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Chin refugees help each other as they adapt to new life

by Virginia de Leon

After escaping abuse as a minority in Burma and a struggle for survival in India and Malaysia, Chin refugees settling in Spokane find support from World Relief, local churches and their own community to meet their needs as they adjust to a new way of life here.

Duh Ceu
Duh Ceu and Biak both have master of divinity degrees.

Refugees from Burma who have formed the Spokane Chin Church come from, connect with and have been resettled by a variety of churches, including American Baptist, Catholic, Church of the Nazarene and Pentecostal. 

Despite their differences, they gather weekly for an evangelical-style worship led by Duh Ceu, the pastor, and others in the church.

The Chin community, refugees who fled their homeland, support each other and find ways to help each other meet their needs.

For example, because few have cars, they found volunteers to help transport the 80 members to church Sunday evenings using two vans and five cars.

On a recent Sunday, the first group of families arrived at First Church of the Nazarene in North Spokane about half an hour before the 7 p.m. service.  Gradually, the crowd grew as vehicles made their rounds.  After setting up chairs in one of the church’s classrooms, the people began to sing and pray in their native language.

This growing congregation started out with half a dozen people two years ago. 

First, they met at the local office of World Relief, a Christian organization that responds to humanitarian crises around the globe and assists with resettling victims of war and persecution as they seek refuge in the United States. 

The Chin are among dozens of ethnic groups in Burma, called Myanmar by its military leaders. 

The Chin, who are Christian—mostly Baptist—are the second largest ethnic group in Burma, which is predominantly Buddhist, said Duh Ceu.

“We have suffered because of our religion,” he said, explaining one reason they left their homeland.

According to a 2008 U.S. State Department report, the authoritarian regime in Burma has committed human rights abuses against the Chin and other ethnic minorities, especially those who want democracy. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the persecution.  Spokane is now home to more than 500—about 340 from the Karen ethnic group, two Karenni families and about 186 Chin, said Linda Unseth, director of World Relief’s Spokane office.

The government’s abuses include the killing, disappearances, rape and torture of citizens, she said.  The army attacks villages of ethnic minorities—burning down their homes, destroying their farmland and forcing people, including children, to labor without pay or join the military.

Unlike the Karen, who went to refugee camps in Thailand, the Chin had no place to go when they fled their native home of Chin State in Burma.  Some sought safety in India, which shares a border with Chin State.  Others escaped to Malaysia, she said. 

There, they spent many years as urban, undocumented refugees, competing for jobs in poverty-stricken communities and enduring daily harassment and abuse. 

Although unrecognized by the governments of India and Malaysia, some of the Chin in those countries have gained refugee status and documents through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, enabling them to resettle in Spokane and other communities in the United States, she explained.

According to Linda and Duh Ceu, many of the Chin in Spokane lived in Malaysia two to six years after fleeing Burma.  Because the journey to freedom is arduous and fraught with danger, only the strongest survive.  Often, they are younger people who leave parents and other loved ones behind.

As a result, none of the Chin here is over 50 years old and only four members of the Chin church are over 40, Linda said.  Most are between 20 and 33 years old.  Those who are married but arrived alone have filed petitions for visas for spouses and children.  They may wait many years, she said.

The Chin community in Spokane quickly doubled, then tripled.  Since late 2006, nearly 200 people from the Chin ethnic group have moved here, said Linda.  More are expected in the coming year.

After a few months, the local Chin population could no longer fit in World Relief’s office.  So Linda and her husband, the Rev. Stan Unseth, turned to their own church community to help the Chin people. 

First Church of the Nazarene opened its doors to the refugees, providing worship space and a church van for transportation.

Every Sunday, Stan volunteers as a van driver.  He also enlisted a friend, Jerry Deatherage, to drive a second van owned by Westside Church of the Nazarene, where Stan was pastor for several years. 

They and a few others drive to apartment buildings in North Spokane to transport members of the Chin community to and from First Church of the Nazarene.

“When a church becomes involved, it’s usually a process,” explains Linda, who spends many hours each week doing volunteer work to support the Chin church.  “We start by seeing what the needs are and then respond to them.”

First Church of the Nazarene first offered its children’s ministry room as worship space.  Now, a few of its members are bringing groceries, clothing, bedding, coats and other items to help the Chin. 

Some come to the refugees’ Sunday evening service and participate in their celebrations. 

“The people at First Church are  supportive,” Linda said.

The Chin are grateful to be here, said Duh Ceu, who moved here nearly two years ago and works as a caseworker for World Relief. 

Life in Spokane poses its share of new challenges with difficulty finding jobs, adjusting to a new lifestyle and learning English.

The Chin language and its many dialects uses a Latin script, like English, but its structure differs significantly from the language they are trying to learn.  Because many have focused on survival for many years, few have attended school, which makes second language acquisition more difficult.

However, Duh Ceu and his wife, Biak, who are expecting their first child in June, both have master of divinity degrees and are leaders in the local Chin community. 

“We try to help each other,” said Biak.

A few months ago, the Chin community pooled their money to buy an old van they use to assist new Chin refugees.  They use it to drive to the Spokane Airport to welcome new arrivals. 

Along with volunteers from World Relief, representatives of the Chin community escort newcomers to their apartments and provide them with a hot meal of traditional Chin delicacies and enough food to eat for the coming days.

For information, call 232-2818.