Lian Kip Thang and his wife left an agricultural village where they spent their whole lives among about 1,000 people. The landscape in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was marked by rice paddies.
In June, speaking from the Frederick house basement where they were living, his wife, Uap Khan Huai, said through an interpreter that residents of their village were poor and the climate didn’t always support agriculture. Particularly with children, it would have been difficult to survive if they stayed.
Lian Kip Thang, who didn’t want to provide details about his situation, said through an interpreter that the government was a factor that spurred him to flee his home for Malaysia.
“Because of political reasons, he left very sneakily …,” Lian Kip Thang said through interpreter Aung Phyo, a case manager for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that resettles predominately Burmese refugees in Frederick County. Burmese names don’t include a surname and are used in full in all references.
Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the IRC’s Baltimore and Silver Spring offices, estimated that over about seven years, the organization has resettled roughly 100 refugees in Frederick County, which has the third largest Burmese community in Maryland. Most Burmese refugees who the agency resettles go to Baltimore and Howard counties.
The IRC only will resettle refugees in Frederick County if they have relatives, or “anchors,” living there. The area’s Burmese community existed before the resettlement agency got involved in the county, Chandrasekar said.
As refugees from Myanmar build new homes in the county, they can find support within the local Burmese community, as well as from other people and groups offering to play a role in their lives. A few area religious groups either started or are considering joining that network.
For the Asian American Center of Frederick, which has played a significant role in that support network for years, providing assistance to refugees is difficult. The nonprofit could use more support from the IRC, according to Executive Director Elizabeth Chung.
Refugees resettling in a new country tackle tasks such as learning a language, finding a job, navigating various appointments and adjusting to school.
“Self sufficiency is [the] number one goal for the IRC,” Aung Phyo said.
Chandrasekar said in early July that the IRC was on track to resettle about 1,200 refugees from various countries in Maryland in fiscal 2016, ending in September.
Resettlement in Frederick County has been successful for several reasons, he said. Refugees get support from families, as well as other parts of a social network that includes religious and other community groups.
Frederick city has been welcoming to refugees as they get services, he said. Clients have found jobs.
Most Burmese refugees who come to the county are from Myanmar’s Chin state, belonging to an ethnic minority that has faced persecution from the government, Aung Phyo said.
“They face very harsh conditions where they live, so a lot of them end up making that treacherous journey to Malaysia to seek refuge and to start working there and apply at the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] offices there,” Aung Phyo said.
Aung Phyo, who works primarily in Baltimore, has been a case manager for about eight months, though Frederick-area clients might have trouble getting to his office. The agency helps clients apply for Social Security cards, find employment and connect with the county health department.
In Baltimore city, he said, the agency has partnerships that bolster their resettlement work, including with housing companies, hospitals and the area community college.
“These are established over the past 10 years, whereas in Frederick, we don’t have that,” he said.
In the Frederick area, relatives play a crucial role helping newcomers. Multiple pastors have a key part in the Burmese community’s strong support system, Aung Phyo said.
Getting newer residents integrated into the larger Frederick-area community has been a challenge. They are often unaware of events and face a language barrier, Aung Phyo said. He hopes local organizations help introduce refugees to different aspects of community life.
“They came here to find a new home and to work hard and to become productive members of society and not being integrated in the community, I think it’s hard to have that sense of belonging, essentially if nobody knows that you’re here,” he said.
Aung Phyo, who described positive reactions to refugees in the area, said residents from outside the Burmese community could learn more about their neighbors by attending church-held events. Media coverage about refugees has included negative depictions, he said.
“The best form of education is exposure, I think,” he said.
‘Good to be here’
After reaching Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, around 2005, Lian Kip Thang found a job in a restaurant. He lived among others from Myanmar who fled for similar reasons.
“He said that nobody wants to leave their home, but when you face difficulties and you have to go, you just have to go,” Aung Phyo said, interpreting for Lian Kip Thang.
Uap Khan Huai and their young daughter joined Lian Kip Thang about three years later, following the same dangerous route. Over several years, Lian Kip Thang and Uap Khan Huai went through a process that included intense interviews at U.N. offices to determine that they were really refugees.
