Nestled in Lewisville is a community of almost 4,000 people from the Chin State of Myanmar. Coming as refugees, this population has been persecuted and abused due to their race and religion. Today, this population represents one of the largest minority groups in the city and Chin is the third most spoken language in Lewisville ISD. While they have come for a better life, obtaining it has had its share of trials.
Persecution in Myanmar
These events for the Chin population date to 1948 when Myanmar, formerly Burma, broke away from the colonial rule of Great Britain. After 14 years, a military coup ensued and led to almost 50 years of rule by a military junta, according to BBC. Between 1962 and 2011, when they ruled, this regime was notorious for suppressing dissent from the public and committed human rights abuses against those not in the ethnic or religious majority.
Myanmar is a Buddhist majority nation. While constitutionally they allow religious freedom, there are exceptions that allow the suppression of minority religions. Missionaries came to the region roughly 100 years ago and converted the Chin from mostly Animism, a belief where all beings and objects have a spiritual essence, to Christianity. About 98 percent of them now practice Christianity according to Lewisville’s Chin Community Ministry.
Ministry director Becky Nelson said while Buddhism is normally perceived as a peaceful religion, Myanmar is home to one of a few Buddhist groups that practices violence to advance their beliefs. This has been done through banning the practices of other religions and forced conversion and violence.
“The Chin are definitely a persecuted people group,” Nelson said.
The persecution has come in the form of violent acts from the police and military, forced labor, unlawful detainment, torture and extrajudicial killings. They have also had their language banned, which has resulted in few books written in Chin and no recorded history. Another reason for leaving is an attempt to dodge the Burmese draft. It is common practice to lie about the age of your child so they cannot be drafted.
But Nelson said according to the Chin, this isn’t the worst of it. The military has been known to come to Chin villages and take the men away, using them to build roads, carry ammunition for soldiers, sweep for mines and put them on the front lines without weapons of internal military conflict that has been ongoing since 1948.
“If you ask the Chin, they could have put up with lack of religious freedom,” Nelson said. “They went underground and had underground churches. They were used to being poor, but what they couldn’t do is have their men be taken. They weren’t there to work the farms and then they’d come back maimed.”
Searching for a way out
Leaving the country is made difficult for oppressed minority groups as well. Unable to go to India or Bangladesh due to lack of jobs and opportunity, Nelson detailed the path those fleeing must take, a 1,500-mile journey across Myanmar to Malaysia called Terror Road. Nelson said those fleeing have a chance of being caught and killed or thrown into a prison with harsh conditions.
Those who make it find that their journey has just begun. Because Malaysia doesn’t want the population coming into the country, those who enter run the risk of being imprisoned until they can raise the money to bribe their captors.
“They’re illegal so they don’t have any human rights in Malaysia,” Nelson said. “But if you can get to the U.N. office and can register as a refugee, then Malaysia is not as likely to imprison you.”
The problem became worse when the Chin population was classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. after 9/11 because of their standing army, the Chin National Front. Nelson noted one of the key definitions of a terrorist group is having an army that goes against the current government.
“There were people who began to lobby for them because they knew the true thugs were not the Chin and was the military itself,” Nelson said.
Nelson said after about two years, Congress no longer classified them as terrorists. This led to a sort of purge in Malaysia, where thousands of Chin had been dammed up and unable to resettle further due to the country’s laws.
This led to a rapid population growth of Chin in Lewisville. Originally home to 70 asylees for a few years, this ballooned to 210 within three months, then 500.
“After that I lost track,” Nelson said. “It was just like, everyday there were newcomers.”
A new home in Lewisville
Originally, Lewisville wasn’t a resettlement site. In the past, there were services allotted to these individuals, such as a cash stipend, Medicaid, food stamps and rent for the first couple months.
Nelson said when she began in 2007, there was active resentment and pressure on the Chin from state and federal agencies involved in the settlement to leave the area and go back to where they had originally been resettled. This resulted in some services being cut off to the refugees.
Nelson got involved when the Chin community wanted to have their own church in Lewisville rather than have to go to Dallas. Nelson’s church, First Baptist Church of Flower Mound, sponsored the church where the original 70 asylees attended for about four years. It was after this period they began to grow in numbers. Nelson now estimates the population to range between 3,500 and 4,000 in Lewisville. Lewisville’s Community Relations and Tourism Director James Kunke said the Chin make up about 4 percent of Lewisville’s total population.
Texas allowed almost 16,700 Burmese refugees between 2008 and 2014, almost 7,000 more than second-place New York, according to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. Texas has historically resettled more refugees yearly than almost any other state. This is due to the large economy and opportunity to work that exists in the state. From 2000 to 2008, the numbers fluctuated between 2,000 to 6,000. In 2009 it spiked to more than 9,000. In 2014, that number reached almost 13,000 refugees.
Struggling to adapt
When they arrived, Nelson noted Denton County didn’t have a strong grasp on how to help or treat these refugees. She said she took it upon herself to learn what these people needed and educate the populus about it. She said over time she has tried to walk them through what they need to do to be successful, thriving residents of Lewisville and DFW.
Schooling is the area Nelson said they are the weakest in. Many refugees have come over but were not educated the way Americans are, so they lack the basics to be put into a grade-level that fits their age. To further the problem, most families early on would rather have their child drop out of school to help with work. Nelson said to combat this, they provide services such as books to help them catch up that teach various skills like addition and subtraction. They also offer a summer reading program.
“There’s no way to catch up,” Nelson said. “You’re just immediately put into the school system and that’s what you have to do.”
