Last week was a period of extremes for the South East Asian state of Burma.
After nearly half a century under the rule of an oppressive military junta, life became a little easier when the government discontinued its 25-year ban on public gatherings. This monumental step is the latest in a series of reforms recently undertaken by the Burmese state.
However, the accession of these civil liberties has been accompanied by heightened ethnic violence between minority rebel groups and the military. Conflict came to a head on Jan. 26, when ABC reported that the Burmese army had captured the last of the Karin militia’s strategic outposts.
Over the years internal strife and government brutality have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Burmese people, according to UNHCR.
Starting this Friday, in the midst of these major developments, four WMU students will begin working to resettle Burmese refugees as part of an innovative course offered through the Global and International Studies curriculum.
In addition to internship placement each student also participates in a three-credit class designed to contextualize their work experience in the broader field of non-governmental organizations.
Collaboration initially began two years ago with Dr. Kostrzewa of the Haenicke Institute and Colleagues International.
“The world is far away and close by, so the point of this is that you can go to Beirut, and you can sit in the American bar in Beirut, surrounded by your familiar culture. It’s like going to he Hilton or something like that all the time, you know very structured, similar environment,” Kostrzewa said.
It wasn’t long however before he was contacted by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (LSSM), which was working with a substantial but surprisingly little-known Burmese community in Battle Creek.
“Colleagues International was the start of this but then you wonder, well how many opportunities are out there for our students that we are not engaging in? Then of course, come to find out just down the street some 20 minutes away, there are 1,000 Burmese refugees and an organization working with them,” Kostrzewa said. “The big surprise was the scale, the scope of the LSSM project.”
Adrianna Neuenschwander works for LSSM coordinating volunteer activities and teaching English as a second language.
She explained that there could be as many as 2,000 Burmese refugees now living in the Battle Creek area. Since resettlement services were first offered in 2005, LSSM has registered 832 people in its program. That figure includes those enrolled up until Feb. 28, 2013.
According to her estimate Battle Creek might lodge the third largest Burmese community in the nation, and she said that number is growing.
“There’s a curve, and right now, we’re at the peak of the curve. Now and maybe in the next year, we’re going to get as many [refugees] as we’ll get, and eventually it’s decreasing,” Neuenschwander said.
The primary Burmese ethnicity in Battle Creek is the Christian Chin, which remain among the most persecuted minorities in the world. Neuenschwander added that last August and September some of their villages were completely burned to the ground by government troops.
So why, despite such destruction, is the refugee ingression curve expected to drop off?
“They’re not a huge ethnic group and Battle Creek isn’t the only place they’ve resettled. I can’t imagine that there’s very many left, which is really sad,” said Neuenschwander.
Even now LSSM maintains a busy work schedule in meeting the needs of their current refugee population. Western’s interns are to play an important role in an array of responsibilities ranging from grant research to conducting bus orientations.
“We’re really limited by our contracts. We can really only work with our clients for 90 days, and obviously 90 days isn’t that long, but interns can work with clients and do anything with clients. I’m not allowed to transfer clients to work because I’m just the English teacher, but if there was a client that didn’t live near an English class and we arranged it with an intern, the intern could drive them, or the intern could take them to the grocery store and teach them different words for all of the different products,” Neuenschwander said.
Matt Pruett was one of two interns to first serve with LSSM through the Global Studies program last summer. Twice a week for eight hours he would go to work writing public relations articles and assisting with English training.
“They taught me a few survival phrases in the Burmese dialect that a lot of our clients spoke so I was able to go to the door and ask for people, ask if they were home, introduce myself. I would do an hour to an hour and a half long English lesson.” Pruett said.
Following his experience with LSSM he was accepted into a position with the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services in California where he works with families in need.
“What got me the position there was I had experience at LSSM teaching English classes which is one of the services they offer at the food bank,” said Pruett.
Emily Naiper is enthusiastically awaiting her chance to assist the Burmese refugee community when her internship begins this Friday.
“With the Global Studies major I feel like a lot of people go in not knowing what they can do with it and they don’t know about a lot of these opportunities,” Naiper said. “Just the fact that I can be involved with this international community a half hour away is really exciting.”