The path these 200 revelers took to the volleyball net on the lawn of the Calvary Baptist Church on Hastings Street Saturday was anything but typical, but it certainly was very American.
They are refugees from Burma, many of whom spent years living in overcrowded camps on the Thai/Burmese border, with no opportunity to get an education. Relocated to Lowell by the U.S. State Department, they are working toward their American dream in the Mill City, with the assistance of a dedicated group of a half-dozen Burmese-American volunteers helping them to become self-sufficient.
“The goal is to empower them,” said Ardeth Thawnghmung, a political-science professor at UMass Lowell, who along with her husband James has been assisting Lowell’s Burmese refugees since they began arriving in 2007. “We do not want to perpetuate this culture of dependency; we want to show them they can be self-sufficient and not rely on welfare.”
Today, there are approximately 200 Burmese refugees living in Lowell. About 30 families who were originally placed here have since moved to other parts of the country due to the high cost of living in Massachusetts, Ardeth said.
Refugees arrive here with nothing, and speaking little or no English. They receive $450 in start-up money, eight months of Medicaid, food stamps and welfare upon settlement in this country. Refugees are granted $428 per month in assistance for a single person, with an additional $105 per family member.
The Thawnghmungs have worked with the Lowell Public Schools to secure interpreters and aides who speak Burmese, as well as Karen, the language of the minority group to which most of the city’s refugees belong.
They also worked with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas’ office to pressure the Registry of Motor Vehicles to allow the Burmese, like the Cambodians, to use an interpreter when taking their driver’s license test.
“It is so important, especially for the working moms, to be able to drive as soon as they can to help them become self-sufficient while they learn English and get a job,” Adeth said.
The Burmese women have a tradition of weaving beautiful fabrics that can be used as scarves, table clothes, curtains and for a variety of other uses. They have begun selling them at the Lowell Farmers Market, giving them the confidence they can be successful here and lift themselves up on their own abilities and talents.
The Thwanghmungs and a small group of other Burmese-Americans recently founded the SayDaNar (Goodwill) Community Development Center. Working on a zero budget they have secured volunteers, like Kyaw Thiha, of Worcester a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute who is now in graduate school studying education administration, to tutor the children in math and English.
“We have seen a drastic improvement in their skills,” said Ardeth. “There are some very bright, talented students.”
Thirty children took part in the center’s summer school program, working to learn English and push themselves to the same level as their American counterparts.
“I remember how difficult it was to get the services we wanted, to get into the school we wanted,” he said. “You need to work hard, harder than your classmates. Through hard work you will achieve what a lot of people before you have achieved.”
Burma achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948, and the people lived under a democratic, parliamentary government until 1962. At that time, a military coup unraveled the nation’s constitution, plunging the Texas-sized country, nestled between Thailand and India, into a military-run, socialist government.
On Sept. 8, 1988, student-led demonstrations against the repressive military junta ended in tragedy as the government killed more than 1,000 demonstrators. Thousands more, primarily those from the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, fled to refugee camps along the Burma-Thai border. In 1989, the military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, a change not recognized or accepted by the democratic opposition or the United States government.
in 2010, the first multiparty elections in 20 years were held. The pro-government party took an overwhelming victory, in an election U.S. and European officials dismissed as a sham.
Voters told the BBC they were not allowed to vote in private. Opposition groups alleged government employees were pressured to vote for the pro-military party. Foreign journalists and election monitors were not allowed in the country and more than 1.5 million voters were disenfranchised because the government deemed their location a place “too dangerous” in which to vote.
Since 2005, more than 40,000 Burmese refugees have been relocated to the United States.
I first became acquainted with Lowell’s Burmese refugees in March 2009, meeting with a group who had arrived just the day before, in a Bowers Street apartment. It was there, Thawnh Hu, then 31-years-old, shared his life story through a translator.
Hu, who arrived in the U.S. with only the clothes on his back, had been forced into a life of hard labor, building railroad tracks seven days a week in his native Burma. Later, he was nearly beaten to death in a prison run by the Burmese military.
His story is that of many of his countrymen.
But on Saturday, none of the pain of their former lives was visible. As the married men battled the single men in volleyball, their “fans” cheered and screamed in English, Burmese and Karen.
When the rope was revealed for tug-of-war it was all hands on deck, as women, men and children flocked to competed in the world’s oldest feat of strength and teamwork.