The Kent Public Library lets people check out books and media for a week at a time. Helen Cer and Dolla Nung don’t have a library card, but their neighbors do, and the couple jumps at any opportunity to visit the library to borrow books or movies.
They’re hungry for more to learn and more DVDs to watch on their constantly playing television. For the last week, the family has been watching a Hindi film, Bumm Bumm Bole, which tells the story of two children living in poverty under a terrorist regime.
“We feel very lonely at home,” Helen says. “We borrow as many DVD cassettes as we can. It helps to have the television on.”
The family has been in America for just under two months, and the upcoming Christmas holiday is making them think even more of home than they had before. Their enthusiasm over being in the country recedes to make room for something else: loneliness. Helen doesn’t wish to return to Malaysia or Burma, but she does miss human interaction outside her own family. Although she’s grateful to be safe in a host country, she feels listless without people or purpose in her life.
Helen barely speaks Hindi, but she spends afternoon after afternoon watching Bumm Bumm Bole anyway, and by now, she can figure out the basic plot. She doesn’t need to understand everything; the comfort of other voices and people in her living room is enough to her. It makes her feel like she’s back in the large community she left.
These days, she’s missing Malaysia, where she was constantly surrounded by her large, unofficial family of refugees from a multitude of nations. It’s a small consolation to watch the film’s protagonists, two siblings whose parents can only afford one pair of shoes, so the children wear them in turns to go to school.
“I feel pity on them,” Helen says. “They are so poor.”
Not long ago, Helen was in a similar state of poverty. Although her farming community in Burma yielded some produce, exploitation by the Myanmar army often stripped them of resources. And in Malaysia, money depended on finding under-the-table work. Refugees have sympathy that is contagious; their experience with poverty makes them more generous, while their experience with exploitation makes them more industrious.
When Dolla lived in Burma, the village was a three-day walk from the nearest town – without a road. A couple of years ago, members of the village banded together to wind a crude road through the jungle to the nearest town, making it easier for villagers to get outside resources.
“They do it all by themselves,” Dolla says. “They pay for it all – they save up for years, the government did not do it. The government never gives anything.”
He chuckles as if the idea of government-driven social programs were ludicrous.
Helen and Dolla come from a culture where community is huge: their village in Burma helped them when food was low, when the Tatmadaw was searching for them, when they needed someone to watch their children. Long before he met Helen, Dolla was supporting her parents by sending money to them while he worked in Singapore. In such a persecuted climate, Helen and Dolla had nothing but their community. Now, they’ve escaped persecution, but lost their community. They’re lonely.
“I feel like I am home”
The Chin are one of about one hundred ethnic minority groups in Burma who are facing persecution from the main Burmese ethnic group, the Bamar. Because most of the minority groups practice either Christianity or Islam and the Bamar is predominately Buddhist, lines between ethnic and religious persecution have blurred, and many of the persecuted people feel pressure to convert to Buddhism. Muslims in particular face pressure because they aren’t recognized as citizens of the country and have generally been used as scapegoats for any problems in the country, whether political or social, since 9/11.
The Chin people are about 90 percent Christian as a result of U.S. missionaries that worked in western Burma, where most of the Chin population is concentrated, in the nineteenth century. Tatmadaw persecution tactics range from forced labor, torture, and rape to confiscation and destruction of property, according to a study by Physicians for Human Rights.
In addition to these acts, the Tamadaw often targets religious symbols and worship centers for destruction, mostly as an act to prove its power over minority groups, according to Human Rights Watch.
Because the Chin people are largely Christian, in Helen and Dolla’s Chin village, church was a community affair, and holidays a staple to villagers’ church lives.
Every Christmas, one village household hosts the rest of the community for a sermon, prayer, and food. Everyone pools resources to feed the entire village, and it is customary for children to be given new clothing. Holidays are funded by the combined force of the entire village. If one Chin child’s parents can’t afford clothing, other villagers pitch in. Christmas is the only time children get new clothes all year; church is the only time the whole village comes together as one.
