SEARAC provides technical assistance to a number of Burmese and Bhutanese community organizations in the US to build strong, local ethnic community-based organizations and faith-based organizations. For this blog post, we interviewed Chum Awi, a key leader and elder in the Chin community, an ethnic minority from Burma. Chum is based out of Lewisville, Texas and works with the Chin Community of Lewisville.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you come to the United States? And why did you need to leave your country?
My mother told me I was born after the Japanese rulers left Burma, so I am about 67 years old. I have a law degree from Rangoon University, did my theological training at the Burma Institute for Theology, and earned my Doctorate degree in the Philippines in 1987. I worked as President of Chin Theological College (1977-1985), and was also the General Secretary of the Zomi-Chin Baptist Convention (1992-1996), the largest institution of the Chin living in the Chin State.
The Burmese government, the State Peace and Development Council, wanted me and my organization to help negotiate a ‘peace talk’ between the Chin National Front and the government. We rejected this proposal, because we did not want to be used for political purposes. This caused a lot of friction between us and the government. I realized that going against the government in that way was not safe for me, so I came here in 1996. Once I arrived in the United States, I worked with others to provide testimony with different politicians, including the Texas House of Representatives. Starting from 1997, Country report released by State Department of the USA was a basic element for Chins to become refugees.
What is one thing that Americans should know about the Chin people?
The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma, who mostly live in the Chin State in the Northwest of Burma, the remote and mountainous region along the border with India and Bangladesh. Almost 90% of the Chin people are Christians. The Chins are the poorest group in all of Burmese society and economically underdeveloped. Much of this is recent; the current education system suppresses Chin identity and dialect. The government has a policy of “One Race, One Language, One Religion.” The government favors Buddhists while Christians are discriminated against.
As refugee/asylee, what did you find hard to adjust to in America?
Generally, the language and culture, the ways of eating and living all took getting used to. For instance, I was a chaplain resident at Baptist Hospital in San Antonio (1996-97) and the Methodist Hospital in Houston (1997-98), the language was a huge barrier. Moreover, the standard of living is so high in the USA and for a person coming from undeveloped country, it was not easy to be acclimated soon. Most of all, the USA is a business-making country where you need capital money. If we do not have a business, we have to work like slaves under the control of “bosses”, but no chance of having enough money to run even small business.
What are some issues facing Chin elders in the community today?
The Chin elders are in a big cultural shock. It is difficult for them to adapt to the new life, to learn the language – even for daily living. Many elders can’t work; it is hard for elders to find jobs, and many need skills training. The Chin elders are lonely and isolated – there are no close relatives nearby, and there is no transportation for them. In Texas, you have to drive everywhere.
Where do you see the future of the Chin community?
It will be important for us to learn about the American system, and learn how to navigate the American system. It is so different from the Burmese culture, we are needing to learn about economic system, legal system, education system, daily life system, and organization system. Unless we start to do something for younger generations, it will be too late for the well-being of Chin people in general.
SEARAC recently completed a needs assessment of the Burmese and Bhutanese communities. To learn more about SEARAC’s work with the Burmese and Bhutanese communities and our Training and Technical Assistance portfolio, please view our website here.
Ivy Ngo is a Policy Advocate for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.