Web Feature Posted November 7, 2012
A Refugee Family’s Journey
By Megan Hoye
Megan Hoye. Photo by Luke Rutan.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Burma in the last three decades, most of them members of one of Burma's many ethnic minority groups. The Chin, numbering approximately 1.5 million, are a largely Christian minority living mainly in small villages in the western portion of the country. The Chin face constant abuse from the Burmese army, leading many of them to seek refuge by living illegally in another country, while praying that they will be selected for resettlement in one of the 25 countries worldwide that opens its borders to persecuted peoples.
Helen, Dolla, and their children, Albert and Rachel, are a Chin family who sought refuge first in Malaysia, then in the United States. Here, they received government funding through World Relief, a nonprofit organization that offers short-term financial support for newly arrived refugees. Recent SPU grad and UScholar Megan Hoye '12 documents the family's resettlement period in a five-part, narrative journalism project, excerpted below.
“Getting to church is so easy in America.”
Coming to America meant leaving behind a community. Once Helen, Dolla, and Albert fled Burma for relative safety in Malaysia, church became a rare treat. Although theirs is a spirituality that calls for weekly worship, getting to the nearest Christian church took the better part of a day. They had no choice but to limit their visits to three a year. Since Chin refugees in Malaysia share their crowded apartments, however, the family had a makeshift community in which to live and worship.
By December, Helen and Dolla learn that in America, there's a Chin church they can get to whenever they want, and with it comes a community even bigger than the one they had in Burma. Because of the large refugee population in Kent, Washington, many local churches donate their buildings to different ethnic groups so that they can worship the way they did at home. A nearby Methodist church in Kent donates its facilities twice a week: once for services hosted in Chin and once for services in Spanish.
The pastor at the Chin Community Church has been in America only two weeks longer than Helen and Dolla. Everything about the refugee community is makeshift and fluid — thrown together one day and always subject to change at a moment's notice — but the church feels like a community that has been around for years.
Chin refugees from a 30-mile radius come to the Sunday afternoon services, but most of them don't have cars. The church owns one 10-seat van, so every Sunday, one of the congregation members leaves the parking lot in the early hours of morning and begins a shuttle service, branching out from the church in all directions to get refugees and bring them to worship.
“Getting to church is so easy in America,” Helen says. “Now, we can go every week.”
But it's not that easy for those who depend on the shuttle service, and most refugees do. Nobody knows when the van will arrive to pick them up — it might be eight in the morning or one in the afternoon. The family takes turns watching the parking lot of their apartment complex from their windows, waiting for the Chin Community Fellowship van to arrive.
Once it does, they pile in and set off to pick up the next passenger. Teenagers sit in the back of the bus, sometimes singing along as one of them plays guitar, sometimes urging the driver to twirl the radio dial until it hits a Top 40 station — although it never stays there long. As soon as LMFAO opens a chorus with, “I'm sexy and I know it,” the adults in front burst into laughter and change the station to soft rock, and the teenagers groan in protest.
It takes at least 45 minutes for the family to get to church, though it often takes longer if they're the first to be picked up on that van run. When they get to the church, they pool in the foyer and are met by a warm shout of greeting. Most Chin women wear their traditional clothing to the service, so the room is alive with color as they move about the room, their vibrant skirts swaying behind them.
“I feel like I am home,” Helen says.
“We are from Burma, but we are not Burmese”
After the service, the congregation floods back to the foyer, where rows of picnic tables line the walls. Fliers in Hakha-Chin, Spanish, and English dot the bulletin board, and pastor San Lal Hming Thang and his wife bring out large vats of coffee, pastries, and breads.
A paper plate with several doughnuts is pressed into everyone's hands. The youth of the church bring singed, overly sweetened coffee to everyone, and a time of fellowship begins. Helen and Dolla are immediately welcomed by their new Chin community, which is even larger than the one they had in Burma. Albert is soon enlisted by some other teenagers to go sit in the corner, where they laugh and sing along as one boy plays guitar.
The service is almost three hours long. When it's over, the van starts to make its rounds, taking refugees back to their apartments in the neighboring cities. Refugees who have been working in the country long enough to buy a car give rides to those who would otherwise be waiting for hours to get home. For Chin refugees, church is an all-day commitment.
Steven offers Helen and Dolla a ride in an SUV borrowed from a friend, so they find Albert and pile in the back with several other refugees who live in the same complex. Once more, the teenagers claim the back row, spending this journey testing out English words.
“How you say — 'excuse'?” Albert asks, and they all try it out.
Hakha-Chin words are sharp and angular, so allowing syllables to slide across their tongues feels alien to Albert and his friends. They taste the word again and again with different emphases, squeezing the x and s sounds into hisses.
“Well, ex-cuuu-s-e me!” Albert says, and the entire vehicle falls into laughter as Steven drives closer to their new homes, his high-beam headlights on, oblivious to the headlights flashing in protest from every car he passes.
By the time the family gets home, it's dark. Dolla and Helen are exhausted; they've become unaccustomed to spending entire days out of the house. They climb the steps to their second-floor apartment, their toddler, Rachel asleep against Dolla's chest.
When they open the door to their dingy apartment, they scan the room, from the bright red clock that hangs from the wall, still on its cardboard backing, to the bright crayon drawings Albert hung to cheer the place. Helium balloons, a gift for Rachel, hang half-deflated from the spokes of the ceiling fan and hover just above the floor, nearly defeated. Walking back into this apartment is like awakening from a dream of being back at home in Burma.
As he wishes Albert a good night, Dolla spots the mail on the table. He knows some of the mail is asking him to pay money, but he can't tell what all of it is. The week before, he'd called the phone number listed on an application for a credit card, and since then, the family has been getting calls in large volumes from telemarketers. They have never encountered such pervasive advertising and don't know how to handle the calls.
“They call so many times,” Dolla says. “I'm afraid to answer.”
But he must, because he's terrified of doing something wrong in America and losing his new home or being sent back to Malaysia. And he knows the worst he can do here is be unemployed.
“World Relief give us every month cash money, 400 dollars,” he says. “It last for three months. Later, if we don't get job, I don't know what to do — I just don't know.”
He lays Rachel on the couch before sinking into a chair at their kitchen table, his head in his hands. Helen sits across from him, reaching her arm out to grasp his arm. Back in their apartment, they're back to sitting, waiting, and worrying, until Sunday comes again and they can step back into their Chin community. For them, that's what feels more like home than the jungle-encased Burmese village they came from.
“We are from Burma, but we are not Burmese,” Helen says. “We are Chin.”