Kunke said due to lack of language and written material, the city’s library has had trouble finding Chin material, mostly because it doesn’t exist.
Another area of struggle is the cultural differences that have arisen between the Chin and Americans. Nelson said early on, there wasn’t a lot of focus on helping the Chin, despite her believing there was need to inform teachers about the cultural differences and the issue of several not being able to read.
“Now that we’ve reached critical mass, we’re getting a lot of attention,” Nelson said laughing. “We’re affecting statistics now.”
This has led to more translation and acknowledgement in the need to give the group attention. Nelson said she believes the district is trying their best now. But the cultural difference affects both sides beyond just schooling. While some differences are small, such as the Chin wanting to eat berries off bushes they see or wanting to turn their front yard into a full-fledged garden, some are impactful. A significant difference is how Chin children show respect.
The Chin are an authoritarian-structured family unit and do not center around their children. Nelson said children are not to speak unless they are spoken too. This can come in the form of looking away to show they are subordinate to an adult. This is different than American practices though, where children are supposed to look at their superior when being addressed. It also isn’t uncommon for parents to not be involved in their children’s extracurricular activities, such as attending sports league games.
“One person said to me that this mother wasn’t a good parent,” Nelson said. “Well, she carried that child when he was 4-years-old on her back 1,500 miles while soldiers shot at her … they’re learning.”
One area Nelson said is a problem is alcohol-use in the community, namely with the men. She said the problem originates in Myanmar and since they are not encouraged to share their feelings, they drown them. She said it may also stem from the inability to stop the Burmese military from raiding their village and taking everything.
“There’s no way to get back at the people you’re angry with,” she said. “So I think they drink to stuff their feelings.”
Services from the ministry and city
The ministry has provided services and helped with the bridging of the cultures to make Lewisville more inclusive to these refugees. According to a document shared by Nelson, the ministry’s three goals are to establish, equip and engage. These involve assisting with legal issues and citizenship, giving financial advice and helping navigate the American system. She said she sees 25 people a day on average.
“That’s one of the things that makes us different,” she said. “We’re really after cross-cultural friendship. Not just an agency … our goal is to learn from them the same way we help them.”
This help is broken down into a grid of three tiers. Each tier breaks down the progress someone has made. The first consists of learning the basics, the second is more in-depth but typically means the person or family can function on some level. The last is thriving, which involves little to no help from the ministry and they can meet their needs themselves.
Being a community-based group, the Chin also assist each other. Nelson said they have a practice where they gather money from those working and whoever is out of work, the money raised goes to that person so they can still pay rent and bills. This has led to the ministry needing to give little assistance to rent.
Maybe the biggest hang-up that occurs is the Chin’s distrust of government and institutions. Having been persecuted and abused for decades, Nelson and Kunke said the Chin aren’t eager to seek out help from those providing it.
“When your home country made you unwelcomed and in some cases actively worked against you, it can be difficult to develop trust in any government,” Kunke said.
To help this, Kunke said the city has internally formed a task force designed to help and better serve underrepresented populations.
Nelson added onto this saying the refugees want to be accepted by Americans, but they are ashamed of their lack of English and education, so it is easier to not interact with an American rather than be shamed or just back down. Nelson gave an example of Chin refusing to call police when they are having trouble because they are scared.
Perhaps the largest cultural difference is their low-trust demeanors versus American’s high-trust. Americans move into first name recognition immediately upon meeting each other. But for the Chin, it can take months and several visits to become accepted into the family.
Nelson spoke highly about what the city of Lewisville has done for the Chin, saying they’ve gone above and beyond. One way they help is by providing a grant to the ministry, which helps cover medical costs and assistance for the population. It is trying to embrace the new culture, with the school district hosting events such as Chin National Day. Nelson also said the city is trying to include them in art, dances and other cultural aspects.
“The city has gone far beyond what most people would do in order to try and incorporate them,” she said.
The end of refugees in America
Despite the support from the community and city, Nelson said the future doesn’t look bright for more Chin refugees to come. She said this is due to President Donald Trump’s administration and the shifting priorities, which has led to the shutting down of resettlement programs and increased funding to cracking down on immigration rather than providing services. Nelson said this is because the country is asking for educated professionals to migrate, which she believes could cause problems in practice because most Chin are not educated when they come to the U.S. Yet, several companies seek out Chin people to help run their warehouses and distribution centers.
Texas has also gotten out completely, dating back to September 2016 when they withdrew from the U.S. refugee resettlement program. In response, several nonprofits have taken over the program to try and fill gaps left.
“I’m not sure how we’re planning on staffing all that when we don’t have refugees anymore or people of certain economic status to do it,” she said.
Nelson said since we will see a stoppage of refugees coming in, the focus is shifting to helping develop the ones who are here and equipping them with the tools they need to thrive on their own with the main goal to get citizenship.
As for the process of integration, Nelson said it is getting better, with more parents attending activities and games and the children thriving in the schools, having graduated 35 Chin students last year. Parents are also attending graduation more often.
“I don’t see living in fear of other countries’ people is going to help us in the long-run,” Nelson said. “So why not just figure out a way to say hello and introduce yourself.”
If you are interested in helping the Chin community, Nelson recommends going to the ministry more often when issues arise so the ministry can get involved and help teach the Chin how to better adapt. She also asked people to volunteer at their schools and help with teaching the Chin students how to read since their parents often can’t.
Visit the Lewisville Chin Community Ministry website to learn how to donate time and money to help Chin refugees.
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