I'm sitting Indian-style on a rug in Biak and Sui Thaung's modest Indianapolis apartment on a snowy February afternoon. The couple arrived here on the city's south side as refugees from Burma just two years ago, and before they came to Indianapolis they had never seen snow. But today a wet snow is falling outside, huge flakes covering the children's bikes on the porch, blanketing the parking lot.
Mary, 10, is explaining to me about her school schedule in rapid-fire English while her parents, who are still struggling with the language, look on in curiosity. When I shift the conversation and ask Biak about his hopes for the future, he jumps up and leaves the room, returning momentarily with an enormous Burmese-Chin-English dictionary in his hand and a broad grin on his face.
"Yes, one moment," he says in his limited English, scanning the page. There is a moment of silence as he turns to his daughter to interpret for him.
He's speaking in Chin, and Mary relays his words. "He doesn't need anything for himself," she says. "He only thinks for his children."
The room seems suddenly quiet.
I turn to Mary. "And what about you?" I ask. "What do you want?"
Cherry, 8, interrupts, "I plan to be an engineer. And a scientist."
Mary nods. "Actually that's what we both want to be. Both of those things."
"Sounds easy enough," I smile.
Last year photographer Katie Basbagill and I collaborated on a book titled From Burma to Indianapolis: Perspectives of Burmese Refugees.
We were captivated by Biak's and Sui's story, as well as the larger story of thousands of refugees from Burma resettling in Indianapolis. It's a story of families driven from their homes by a military regime seeking their extinction, of women, men, and children finding home after losing everything.
To tell Biak's and Sui's story, you have to start at the beginning. In Burma.
Chin state is located in western Burma. My Chin friends in Indianapolis have described a place of green, rolling hills, extraordinary vistas and remote villages of colorfully-clothed people who live and work together. Most of Burma's Chin people are farmers. Nearly everyone has a vegetable garden. And land is very important.
The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma and for years they've been ruthlessly targeted by the Burmese military. Ask any Chin refugee in Indianapolis about what they faced before they fled their country, and you'll
likely hear of forced labor, arbitrary arrest, rape, torture, execution. The list goes on and on, an alphabet of atrocities.
For Biak and Sui, as well as thousands of Chin and other ethnic minorities, leaving was the only option. "I didn't have a job and couldn't feed my family," Biak recalls. "I feared whatever I did. I was afraid of the military and when they arrested me, I knew that I had to escape if I ever wanted to see my family again."
When Biak and Sui were finally able to flee to Malaysia, they thought things would get better. Instead, Biak was arrested three times, and for three tense and agonizing years, the family lived in tight quarters and constant fear.
When they finally received refugee status and found out that they could come to the United States, Biak and Sui were overjoyed. Biak says he'll never forget his first day in Indianapolis - or Chindianapolis, as it's been nicknamed by the 7,000-8,000 Chin refugees who have made their home here.
"When we arrived to the States, I was so happy and excited to be in a country with freedom, no fear, the ability to work for my family, for my children to go to school," he explains. "Arriving in America, it was so good."
Home at last
Each year Exodus Refugee Immigration welcomes hundreds of refugees from all over the world to Indianapolis. They come from countries such as Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Eritrea, the Congo, Somalia and Iran - often arriving with only what they can carry, ready to start new lives of freedom in our city. Exodus staff members greet newly arriving refugees at the airport and bring them to their new homes, typically apartments furnished with donated couches, beds and chairs.
Our agency (I serve as Director of Development at Exodus, in addition to my work as a writer) provides support for newly arriving refugees, with a long-term goal of helping new arrivals reach a place of self-sufficiency. We work with community partners throughout the city to help newly arriving refugees obtain necessary documents and services such as health screenings and care.
Through English language classes across the city, employment training and placement, case management, mental health services, volunteer support and assistance with cultural orientation, Exodus helps refugees as they become connected and contributing members of the Indianapolis community.
For Biak and Sui, getting connected in Indianapolis has been a process. They both started full-time jobs shortly after they arrived. While the couple worked long hours to provide for their family, their young daughters, Mary, Cherry, and Elizabeth started school.
Sui says that seeing her daughters truly safe and finally free to pursue their dreams makes her feel incredibly grateful for their new lives in Indianapolis. "I am so happy that our children have the chance to grow in
a good way here," she says.
It's what she always wanted: for them to play and explore and experience life without fear - the kind of life they couldn't have in Burma.
For Mary, Cherry, and Elizabeth, Indianapolis is fun. For one thing, they have a new little sister, Hning Tha Par, born just two months ago at St. Francis Hospital. The family is involved in a local church and at school the girls are getting to know other kids and finding ways to connect with their classmates.
The girls enjoy sharing their unique cultural heritage with friends. Mary tells me that she is excited to talk to her classmates about Chin National Day, coming up on Feb. 23 at Southport Life Center. It's a day when the Chin community comes together for a celebration involving cultural traditions, music, dancing, delicious food
- even a Chin wrestling competition. The Indianapolis community is invited and Mary tells me that she hopes a lot of people will join the festivities.
A Hoosier is a Hoosier is a Hoosier
Mary and her sisters are finding ways to embrace a new cultural identity. Sitting on the couch across from me, Mary launches into a description of her upcoming school presentation on well-known Hoosiers.
"A Hoosier is someone who lives in Indiana," she explains matter-of-factly, "like we do."
Another group working with refugees in the community is the Immigrant Welcome Center. The organization works with refugees and immigrants to provide long term support - finding ways to help them connect more deeply and become more at home in Indianapolis.
Offering a unique "natural partner" program that pairs refugees and immigrants with people who can speak their language and assist them within their community, the group has been successful in helping new arrivals.
Opportunities for involvement with Indy's refugee community are virtually limitless. Volunteers can help welcome newly arriving refugees at the airport, help set up and furnish apartments for new arrivals, provide cash and in-kind assistance for families, and most of all, cultivate long-lasting friendships with newly arriving refugees.
If you would like to get involved (and I hope you will), email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm happy to connect you to plenty of ways to help welcome refugees to our community. If you have questions about our city's growing refugee population, or would like to order a copy of A Journey from Burma to Indianapolis: Perspectives from Burmese Refugees, just let me know.
Biak and Sui say that getting to know their neighbors and finding friends in the Indianapolis community has meant more to them than anything else. It's been a process. But though they are far from the rolling green hills of Chin State, Biak says he is starting to feel more at home in the snowy Midwestern city that took him in.
Biak is a man of few words, but what he says about Indianapolis symbolizes the connection he feels to the community and city he now calls home.
"People from Indianapolis welcomed me," he says simply.
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