Did you know that there are roughly 3,000 Burmese refugees living in Nashville?
That number includes eight different ethnic tribes, all of which are represented in our city.
Today we got to got to experience a little bit of Burmese culture and to meet some of the people who have traveled over 8,000 miles across the world to live in safety.
Church of the Redeemer, the church we attend, hosted a celebration in honor of Union Day–the February 12th holiday recognizing Burma’s (also known as Myanmar) independence from Britain in 1947. Our church provided the space, but it was the Burmese refugees who planned and orchestrated the event.
Before attending, the girls and I watched a few videos and discussed Burmese culture and history. We watched this travel footage from Burma, which is a short, accessible video for kids to get a feel for the culture. The girls also watched this BBC Nature Documentary about Burma. I also found this Brief History of Burma, which is an article written for children.
We didn’t know what to expect at the event. Attending a different country’s celebration was a step outside all of our comfort zones, but imagine being a refugee? These people had left everything they had known to integrate into an unfamiliar culture. It was a little awkward at first, trying to communicate and finding things to talk about, but immediately a Burmese woman struck up a conversation with me and told me her story.
She had been an activist in Burma, speaking largely for women’s rights. In doing so, it became unsafe for her to stay there and she has been away from her home and her family for over ten years. As she spoke to me, it was time for us to find our seats; rather than sitting with the large group of Burmese across the room, she sat with our family and offered to translate the event.
A woman got up and spoke about Union Day and explained its significance. She also talked about the eight different ethnic groups, and explained that there are many refugees who live in Nashville but do not know each other. This event served as a way for refugees to find each other–to see how many others like them lived in the city. This was a time to connect, for them to see familiar faces and find others who shared their culture.
A handful of people stood up as each ethnic group was recognized. Many of the Burmese performed dances or songs unique to their groups. The performers were young people, which made it a little more captivating for our kids in particular.
The Burmese were so generous in sharing their culture, and also their food. There was a huge spread of all kinds of delicious things to eat. The girls love Thai food, and Burmese fare is very similar. Lots of rice noodles and fried rice, and coconut. Although they were technically the guests in our church building, we felt so welcomed. It was so humbling to be served by people who have been displaced in such a profound way.
On the way home, we talked to the girls about what it means to be a refugee. My grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from Italy, but there is a huge difference between immigrants and refugees. Refugees have been forced out by war or other danger or persecution.
Those seeking refugee status must wait a long time to find out if they have been approved and where they will be allowed to go. In America, there are limits on where refugees are allowed to settle. Nashville is a hub for refugees, and this excerpt is taken from the Catholic Charities of Tennessee website:
Refugee Resettlement is a humanitarian effort of the United States government and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in collaboration with national, state and local organizations. Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc. has always been engaged in the humanitarian aid to refugees, starting with the finding of foster homes for 43 Cuban refugee children in 1962. In 1972 at the request of the United States Catholic Conference, the agency’s Refugee Resettlement Program was formally established and primarily served refugees fleeing political turmoil in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By 1995, over 10,000 refugees had received help through Catholic Charities. To date, services have been provided to refugees of many different faiths from more than 35 countries, though the majority of our current clients have been displaced from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Cuba, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Refugees are individuals who have had to leave their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Specifically, they are targeted because of their religious or political beliefs, their social standing or membership in a particular social class. Refugees must flee their countries to escape persecution or death, usually leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They often live in refugee camps for years enduring harsh weather, small rations of food, and little or no health care or education. Refugees arrive in the United States with usually just a small duffle bag of belongings. Within just a few months, however, most refugees are completely self-sufficient. Through their hard work and drive to succeed, studies show that after ten years, refugees are as well off as native-born Americans.
This is a helpful graphic from Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services
about the process refugees must go through to finally make it to the United States:
I am excited about the growing relationship between the Burmese people and our church. I hope that there will be more opportunities to serve one another and for the girls to continue to develop empathy and awareness for other cultures, especially within the refugee community.