Girls perform a dance during the Karen community's "A Moment to Reflect" event on May 22, 2010 at South High School in Denver. More than 1,300 refugees from Burma have settled in Colorado from 2007 to 2009. (Photo by Joe Nguyen/AsiaXpress.com)
A new life: Refugees from Burma find a home in Colorado
More than 1,300 refugees from Burma have settled in Colorado from 2007 to 2009
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
July 15, 2010
Ed. note: This is the first of a three-part series on refugees from Burma settling in Colorado.
Part 1 | 2 | 3
AURORA – Refugees from Burma have many stories to tell, but one common theme unites them – they are looking for a better life in America.
Peekay – a 14-year-old ethnic Karen who will be a freshman at South High School this fall – escaped with his family to a refugee camp in Thailand as an infant. When it was time to go the United States at the age of 9, he had already seen more than his fair share of bloodshed while serving in the military.
"You see a lot of soldiers dead," Peekay said. "When you walk the streets, you see a lot of people dead."
Mehm Kyiseisa escaped from his war-torn homeland of Burma and found himself living in a refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand. An ethnic Mon, he lived in constant fear of being arrested by the Thai police, he said, and there was little hope of a future for his family if they remained in the camp. Still it was a better life than he had in Burma, where ethnic minorities have long been the target of oppression by the country's military regime.
"Living in Mae Sot, we didn't have any sense of security or future," he said through an interpreter. " ... We were stateless."
Like many other refugees, Peekay's family and Kyiseisa applied for an opportunity to come to the United States – an opportunity to provide a future for their families.
"You are not stateless anymore if you belong to this country (U.S.)," he said through an interpreter. "It is the view I have carried with me. This is why I came, hoping that would happen."
From 2007 to 2009, 1,313 refugees from Burma arrived in Colorado – the most from any country – according to the Colorado Refugees Services Program. Drucie Bathin, an educator for the Spring Institute and an ethnic Karen herself, estimates that there are approximately 3,000 refugees from Burma in the state as a result of families and friends reuniting. Most settle in Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Greeley.
The refugees in Colorado hail from six different ethnic minority groups, each with their own distinct languages and cultures. These ethnic groups include the Karen, Chin, Karenni, Mon, Kachin and Shan. Each of these groups have their own state in Burma, Bathin said, but the government has been encroaching onto their territory and taking away their way of life in order to assimilate the population.
"Tribe languages were forbidden to (be taught) in school," she said. "Burmese was used in schools."
To understand the situation in Burma, Bathin said, one must look back to the country's 62-year British colonial rule. Burma has a population of 50 million people and is about the size of Texas. It prospered under British rule and was considered "the rice bowl of Asia" for its fertile soil and abundant resources, according to the Center for Applied Languages.
The British gave the country its independence in 1948, but by 1962 its democratic rule ended when General Ne Win led a successful military uprising. Since then, Burma has been in state of military dictatorship.
For more than two decades, camps for refugees from Burma have formed along the country's borders, particularly in Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Lutheran Family Services estimates there are more than 400,000 refugees from Burma and another 67,000 internally displaced people – those who are forced to flee their homes but remain within the country's borders.
Inside the camps, conditions are often crowded and unsanitary. But unlike their past homeland, the refugees are able to receive an education and food is rationed.
"When we lived in the camps, they gave us food – rice, some pepper, no meat," Peekay said. "Meat we got by going to kill animals."
Many families spend years in the camps, waiting for an opportunity for their refugee application to be approved. Peekay and his family lived in their camp for more than seven years before they were able to come to Colorado in 2006. According to Lutheran Family Services, less than 1 percent of refugees around the world are able to resettle every year.
"Even though life is difficult in the camps, at least they're with family," said Brian Wright, volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Family Services of Colorado.
For the refugees who are here, they hold on to the hope that peace will one day come to their once home country. Kyiseisa said he wants to see Burma free and democratic. Peekay wants to join the military after he graduates and go back to bring freedom. But all agree that for the moment, the situation is bleak.
"People die every day the war has been going on," Bathin said. "They're going to have elections and you don't see anything change because there has never been change.
"People die every day in the jungle where we live."