The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ – Matthew 25:40
Gripping his beloved guitar, 20-year-old Bawi Shin Thang arrived in Spokane, Washington in September 2008. Captured by the Myanmar military junta after they burned his Chin Nation village, Bawi Shin Thang became a refugee in his own nation. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the official name of the Myanmar military junta, is mortal enemies with the Burmese Chin ethnic group and has worked on exterminating this people group, along with the Karen peoples, for forty years. The junta forced Bawi Shin Thang to be a porter in their army, carry hundred-pound sacks of weapons and supplies, and act as a human landmine tester while enduring continuous beatings and starvation. Remarkably buoyant and loyal to his people, Bawi Shin Thang escaped to overpopulated and militated Kualalampur, Malaysia, hoping to blend in and seek work. Chin and Karen refugees are considered illegal aliens in Malaysia and are arrested and imprisoned if found. Bawi Shin Thang served 2 six-month jail terms, escaping each time. The United Nations tries to create channels of assistance for Burmese refugees who are in Malaysia illegally and Thang was eventually granted an I-94 card affirming official refugee status and passage to the United States. As of today, his mother and extended family in Burma do not know where he is.
I live in the booming metropolis of Spokane, Washington, and the Spokane population is so homogenous that when Bosnian, Russian, and Vietnamese refugees began trickling in years ago, my family practically jumped for joy. I remember the first Russian family my church, New Vision Lutheran, sponsored. The couple had around seven beautiful young children and did not speak a word of English. Though the children learned fast through school and their newfound American playmates, the parents struggled to learn English and find jobs. I remember Almir and Simca, a Bosnian couple we sponsored; they fell in love before being captured and sent to different prisons. Nearly five years later, they both independently escaped and coincidentally – or by fate – ended up at the same refugee camp and married soon after. In the refugee camp, Simca gave birth to her little boy. When they moved to the United States a year later, their son cried hysterically night after night, unable to adjust to his new life. My mom dedicated herself to helping Simca, who balanced caring for her disoriented son with finding a job that could pay rent. I remember the Vietnamese children who spent their first years in the US running wildly around playgrounds surrounding my church and the clever teenagers they grew into.
My parents served as missionaries in India before they had children, and when we moved to Spokane to pastor at New Vision Lutheran, their hearts overflowed with love toward the small international community. The influx of refugees into Spokane transformed my dad’s ministry, and his attempts to learn the native language of each incoming group are commendable, though doomed to fail. My small church is one of Spokane’s Christian refugee centers, and we began hosting separate Sunday night Vietnamese and Burmese church services. Training translators and encouraging the people to organize services around their own traditions, the services are more widely attended than our ordinary Sunday morning services.
The incredible worship in these ethnic services teaches me the meaning behind Psalm 5:11: “But let all those who take refuge and put their trust in You rejoice; let them ever sing and shout for joy, because You make a covering over them and defend them; let those also who love Your name be joyful in You and be in high spirits.” Congregants love singing and playing their native music, and though most cannot communicate in English, they all share their love of Christ with each other through song. Forming music groups and choirs, and playing guitars that they brought from Burma, the Burmese sing beautiful praise to Christ.
I met Bawi Shin Thang during Christmas break while attending a Burmese service. Eager to meet the out-of-town Wagley, he immediately asked for a picture with me, and he laughed as he articulated his name and made sure I did not mispronounce it. Along with a few other community congregations, my church works closely with World Relief helping recent Chin and Karen refugees in very practical ways, like finding housing and employment, but more importantly, we are able to foster Christian community. In collaboration with Spokane sponsor churches, new and old arrivals bond together in tight-knit fellowships, by planting the Chin Christian Church and Karen Community Fellowship. The Burmese assist new arrivals with maintaining their native culture of independence, faith, music and family while adjusting to a new way of life.