Once the Helen, Dolla, and Albert moved to Malaysia, church became a rare treat. Although theirs is a spirituality that calls for weekly worship, getting to the nearest Christian church took the better part of a day. They had no choice but to limit their visits to three a year, but because Chin refugees in Malaysia shared their crowded apartments, the family had a makeshift community within which to live and worship.
By December, Helen and Dolla learn that in America, there’s a Chin church they can get to whenever they want, and with it comes a community even bigger than the one they had in Burma. Because of the high refugee population in Kent, many local churches donate their buildings to different ethnic groups so that they can worship the way they did at home. Sequoia Baptist Church in Kent donates its facilities twice a week: once for services hosted in Chin, and once for services hosted in Spanish.
The pastor at the Chin Community Church has only been in America two weeks longer than Helen and Dolla’s family has. Everything about the refugee community is makeshift and fluid – thrown together one day and always subject to change at a moment’s notice – but the church feels like a community that has been around for years.
Chin refugees from within a thirty-mile radius come to the Sunday afternoon services, but most of them don’t have cars. The church owns one ten-seat van, so every Sunday, one of the congregation members leaves the parking lot in the early hours of morning and begins a shuttle service, branching out from the church in all directions to get refugees and bring them to worship.
“Getting to church is so easy in America,” Helen says. “Now, we can go every week.”
But it’s not that easy for those who depend on the shuttle service, and most refugees do. Nobody knows when the van will arrive to pick them up – it might be eight in the morning, or it might be one in the afternoon. The family takes turns watching the parking lot of their apartment complex from their windows, waiting for the Chin Community Fellowship van to arrive.
Once it does, they pile in, children in back, and set off for to pick up the next refugee. Teenagers sit in the back of the bus, sometimes singing along as one of them plays guitar, sometimes urging the driver to twirl the radio dial until it hits a Top 40 station – although it never stays there long. As soon as LMFAO open a chorus with, “I’m sexy and I know it,” the adults in front burst into laughter and change the station to soft rock, and the teenagers groan in protest.
It takes at least 45 minutes for the family to get to church, though it often takes longer if they’re the first to be picked up on that van run. When they get to the church, they pool into the foyer and are met by the warm shout of greetings that erupt every time any refugees arrive. Most Chin women wear their traditional clothing to the service, so the room is alive with color as they move about the room, their vibrant skirts swaying behind them.
“I feel like I am home,” Helen says.
Chin church services are a collective affair. Members of the congregation – mostly children – come up to the pew and sing or recite verses from memory, reverting to Hakha-Chin for the service alone, as if the Chin style of worship were too sacred to be marred by slippery English speech. Between each recitation or solo, the congregation claps and joins in song.
Worship songs spring from the backbone of hundreds of Chin hands clapping out a beat, their voices repeating a simple chorus. At the front of the church stands one Chin girl, newly adolescent, clenching her hands before her in nervousness. But when her time comes to join as the leader of the call-and-response song, her voice is strong and pure: she leans her head back and yells praises to the sky.
Next, Ruth Tuan Cuai, the pastor’s wife, takes the pew to lead prayer.
“Oh, hallelujah, hallelujah,” she says before diverting into Chin to thank God for his redemptive qualities, sprinkling her hallelujah mantra throughout. She finishes where she starts: “Oh, hallelujah, hallelujah,” she says, again and again in a rising crescendo until she is yelling it toward the sky, her arms punching the air for emphasis. She pauses, and then softly begins her cries of hallelujah once more, leaning forward until she is hunched over the pew, gripping its sides, weeping “Oh, hallelujah, hallelujah,” she says, her voice heaving as she inhales sharply, her sobs echoing dissonance in the high-ceiling sanctuary.
