LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Myanmar refugees who fled military persecution and settled in America are finding new struggles with limited education and a stifling language barrier. They’ve quietly grown to become one of Kentucky’s largest refugee groups.
Over the last four decades, an estimated 1.3 million refugees have fled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to escape persecution at the hands of the military, according to the United Nations.
For many, their new lives in the United States haven’t been easy. Most arrive with limited educations, farming backgrounds, and a lack of work history from years in camps along the Thailand border, The Courier-Journal reported.
“We are happy to be here, but it’s difficult,” said 42-year-old Hsar Say, who fled Myanmar after participating in 1988 democracy protests. “I hope to go back someday. But I’m not sure where to go back. There is no home anymore.”
Say, who lives in south Louisville, is one of nearly 3,000 refugees who have been brought to Kentucky since 2006.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell has long been an outspoken critic of the Myanmar regime and staunch advocate of sanctions designed to bring democratic change there. But he believes that’s a distant prospect.
“I’ve never spent more time on something with fewer results,” McConnell said. “I can’t envision how you bring this regime down.”
Refugee Thar Tin recently landed a job at a Louisville meatpacking plant. He explained that he’d fled his homeland because Army soldiers were forcing men to labor as porters and human minesweepers. He spent nine years at the camps before coming to Louisville three years ago.
“There was no good education in Burma or in camp. Here, they have good school and good jobs,” he said, noting his children are doing well in school. “And you don’t have to sneak out to work.”
Yet many refugees have struggled, speaking little or no English and usually lacking experience with formal schooling and structured jobs.
“They arrive happy to be where they are, and then reality sets in, they’re overwhelmed,” said Annette Ellard, a Louisville resident who became involved with the refugees’ plight after a mission trip. “The reality for many of these refugees is they would like to go back home and live life in the traditional way, but they don’t have that choice.”
The Louisville refugees from Myanmar have established communities at several churches, and some gather elsewhere to practice their Buddhist faith. At several south Louisville apartment complexes, groups of refugees from Burma gather to celebrate births and share traditional meals along with tips on navigating life in the United States.
Many of those brought here say they would like to return if things were to change in Myanmar. For now, however, they remain in apartments and modest homes, quietly carving out a new life while keeping one eye on their homeland.
“If there’s no peace, I dare not go home,” Ka Waw said. “Right now, I have no hope of going back.” ♦