Taking little with them, the family began their journey to Frederick last fall to join Lian Kip Thang’s brother, whom he hadn’t seen for about eight years.
“To know that he’s not here alone gives him strength,” Aung Phyo said, interpreting for Lian Kip Thang.
As of June, Lian Kip Thang had a job at Canam Steel Corp. and Uap Khan Huai was attending a night ESL class three times a week. Their 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son were on summer break from Lincoln Elementary School.
Lian Kip Thang and Uap Khan Huai have connected with others in the Burmese community through the church they attend and through Lian Kip Thang’s job, where many coworkers are Burmese.
Not speaking English is hard, Lian Kip Thang said through Aung Phyo, as is relying on others for transportation. But he feels safer in Frederick.
He’s close to his job and a health department office. A pastor has provided transportation for the family to various appointments. He said he’s grateful for the IRC, which provided support “before he was able to stand on his feet.”
He has a long list of things he wants to do, he said, such as finding an apartment for his family and getting his driver’s license.
“There’s a lot more opportunity [in the U.S.] for him to grow as long as he works hard, he can grow, essentially,” Aung Phyo said, interpreting for Lian Kip Thang.
“He just said it’s good to be here.”
Rebecca Melby said that, in a talk broadcast in April, a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members around the world to look for ways to serve refugees.
That talk helped spur the church’s Frederick Maryland Stake — which consists of nine wards, or congregations, in the area — to connect with the IRC, said Melby. She leads the stake’s Relief Society, a women’s organization.
Jane Vandre, who attends the stake’s Braddock Heights ward, recently began volunteering as a mentor for Lian Kip Thang and Uap Khan Huai’s family through the IRC. She and her husband invited the family over for dinner, a chance to learn more about each other’s lives.
Vandre visits Uap Khan Huai at their home to help her improve her English. The two go out to practice with other people.
She said she is grateful to play a small part to help the family in their new home and sees the relationship becoming “an ongoing friendship”. She doesn’t expect them to stop missing the home they had to leave.
“But the main thing is that they feel welcome and they feel that this helps them,” she said.
Rabbi Jordan Hersh said Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick is considering working with the IRC, but doesn’t have an official decision. An IRC representative spoke with congregants at the synagogue in May.
“I think overall people really liked the idea,” Hersh said.
Service work would tie into the Biblical narrative of the Jewish people, who were refugees when they left Egypt and have been strangers in a strange land, he said.
“We hope it works out,” he said.
The Rev. Cin Do Thawng, senior pastor at Sizang Burmese Mission Church, said his church works to meet the daily needs of refugees in the Frederick area, from transportation to job applications.
The growth of the area’s Burmese community is largely due to refugees joining it, Cin Do Thawng said. The interwoven community consists of many relatives and friends. The county offers a good spot to resettle, but finding a job can be difficult because of the language barrier.
“They have more security for their life,” he said of the refugees’ relocation to the U.S.
It is sometimes “very difficult” that the IRC doesn’t have a local office and offer more support, Cin Do Thawng said. The church, he said, is stepping up to meet the varied needs that refugees have in a new country.
“This way the community [is] helping them,” he said.
A struggling ‘safety net’
Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, said the IRC should work more closely with local resources. She would like the agency to provide funding to her organization as part of a partnership.
“Nobody can really be 100 percent assimilated” in the eight- or nine-month period the agency provides services for each resettlement case, she said.
“After nine months, they come to me for whatever else they need because the resettlement office is done with them,” she said. She added that the distance from the agency’s office means its staff isn’t always accessible.
The center provides assistance for refugees and other clients, such as English classes, citizenship services, and communication help with employers and schools.
Chung said her organization, a main safety net for area refugees, is struggling to meet the demand for services it faces. Funds from the IRC would be a much-needed boost.
Chandrasekar said the IRC receives “very limited funds” to serve clients. The agency is happy to work with other nonprofits, but it can’t fund them.
About 85 percent of the agency’s clients are self-sufficient within six months, he said, meaning they have found employment and can cover their basic expenses.
Chandrasekar said the IRC has in the past floated the idea of an office in the county, but that hasn’t gained any ground.
“If there were partners in Frederick who would like us to engage in that dialogue, then we’d be happy to have it,” he said.