Friday, February 25, 2011

Yearning for "Chinland": A tiny East Bay refugee community celebrates its identity

OAKLAND -- Backed with an acoustic guitar, hand claps and a 15-member country-rock chorus, one of the East Bay's tiniest refugee communities celebrated its heritage and identity Saturday in song.
Their refrain, "Welcome to Chinland," pined for a land their families were forced to flee.
The estimated 150 Chin people living in the Bay Area are refugees from an isolated mountain region of western Myanmar. Most live in Oakland, and most arrived as part of an organized resettlement that began to accelerate three years ago.
The Chin are one of at least a half-dozen ethnic groups from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, whose members are now migrating in the thousands to the United States from refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere. They speak different languages, wear different traditional clothing, eat different food and practice different religions, but they all faced discrimination under the Myanmar military regime -- and they all face similar challenges in adjusting to American life.
"In Burma, the Chin people were living in a remote area," said refugee Salai TluangVelLian. "Now, we are coming together, learning our culture, learning our religion, our perspective. We are learning about each other more here than there."
Flanked by an unofficial Chin flag that features a pair of hornbill birds surrounded by a circle of stars, the refugees gathered inside the gymnasium of Oakland's Cesar Chavez Education Center on Saturday o dance, sing, give speeches and share food. The event marked the 63rd anniversary of Chin National Day, and the third time the day was celebrated in Oakland. It is an occasion they could not celebrate in Myanmar, where their ethnic identity and religion -- most Chin are Christian -- was suppressed, along with their desire for political representation, TluangVelLian said.
"The Burmese regime is trying to dominate and control these groups in such a heavy-handed way and there's a lot of religious persecution, as well," said San Francisco ethnomusicologist Rick Heizman, who has visited Burma more than 20 times since the early 1980s. He was a speaker at the weekend celebration, recounting a recent project to build a new school in the Chin state.
A recent report by Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights surveyed more than 600 households in the Chin state, and found that more than 90 percent had experienced some form of forced labor in the past year. Others said they were victims of religious persecution, beatings, disappearances, torture and rape.
Fearing for his life because of his involvement in human rights activism, TluangVelLian fled his home village in the Chin state for neighboring India in 1999. India, however, does not recognize the Chin as refugees and has expelled thousands, so he eventually made his way to Malaysia, working on Burmese human rights campaigns from there. He moved to San Pablo in 2008.
TluangVelLian now works to help incoming Chin refugees, teaching them how to navigate the transportation system, find jobs and access social services. He has also been trying to work with other Burmese ethnic groups, such as the Karen, who are believed to represent about half of the roughly 500 Burmese refugees living in the East Bay.
"If they need help, we help each other by donating money or contributing our time," he said.
Another Burmese celebration this week will mark the Karen New Year. It happens from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Cesar Chavez Education Center, 2825 International Blvd., in Oakland.
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