Abundant joy perfectly describes these Burmese refugees and reminds me of Christ’s love and power. I cannot fully comprehend how suffering leads to contentment or great trials lead to happiness, but Romans 15:13 reads, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Though they spent years running from enemy forces and lost family members, villages, and livelihoods, the Burmese grasp and trust Christ’s hope, which transcends the material. Deep internal peace envelops them and there are no wider smiles or more grateful hearts. After aimlessly living in Thai refugee camps, these people desire physical work opportunities, and the adults are some of Spokane’s best workers. After massive layoffs this fall, many Spokane employers kept the refugees and dismissed longstanding employees. Christ blesses them in this nation, and by delighting in them, He allows us, the bystanders, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Massive genocidal efforts by Myanmar’s dictatorial regime began in 1968, constituting the longest civil war in recent world history. The Chin and Karen populations are akin to Aborigines in Australia, ethnic people groups who do not fit in with the majority. They are fundamentally tribal villagers who secretly travel jungle trails to escape the rapes, burnings, and extermination plots of the junta. One million contemporary refugees stagnate in Thai refugee camps, and two million internally displaced peoples (IDPs) cannot cross the border but are continuously hunted by the military regime. Although the United States and other nations long ignored the plight of Burmese refugees, the Bush Administration lifted immigration bans in 2004 against the persecuted tribes, and the US welcomed nearly 30,000 Burmese refugees over the past five years.
In spite of – and perhaps because of – bitter dictatorial inhumanity, many ethnic peoples are strong Christians, while others are Buddhists and Muslims. The Chin, of which Bawi Shin Thang is a member, became Christians after Baptist missionaries visited central Burma in the late nineteenth century. Likewise, around 50 percent of the Karen people are Christians. Chin and Karen ethnic groups compose most of the US Burmese refugees, and their purposeful involvement in Christian community in the US eases their difficult assimilation process. After living nomadically in jungle war zones and anguishing in ill-equipped and authoritarian refugee camps, the Burmese people are eager for the independent American lifestyle, though they know little about how to adapt.
While the US government grants Medicaid, food stamps, and a welfare check to refugees, assistance is only offered anywhere from four to nine months. US churches play a vital role in the integration process by finding refugees homes, jobs, healthcare, and other necessities. Congregations use portions of their offering and individual members expend time and resources to transport and care for these refugees. A startling number of Burmese refugees are settling in smaller or medium-sized metropolitan areas, in addition to larger cities in New York and Texas. Refugees in Indianapolis, Spokane, Utica, Oklahoma City, Boise, and several other cities now dominate the incoming foreign-born immigrants. Many families depend solely on Christian congregations to learn basic life skills that a refugee camp or refugee agency does not provide.
Although the government offers benefits to refugees that regular immigrants do not receive, government aid cannot teach refugees how to navigate city life. When the allotted period of government aid expires, refugees are expected to hold their own. Many Burmese refugees cannot speak English, drive cars, pay bills, buy food, protect their children, and navigate the legal system, though this is hardly an exhaustive list.
When six-year-old Koko Ling learned in school that he should call 911 in an emergency, he took the information very seriously. One afternoon, when his parents left the house, Koko’s brother Joshua ate his serving of rice along with Koko’s serving. Koko declared it an emergency, called 911, and greeted an ambulance and a fire engine at his front door in Spokane, WA. Although imagining little Koko anxiously describing his brother’s foul play is funny, it represents the vast amounts of money that refugees cost communities. A Desert News Salt Lake City article documents Indianapolis’ flood of Burmese refugees in 2007 and how they overwhelmed local and government services. Health departments deal with thousands who must be tested and treated for latent tuberculosis, a rampant problem among the Burmese refugees. Church charities reached out to Congressman Mark Souder who in turn warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of a “backlash from host communities toward the legal refugees at a time when the nation already is hotly debating illegal immigration.” With local programs flooded, churches play a key role in sustaining communities.
Churches integrate refugees into the labor force and teach English, keeping refugees off the streets, out of poverty, and off of welfare, thus assisting US government and society. Far too often, churches are the victims of pointed fingers and verbal attacks; even Christians insult and elaborate on the failures of the church instead of extolling the many successes. Churches truly go above and beyond in their efforts to resettle refugees, and US society and government should laud their work.
As Harvard students, we can also aid refugee populations, either through our congregations, World Relief, or other community service programs. Yet the greatest love and the greatest service is not helping find jobs or apartments. We must be Christ to them and to others in His divine fullness and mercy, welcoming believers with the promise of Christ’s hope in our communities, giving our brothers and sisters places to worship, places to pray, and the faith to greet what is difficult with the heart of Him who is our protector and Redeemer. When we answer to our Savior for the works we have done, “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40).
Rachel Wagley ’11 is a Sociology concentrator living in Quincy House.