‘They’re like birds’
Colorado group helps Burmese refugees who often arrive with nothing and ‘just need a little help, and they fly on their own’
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Southwest Winner: Colorado Burma Roundtable Network
When Li Ling first arrived at the Denver International Airport with her husband and two young children, she felt relief. It’s a common emotion refugees from Burma like her share when they land in America: Finally, they’re far, far away from the military dictatorship of Burma (also known as Myanmar) that terrorizes ethnic minorities through forced labor, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment. Like many of her fellow refugees, Li Ling didn’t know what awaited her in this new country, but she felt safe for the first time in years.
That was 2015. Today, Li Ling is a fresh widow at age 27: Her husband died three months ago when a piece of giant machinery at his workplace crushed his head. The moment Li Ling heard the news, fear and worry seized her: She has three children under the age of 5, so she cannot work. Not that she has many employment prospects, anyway—she doesn’t speak any English and has minimal education and no marketable skills. How would her family survive in this foreign country? How will she pay the monthly $800 rent for her one-bedroom apartment when she has no foreseeable income?
Li Ling is one of thousands of refugees from Burma whom the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network (CBRTN), a Denver-based refugee support group, seeks to help by providing relief, training in life skills, and Christian discipleship. It’s the only group in the area that has focused primarily on refugees from Burma since its founding in 2007, when the number of Burmese refugees entering Colorado spiked from 19 in the previous year to more than 300.
At the time, resettlement agencies were scrambling to deal with the flood of Burmese refugees showing up at the airport wearing little more than flip-flops and longyis (a long, traditional skirtlike garment)—appropriate for Southeast Asia’s tropical climate but not for the Rocky Mountains’ unpredictable hails. These newcomers didn’t speak English and didn’t even know how to flush a toilet or use an ATM. Many grew up in bamboo huts without modern amenities such as electricity and American supermarkets with their dozens of cereal options—yet they had to find a job within the few months before their cash assistance expired. Meanwhile, caseworkers were understaffed and overworked, with no time to give individual attention to these refugees.
That’s where CBRTN stepped in to fill the gaps. CBRTN began with a mission trip to the Thailand-Burma border, where thousands of Karen (an ethnic minority in Burma) refugees live in destitute camps. CBRTN President Jack Johnson, a retired teacher and Air Force veteran, visited those refugee camps in a truck loaded with rice, sugar, and condensed milk. Sometimes he crossed the river to Burma in a long boat stacked with chickens for the IDPs (internally displaced persons) who hide among thick jungle ranges. Seeing the devastating poverty and injustice there, he prayed, “Father God, how do we continue this work going forward?”
Then Karen Baptist Pastor Ler Mu Martin, who had fled Burma during the bloody 1988 pro-democracy uprising, alerted Johnson that the mission field would soon arrive on his own backyard. Waves of Burmese refugees were swarming into America, he warned, and “they’re going to need a lot of help.”
So Johnson, Martin, and several local Christians decided to create CBRTN with a dual mission: to help both the persecuted ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia and the incoming refugees in Colorado. CBRTN relies only on private donations, but Johnson said he has never once begged anyone for money: “Every time there’s a need, somebody calls and provision just appears, magically. It’s fun to watch God work.”
And the needs are constant. Each year, CBRTN sends mission groups to Thailand and sometimes Burma, where they work with local missionaries and Christian groups to supply food and medicine and to preach the gospel in remote villages. CBRTN also supports an orphanage for young women in Thailand.
MEANWHILE IN DENVER, local volunteers—none of them paid—help pick the refugees up at the airport, give them English and driving lessons, help them open bank accounts, drive them to markets and doctors’ appointments and churches, and supply whatever needs arise. For example, Marilyn Perlman, a retired CPA, helps the refugees do their taxes. When refugees ask if they can pay her, she suggests they donate to CBRTN instead—and many do.
Another volunteer, Susan Rairdon, a homeschooling mom whose four kids are now grown, taught ESL classes and housed six young refugees in her own home to homeschool them so they can earn their high-school diplomas. Two of them received scholarships that paid for their transcript and graduation expenses. Those lessons expand these refugees’ career options beyond low-paying, physical labor jobs.
Lah Say, a 27-year-old Karen woman born in a Thailand refugee camp, learned English from Rairdon every Saturday. She then graduated from college with a degree in public health, scored a job at a children’s hospital, and now studies for a master’s degree in social work. Lah Say said CBRTN was a blessing to her at a time when she felt alone and isolated, so she wants to “be a blessing back.” She joined a local leadership council so she can be a voice for refugees, created a program that helps other refugees gain employment at her medical campus, and goes on mission trips to minister to human-trafficked Burmese women in Thailand.
