America is a blessed nation. We have freedoms afforded to us that others, in repressed countries, may never experience… unless a ray of hope is shone upon them.
In Burma, also known as the United Republic of the Union of Myanmar, many of the people are forced to live an existence in refugee camps due to the political unrest caused by military and governmental conflict.
Burma is located in Southeast Asia, with a population of over 60 million inhabitants. The lack of stability has caused its people to seek refuge beyond the confines of Myanmar.
According to Martha Little, Site Director of the Owensboro office of The International Center of Kentucky (ICofK), they want to help refugees form a “new life”.
The ICofK is a refugee resettlement organization headquartered in Bowling Green, with an Owensboro site office. Founded in 1981, the center has resettled over 10,000 refugees, from thirty (30) countries around the globe. The ICofK works in collaboration with the Department of State and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and provides refugees and other immigrants with a support structure to help them fully integrate into life in the United States, and more specifically, here in Owensboro, Kentucky.
According the organizational website, “The mission of the International Center is to address the needs of Refugees and Immigrants in their assimilation and integration into community life, by providing employment, educational, housing, and other social services.”
Little celebrated her one-year anniversary with the organization in August. Her passion for resettling the Burmese is evident in her conversation.
Little says currently that many of the Burmese in Owensboro are from the Myanmar Refugee Camps. They are escaping to save their lives from political and military conflicts of their country.
The camps are safe, unless they wander away past the boundaries. They put themselves at risk for death. Food is available, but not in abundance, and some face starvation. There is little in the way of social activity. In fact, those in the camps may not even speak the same language, as there are many spoken among the people of Burma. They simply “exist” in the camps.
Through collaborative efforts, United States officials travel to camps and invite individuals interested in resettling. They are put into a pipeline system that looks to coordinate travel arrangements to the states.
Refugees are legally placed in their respective locations, and are placed on a path towards citizenship. They then have to wait five years to apply for their Green Card.
While here, they are placed in jobs to help with the settlement process. Little says, “We hope to help them have a new life. Our goal is not to take away who they are or where they came from, but more to guide them towards self-sufficiency. We try to meet them where they are in knowledge as we do this”.
Little works in conjunction with community churches and organizations to help the refugees with the transition to freedom.
Bellevue Baptist Church knows that through the resettlement, “The world is coming to our own city” and there are ministry opportunities to an international community without leaving Owensboro.
According to Director of Partnerships and Missions, Danny Gray, Bellevue offers five different venues for people to worship in four different languages, two of which are for the newly settled Burmese in Owensboro.
There are several languages spoken among the people of Myanmar, and Bellevue offers two services, in Karen (Cah-reen) and Burmese. Gray says the services are well attended, and combined, serve over 200 with the message of Christ’s love for them.
The language barrier is bridged by staff that can speak to them in their respective languages.
Bellevue is not new to providing a means for other cultures to worship, as for nearly ten years they have provided Owensboro a Spanish service that currently hosts nearly 100 attendees.
Gray says, “Our intention is to allow people to fulfill their mission in Christ. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from.”
The church has also opened its facilities to provide English as second language (ESL), says Joyce Nation, the English Language Learner (ELL) Coordinator.
The classes are a partnership of Skill Train OCTC, Bellevue, the International Center, and the community at large. Bellevue provides the space for classes and vans for transportation, OCTC supplies the instruction and materials, the community provides volunteers for childcare, and Settle Memorial United Methodist Church supplies a larger van for pick-up.
Suzan Culver, ESL instructor, came to Owensboro in February 2010. As she tried to find her bearings in the community, she saw an ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers to teach English. What began as a volunteer opportunity has become a “staff” position for Culver.
Culver says the younger population is eager to learn English, as are some older folks. However they also come for the social aspect the classes provide. Either way, they are able to meet more people from the community and others who, like them, have been resettled.
Culver acts as not only a teacher, but also an encourager as she seeks participation from the class to expand their English by speaking to one another in the new language.
A recent assignment was to compare and contrast their home country to Owensboro. Many remarked there were no comparisons as the differences outweigh the similarities. The ability to have transportation was a foreign concept to them, as they frequently walked to their destinations or did not go because of long distances. They appreciate the safety Owensboro provides, its quiet surroundings, and the vast number of parks and green space.
According to Rev. Rebekah Krevens, Associate Minister at First Christian, in the Fall of 2010, many Burmese families were first settled in the apartments across from their facility at the corner of 7th Street and J.R. Miller Boulevard. The church rose to the occasion by planning outreach for their new neighbors.
It is FCC’s hope that the Burmese feel welcomed, loved, and cared for. The goal is to provide a comfortable home and a hospitable environment.
As a community, may we each welcome all who enter our city with the care and compassion being shown to the Burmese by many of our Owensboro neighbors.
Donations are taken daily to help continue the settlement process. Please be part of this great community collaboration for those seeking refuge.
For more information on how you can help, contact the International Center of Kentucky at 683-3423.
[tw-divider]FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH’S OUTREACH ACTIVITIES[/tw-divider]
A community garden (23 of the 24 plots are gardened by the Burmese community)
After School Program on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 (this is a program that provides a safe and fun place after school, for group building, homework help, and fun)
Knitting Group: Meets on Wednesday mornings. Burmese women come and bring their small children who are not yet in school.
Youth Groups: Burmese youth participate in regular youth groups
Food Pantry: food pantry partners with the International Center to identify the 10 Burmese families in the community with the most need and groceries are delivered to them. They are also provided with fresh produce through this ministry and food items that are typical of the Burmese diet.