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Burmese Professor Fights for Democracy - 2002-04-12

English Feature #7-33483 Broadcast March 27, 2000

Nearly 3,000 people enter the United States each day with the intention of settling here. Not all remain, but many do put down roots and become part of the fabric of American society. Each week on New American Voices you will meet some of these new Americans, and hear them talk about their life and their experiences here.

What makes someone decide to leave family and friends and everything that is familiar, and venture into the unknown by emigrating. There are as many reasons as there are individuals making the move, but one thing can be said of all of them. Emigration is by no means easy, so the motivation usually has to be pretty compelling.

Dr. Zarni is a professor of education at National Louis University in Chicago. He came to the United States from Burma - a process which required planning and patience.

"I came to the U.S. because I wanted to have an American education, especially at the graduate level, because the U.S. offers arguably the best higher education now in the world. In terms of how I got here, I used to work as an English teacher in Mandalay, and then I joined the government tourism agency with the twin purpose of improving my English through interaction with English-speaking tourists and to make friends so that I would be in a position to leave the country and come to the U.S."

And indeed it was through the help of a friend that he made through his work in the tourism office that Dr. Zarni was able to eventually emigrate to the United States. Here he enrolled in college and then in graduate school, and after 9 years of study earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Wisconsin.

Dr. Zarni has not forgotten his homeland. Quite the contrary. As a student, together with other Burmese students and American friends he founded the organization "Free Burma Coalition" to promote democracy in Burma through raising public awareness about the political situation in that country.

"We are among the pioneers in the world that use the Internet to promote the cause of freedom specifically for Burma. Our case has been studied in different university courses, doctoral dissertations and masters' theses have been written about how the Burmese have taken advantage of the information technology for their country's freedom."

In addition to raising public awareness of the issue of human rights in Burma, Dr. Zarni's organization works to influence American and other foreign companies not to do business with Burma and its military rulers.

Dr. Zarni hopes to return to Burma someday. For now he teaches, and plays an active role in the work of the Free Burma Coalition. In addition, he and his wife are the parents of a six-month old girl. What does he do in his spare time?

"In my leisure - well, I hardly have any leisure, but if I do, I love to walk around and look at people on the street. Because America has so many different people from so many different cultures and races, and so many of them retain their cultural identities and speak their languages while trying to start a new life in the United States."

Another new American trying to start a new life in this country is Adrian Chira, who emigrated to the United States five years ago with his wife and critically ill son.

"I came from Romania six years ago for the first time. My oldest son was born with spina bifida in Romania so the doctors couldn't help him at all there."

A child born with spina bifida basically has a cleft in the spine. The condition requires complicated surgery and constant medical attention. A Baptist missionary to whom Andrew Chira turned for help was able to interest the University of Virginia's hospital in the baby's case, and to facilitate the family's trip to the United States for treatment.

"My son had two surgeries and that same year we went back to Romania. Five years ago we came back for a follow-up and we have been advised to stay here so he can get the medical treatment that he needs for the longer term."

Next week on New American Voices Adrian Chira will talk about his family's experiences in settling in the United States. We'll also talk with the missionary who was instrumental in saving the life of the Chira baby by making it possible for little Gino to come to America for treatment.