Burman" is usually the majority ethnic group, and "Burmese" refers to nationality.