Diversity born from civil war: refugees from Myanmar in Bowling Green

By Amelia Brett

Lam Nu, 26, serves a plate of warm honey chicken on a chilly Wednesday afternoon as customers wander into Yangon Bistro on Morgantown Road. Nu takes a quick break and eases herself into a chair as she recalls her experiences before and after arriving in Bowling Green.

Nu and her husband are refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. She said they have lived in Bowling Green three years and opened the restaurant in 2015.

They currently live as part of a community of people from Myanmar, Nu said. She said she fled her home country seven years ago due to governmental conflict.

“Everybody doesn’t like the government,” Nu said, referring to Myanmar. “They are for themselves.”

Nu and her husband initially fled to Malaysia in 2010 as refugees, she said. She said they lived there two years, then moved to Michigan to reside for two years before settling in Bowling Green in 2014.

“When we came here, everything was different,” Nu said.

Nu originally came from Pyidawtha village in the Kalay township in Myanmar, she said. She said the population of the area was about 700 to 1,000 households.

Lam Nu works at Yangon Bistro in Bowling Green Nov. 28. Photo credit: Amelia Brett.

There has been a total of about 1,777 refugees from Myanmar settled in Bowling Green from 2002 to 2015, according to a resettlement site profile by the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College.

Myanmar has been affected by an ongoing civil war since 1948 between their military and minority groups, according to Minority Rights Group International’s report “Burma (Myanmar): The Time for Change.” This has caused almost 451,000 people from Myanmar to become refugees as of mid-2016, according to the “Mid-Year Trends 2016” report by The UN Refugee Agency.

“It’s not easy like here,” Nu said, comparing her old residence to Bowling Green. She said her home in Myanmar had no electricity during the day and only two phones in the entire village.

Neighbors from Myanmar

A young refugee woman from Myanmar, Ie Meh, sits in the auditorium at Jody Richards Hall at WKU with many others who have fled her home country. They are there to watch a short film, “Like We Don’t Exist,” about the struggles of Karenni refugees along the border of Thailand and Myanmar due to civil war.

Ie Meh studies biology at WKU, she said. She said she considers herself Karenni.

She said a misconception is that all refugees from Myanmar like to be called “Burmese.”

“When someone takes over your home, you don’t want to be called the same as them,” Ie Meh said. She said “Burmese” is normally used by those affected by the war to refer to the military in Myanmar.

She said people of Myanmar generally prefer being called by their ethnicity, such as Karenni or Zomi.

“Even though we forgive, we can never forget,” Ie Meh said. She said many families have lost children to illness due to a lack of access to medicine.

Ie Meh said she is grateful for the chance for a better education in the U.S. as a result of being a refugee. She is the first in her family to graduate high school and pursue a college degree, she said.

The generation older than her has a harder time adjusting since they were often not taught English, she said.

“Just imagine being in their shoes, not being able to read or write,” Ie Meh said.

She said many younger Karenni refugees drop out of high schools that don’t assist well enough with language. However, some Karenni refugee students benefit from the GEO International High School located in Bowling Green, she said.

Karenni students experience stereotyping when local students assume they will do great in studies since they are from a country in Asia, Ie Meh said.

“Nobody knows we exist,” she said, her words almost mirroring the title of the documentary.

Ie Meh said the refugee camps shown in the film “Like We Don’t Exist” near Thailand are where her grandparents currently live. She said she plans visiting her family there soon.

“We are talking about lots of people in our own community in the shadows,” said Patti Minter, a professor at WKU who talked at one screening of the film at Jody Richards Hall.

Bu Meh and Oo Meh, two other Karenni refugees attending WKU, also watched the screening at the university with Ie Meh. Their last name, “Meh,” refers to being female in their culture and does not always mean they are related, Ie Meh said.

Left to right: Ie Meh, Bu Meh and Oo Meh at a screening of “Like We Don’t Exist” at Jody Richards Hall at WKU Nov. 16. Photo credit: Amelia Brett.

After the film, Bu Meh said one of the memories she remembers about her home was walking several miles to school each day when she lived in Myanmar.

Oo Meh said her past surroundings included homes made of bamboo shoots and straw. She said the most difficult thing about coming to Bowling Green was adjusting to the culture.

Many of the refugees in Bowling Green from Myanmar identify as Zomi or Karenni, which are ethnic groups from Myanmar. They likely fled as refugees to escape inhumane acts allegedly done by the military of Myanmar against their people, such as forced labor and torture, according to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples by Minority Rights Group International.

Nu considers herself Zomi, she said. Zomi is an ethnicity of the people of Myanmar that normally resides in the Chin State in the northwest area of the country, according to the “Country of Origin Information Report – Burma (Myanmar)” by the United Kingdom Home Office.

The Karenni consist of 12 subgroups and reside mostly in southeast Myanmar, according to the website of the documentary “Like We Don’t Exist.”

The Importance of Diversity

“Diversity is beautiful, but it also shows the amount of human rights being violated,” said Dr. Ted Hovet, a professor at WKU who also spoke at the screening on campus.

The co-director of “Like We Don’t Exist,” Ansley Sawyer, said Bowling Green seems welcoming to refugees.

“You have a very diverse community and are very fortunate,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer said she is a nomadic filmmaker who traveled to Thailand and became fascinated with the Karenni people. The purpose of the film “Like We Don’t Exist” is to spread awareness of the issues Karenni people face in Myanmar, she said.

“People need to be curious and be willing to ask hard questions,” Sawyer said. She said it’s not up to the person who has been affected to always bring a possible issue up.

Sawyer said people can help refugees from Myanmar by supporting local businesses where they are hired or by giving them a job. Some workers from Myanmar are willing to work really hard since employment options are limited, she said.

“Build diversity as an essential practice,” Sawyer said. “It helps everything. You build loyalty in that community.”

In addition, funding is a main way to assist refugees from Myanmar, Sawyer said. She said this can be done through donations or getting involved in community-based organizations.

“They all have relatives back from where they came from,” she said. “Donations go a long way.”

Helping Family

Many families in the Zomi community send money back to their family members for them to buy food, Nu said at Yangon Bistro. She said she sends part of her income every month to her mother living in Myanmar.

She said it’s not a lot, but the money some refugees in the Zomi community send back allows people in Myanmar to buy around five to 10 bags of rice.

Nu said she also attends church services held for Zomi refugees every Saturday. She tries to help those within her church with life in Bowling Green, such as green cards, and they have a special fund for sending money to Myanmar.

“We just do what we can,” Nu said. She said there is a lack of jobs there, and most small villages consist of farmers.

Nu said most families from her home in Kalay have between three or four acres for growing rice. However, the crop is for the year and can be ruined by floods during the rainy season, she said.

“Most of us, we are not educated,” Nu said. She said many refugees from Myanmar must work in factories since they lack English language skills, and certificates from their home country are not accepted in Bowling Green.

Nu said she had been attending Western Kentucky University with a major in accounting, but she put it on hold to work at the restaurant. There was not enough time to do both, she said.

“My husband really loves cooking, so I follow his dream,” Nu said. She said she is also expecting her first child.

She hopes to return to Myanmar someday to help families after finishing her degree, Nu said. She said she may go back to WKU next year.

“When I have enough money, I want to start a factory and provide them with a job,” Nu said, smiling. “It’s just a dream.”

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