The congregation takes this as their cue, and they spring into a group prayer. In rapid Hakha-Chin, they offer individual prayers aloud, twisting together until the church is full of the joys and grievances of the Chin people. For a quarter of an hour they pray, some on their feet, some on their knees, until gradually, the volume diminishes. Finally, only one elderly Chin woman’s voice is the last in the room, her prayer sharp with emphasis and dissonant with pain.
“We are from Burma, but we are not Burmese”
After the service, the congregation floods back to the foyer, where rows of picnic tables line the walls. Fliers in Hakha-Chin, Spanish, and English dot the bulletin board, and pastor San Lal Hming Thang and his wife bring out large vats of coffee, pastries and breads.
At once, a paper plate with several doughnuts is pressed into everyone’s hands. The youth of the church bring singed, overly sweetened coffee to everyone, and a time of fellowship begins. Helen and Dolla are immediately engulfed in welcome to their new Chin community, which is larger than even the one they had in Burma. Albert Pui is soon enlisted by some other teenagers to go sit in the corner, where they laugh and sing along as one boy plays guitar.
The service was almost three hours long, so the van immediately starts to make its rounds, taking refugees back to their apartments in the neighboring cities. Refugees who have been working in the country long enough to get a job offer rides to those who would otherwise be waiting for hours to get home. For Chin refugees, church is an all-day commitment.
Steven offers Helen and Dolla a ride in an SUV borrowed from a friend, so they find Albert and pile in the back with several other refugees who live in the same complex. Once more, the teenagers claim the back row, spending this journey testing out English words.
“How you say – ‘excuse’?” Albert asks, and they all try it out.
Hakha-Chin words are sharp and angular, so allowing syllables to slide across the refugees’ tongues feels alien. They taste the word again and again with different emphases, squeezing the x and s sounds into hisses.
“Well, ex-cuuu-s-e me!” Albert says, and the entire vehicle falls into laughter as Steven drives closer to their new homes, his high-beam headlights on, oblivious to the signification of the headlights flashing in protest from every car he passes.
By the time the family gets home, it’s dark, and all that can be seen in their apartment complex parking lot is distorted reflections of the streetlights above. Dolla and Helen are exhausted; they’ve become unaccustomed to spending entire days out of the house. They climb the steps to their second-floor apartment, Rachel asleep against Dolla’s chest.
When they open the door to their dingy apartment, their eyes scan the room, from the bright red clock that hangs from the wall, still on its cardboard backing, to the bright crayon drawings Albert hung to cheer the place. Helium balloons, a gift for Rachel, hang half-deflated from the spokes of the ceiling fan and on hover just above the floor, nearly defeated. Walking back into this apartment is like awakening from a dream of being back at home in Burma.
As he wishes Albert a good night, Dolla spots the mail on the table, and he remembers again the impending end of his resettlement period. At that time, the monthly funding from World Relief will stop. He knows some of the mail is asking him to pay money, but he can’t tell what all of it is. The week before, he’d called the phone number listed on an application for a credit card, and since then, the family has been getting calls in large volumes from telemarketers, though they have never encountered the idea of such pervasive advertising and don’t know how to handle the calls.
“They call so many times,” Dolla says. “I’m afraid to answer.”
But he must, because he’s terrified of doing something wrong in America and losing his new home or being sent back to Malaysia. And he knows the greatest wrong he could do is being unemployed.
“World Relief give us every month cash money, four hundred dollars,” he says. “It last for three months. Later, if we don’t get job, I don’t know what to do – I just don’t know.”
He lays Rachel on the couch before sinking into a chair at their kitchen table, his head in his hands. Helen sits across from him, reaching her arm out to grasp his arm. Back in their apartment, they’re back to sitting, waiting, and worrying, until Sunday comes again and they can step back into their Chin community. For them, that’s what feels more like home to them than the jungle encased Burmese village they came from.
“We are from Burma, but we are not Burmese,” Helen says. ‘We are Chin.”