Thang Thung, a 26-year-old Chin who as a 14-year-old boy trekked through jungle forests and almost died during the brutal journey to Malaysia, landed in Denver in 2015 without any English skills. Once painfully shy about his inability to speak English, he now readily engages in political and theological conversations in confident English. After earning his high-school diploma, Thang Thung found a job as an electrician and recently received approval for his citizenship. He’s planning to visit his home village soon—the first time he’d be back in 12 years—and hopes to help his native people build a coffee farm.
Both Lah Say and Thang Thung came to the United States with barely any skills or education. Now they’re active helpers in their community. “They’re like birds,” Rairdon said. “They just need a little help, and then they fly on their own.”
Over the years, as the Burmese refugee community burgeoned, the main volunteers for CBRTN have become less white and more brown, as leaders rose within their own peoples. Andrew Thang, a 57-year-old, stocky-built Chin pastor, has the uncanny ability to make even the most doleful refugee break into giggles with his wide smiles and jokes. Ever since he professed faith in Christ at age 13, Thang said he knew he wanted to live for Jesus. He attended seminary in Calcutta, India, and became a missionary to Buddhists in Burma—but the villagers became unhappy when he won converts, and a friend warned him that the government had him marked on its blacklist. Thang fled to Malaysia with his family, applied there for refugee status, and flew to Denver in 2009 with one prayer: “Lord, anywhere I go, I’ll work for you.”
Thang soon worshipped with multiple refugee families in the area. He learned basic English during his years in India, so after meeting Johnson he offered to help translate to refugees. In 2011, CBRTN began paying him a monthly stipend of $800 to minister to refugees full time. Thang said that’s when he knew God had answered his prayer: “God sent me here to a great country so I can continue working for the glory of God.”
Now, Thang daily drives throughout the Denver metropolitan area carrying his backpack and whiteboard, knocking door to door. He befriends people of all ethnic groups—Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Shan, Mon, even Bamar, the majority people in Burma whom Thang once hated. Each day he visits up to seven refugee families, sometimes just popping in to say hello and tickle a wide-eyed baby, other times to pray, help someone buy groceries, or read the mail. His phone rings with calls for help, earning him the nickname “Burma 911.”
I followed the pastor from house to house for three days, and saw the various kinds of problems that refugees face: job insecurity, alcoholism, domestic violence, trauma, loneliness, depression, cultural division between the parents and children. The needs shift as the refugees settle in: War is no longer an issue, but “there’s spiritual war here,” one refugee said. Refugees no longer fight to survive, but they’re still engaged in a battle for their souls.
Thang said not all refugees hunger for God, especially as they gain material wealth. Some refugees call him for benefits but close the door when he talks about Jesus. When they face suffering again, their hearts soften. A Chin family of six avoided Thang until last December, when a car accident left husband and father Zo Ram, 38, paralyzed in an electric wheelchair. The day we visited him, Zo Ram’s legs had atrophied to the size of a child’s, and his wife had to wipe his face and clean his ears for him. He had to quit his work as a carpenter and doesn’t know if he’ll ever walk again. Now Thang visits the family once or twice a week to do Bible studies. As Thang prayed, Zo Ram closed his eyes and repeatedly said “Amen” in a soft voice.
On a Wednesday morning, we visited Li Ling, who still looked shell-shocked at the death of her husband. She spoke little, biting her hair and looking down at the mat whenever someone mentioned him. Whenever her children cry about missing their father, she misses him terribly too. She doesn’t know what to do except cry out, “God, give me strength.”
Recently, a fellow Burmese refugee, a single mother of three kids, donated $120 to CBRTN for “whoever with the greatest need.” Thang delivered that check to Li Ling, and said CBRTN will help Li Ling pay for a lawyer so she can get workers’ compensation because, according to his co-workers, her husband had never received proper safety training.
Before saying goodbye, Thang said, “Some people always say, ‘Just don’t worry.’ But when someone we love dies, we cannot control our feelings. God understands that, and only He can give us strength.”
Li Ling nodded, her eyes still averted, her fingers twisting the check.
Thang went on: “If you do nothing but stress and worry, you will go crazy.” He pointed up: “But Jesus. Jesus. You depend on Him. Only through Jesus, you can still sing hallelujah.” He spread his arms: “Look to Jesus. Give thanks to Jesus.” Then he raised his hands into a benediction and prayed aloud for Li Ling and her family. As he prayed, tears rushed down Li Ling’s face, and her shoulders shook as she sobbed.
“They all need Jesus,” Thang said as we walked out of Li Ling’s apartment complex. “For me, I’m just happy to share the Word of God. CBRTN opened this door for me to plant seeds. How long it’ll take to grow, I don’t know. That’s up to God. I just work for His glory.”
Account balance as of 12/31/2017: $5,394
Yearly stipend to Andrew Thang: $9,600
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