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Myanmar refugees strain resources of U.S. agencies, aid groups

Sunday, October 14, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS -- The modest apartment where Van Tin Lian Zathang, his wife, Biak, and their two daughters live sits in a tidy, sprawling complex of brick town houses that other refugees from Myanmar also call home.

Zathang gets a lift to his job at a pharmaceutical warehouse because he doesn't speak enough English to pass a driver's license exam. His ethnic Chin family picks through donated clothes in the basement of a Catholic church.

"It is not easy," Zathang said through an interpreter. "Although we get some support, it's not enough."

The number of Myanmar refugees settling in the U.S. has grown exponentially this year, threatening to overwhelm local aid groups and government services.

The deluge has inundated local health departments who screen the thousands of arrivals for the growing problem of tuberculosis and other ailments. It also has flooded schools that must overcome language barriers, and public and private aid agencies that house, feed and clothe the newcomers.

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.

"We're still way behind. It's a hurricane," he said.

The Rev. Thlaawr Bawihrin of Zophei Christian Church says his Chin congregation -- one of four clustered on the south side of Indianapolis -- has doubled to more than 200 members in five months.

Since many refugees speak little English and lack driver's licenses, Bawihrin -- who has been in the U.S. since 1996 -- shuttles them to jobs, doctors' appointments, welfare offices and other errands.

"I love my people. I love my community, so I must be available whenever they need me," Bawihrin said earlier this month.

The State Department admitted 13,896 Myanmar refugees during the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a more than sevenfold increase from 1,612 in 2006. Nearly 5,000 arrived in September alone, sometimes with as little as 10 days' notice.

State Department spokesman Curtis Cooper said Myanmar expatriates resettling in the U.S. spiked this year at the request of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Department has waived provisions of the Patriot Act that barred 9,300 ethnic Karen from entering the U.S. because of their association with Myanmar rebels. It also lifted material support restrictions for certain ethnic groups such as the Karen and Chin.

Also, this is the first full year for a refugee processing center in Thailand run by the International Rescue Committee under contract with the State Department, said Christine Petrie, the committee's U.S. resettlement director.

The refugees were not among those in Myanmar who joined Buddhist monks in pro-democracy demonstrations last month, prompting a crackdown by the ruling junta. Those arriving in the U.S., many of whom are Christians, fled their Southeast Asian homeland years ago and resettled in camps along the Thai border and elsewhere.

Besides Indiana, the pressure also is felt in St. Paul, Minn., and Utica, N.Y., both home to large Karen populations.

The Rev. William Englund, pastor of St. Paul's First Baptist Church, said he has been welcoming six to eight families into his congregation each month. Their welcome baskets used to include rice cookers, but the parish no longer can afford them.

"We're not able to keep up with all of them," Englund said.

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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