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New Burmese Refugees Find Home in Washington Area

Burmese refugees increasingly have resettled in the Washington, D.C. area, and have formed their own community to help each other begin new lives. As VOA's June Soh reports, most of the refugees still have worries about family left behind in a country ruled by a military government. Melinda Smith narrates the story.

Iang Par Hlawn Ceu is trying to adapt to her new life in America. She is a Burmese refugee who arrived in the country four months ago. "My aunt came here nine years ago as an asylee [asylum seeker], so I want to stay with my aunt," she says.

Hlawn Ceu lives in suburban Washington with two other families and a friend. They are part of an emerging Burmese community in the Washington, D.C. area.

Kakoli Ray is the regional director of a resettlement agency, International Rescue Committee, or IRC. She says there has been a dramatic increase in Burmese refugees in the region as well as across the country in the past year. "The U.S. State Department has been resettling Burmese refugees for decades. But it has been sort of on a case-by-case basis – most democracy activists and student activists,” she says. ”But this year, with the waivers granted for certain groups of Burmese refugees including those Burmese in Thailand and Malaysia, the United States has been resettling nearly 14,000 Burmese refugees in all over the country."

Most new arrivals come from refugee camps from countries bordering Burma where they lived illegally for years before being admitted to the U.S.

Hlawn Ceu says she and her businessman husband fled to Malaysia to avoid persecution by Burma's military rulers.

She says living in Malaysia for two years without documents was hard. She had to hide in a small apartment with more than 30 people and shared whatever food they could get. She also said there were constant fears among the refugees of getting arrested by the Malaysian police.

IRC officials say hundreds of thousands of Burmese have fled to countries neighboring Burma, but the Burmese population in the U.S. is relatively small. Still, the Washington area is emerging as a hub for ethnic Chin, a minority that speaks a distinctive language, practices Christianity and hails from western Burma.

Ethnic Chin already have opened five churches around Washington. Duh Kam is a senior pastor at Chin Baptist Mission Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. "The refugee community from Burma has very close ties. The old comers help the newcomers. In my church we have over 300 members. We are looking for ways to help each other," he explains.

Hlawn Ceu already has a job. She works with her husband at a solar energy company in Frederick, Maryland. She says her new life is going smoothly, but she still has fears -- not for her own safety but for her parents and two teenage children still in Burma. She says that since the military government's recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, she has been cut off from any contact with them.

She says she enjoys freedom and living in America, and she has hopes for the future. "I hope one day Burma becomes democracy and a free country and I can visit my parents and bring my children here."