Friday, December 16, 2011

This Christmas, Rossland gives the gift of freedom to six Burmese refugees

The Mi family: grandmother Mya, daughter Layi Pon, and mother May.
The Mi family: grandmother Mya, daughter Layi Pon, and mother May.
 Two families of Mon refugees from Burma will soon move to Rossland thanks to the efforts of the West Kootenay Friends of Refugees (WKFR), a community group formed this summer by Rossland residents. Now WKFR will focus on raising funds to support the families for one year after they arrive in 2013.

"The families' applications for sponsorship have been accepted by Citizenship and Immigration Canada," WKFR member Rachael Roussin wrote in a recent press release. "Now the families will undergo extensive background checks, health exams and personal interviews," a process that is expected to last 18 months.

"Because Rossland is a family friendly community," Roussin wrote, "we wanted to sponsor a family rather than an individual. It was important to WKFR that the new residents would choose to stay in Rossland and contribute to the community. With their kids in school, there is a greater probability that the families will want to stay here as opposed to moving to an urban centre."

The Mon are a minority group with ancient roots in Burma. They are among several ethnic minorities who have suffered extreme persecution since a corrupt and brutal military dictatorship took control of Burma in 1962. Nearly fifty years later, the regime still adds daily to its long and bleak list of human rights abuses.

Gross mismanagement by Burma's despots led to student protests in 1988 that were repressed with bullets and beatings that took the lives of hundreds of civilians. The violence triggered widespread protests and the military killed thousands more "communist infiltrators." Martial law was declared and the 1974 Constitution was swept away under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), an acronym that now conjures images of murder and torture.

In 1989 the military government changed Burma's name to "Myanmar" and moved towards restoring a revised constitution. Multiparty elections were held in May, 1990, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory despite having its two leaders, U Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi — the daughter of national hero Aung San — held under house arrest for a year prior to the election.

But the military wouldn't allow the People's Assembly to convene and kept the NLD's leaders under house arrest. Since that time, little has changed: the military use fear and violence to exert their power as they sell Burma's rich resources to foreign investors. Many people have fled the terrible regime and live in refugee camps in Thailand or Malaysia.

Both families the WKFR have sponsored currently live in refugee camps in Malaysia. The Mi family has been there since October 2006, and the Ma family arrived in December, 2010.

Life is not easy as a refugee, even beyond the day-to-day difficulties of any refugee camp. Malaysian gangs target refugees and there is no chance of settling in Malaysia. Returning to Burma, a land of thousands of political prisoners, is impossible for fear of arrest and further persecution based on ethnicity.

"These families need to find a new country for asylum," said Kathy Moore, who orchestrated the 40-page bureaucratic dance to apply for sponsorship of the refugees through Canadian immigration.

Mi Mya was born in 1956 and worked as a street vendor. She married and had a daughter, Mi May, in 1981. May gave birth to a daughter, Mi Layi Pon, in 2002, the year Mya's husband died. May's husband also died under suspicious circumstances, but no more details were provided. May was forcefully conscripted to cook in a slave labour camp for road construction and a military officer subjected her to "personal violence," Moore said.

Fearing for their safety and the threat of persecution, grandmother Mya, mother May, and daughter Layi Pon fled Burma in 2006. They took ten days to cross the Three Pagoda Pass to Thailand where they were granted refugee status by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

The Ma family have a similar, but more recent story. Ma San Maw was born in 1966, married, and gave birth to a daughter, Banyae Oo, in 1995, and to a son, Nyan Htaw, in 1997.

On Dec. 17, 2010, the military arrested San Maw's husband. Three days later, San Maw was also arrested and put in a detention centre where she endured personal violence at the hands of a military officer. She had a hearing on Dec. 21 and was told to return on Dec. 28. She didn't wait to find out what the charges would be and fled with her two children across the Three Pagoda Pass.

There has been no sign of San Maw's husband, and he is presumed dead. Meanwhile, San Maw has been waiting for a refugee interview with UNHCR — The UN puts claimants for refugee status through a stringent process before officially recognizing them as someone who is outside their country and unable to return due to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

While San Maw awaits the UN's scrutiny, all six refugees will soon be subject to Canadian scrutiny, a process that is expected to last 18 months. In the meantime, WKFR will focus on raising donations and community awareness to support the families when they arrive.

"As refugee sponsors," Roussin explained, "WKFR is responsible for covering all living expenses for the first year or until they become financially self-sufficient, whichever comes first. WKFR’s fundraising goal is $20,000 by the time the families arrive in Rossland."

To help reach this goal, they have started an innovative fundraising strategy: people can sign up at the Nelson and District Credit Union to make monthly contributions of any size, with tax receipts provided by the East Kootenay Friends of Burma (EKFB).

The EKFB is a registered charity and society that has sponsored refugees to come to interior BC for 27 years and is the umbrella organization for WKFR, the Nelson Friends of Burma, and the Calgary Friends of Burma. The EKFB is entirely voluntary and all funds collected are put toward refugee sponsorships.

"No donation is too small," Roussin said. Small, automatic monthly donations "make it easy and painless" to contribute to the sponsorships, she said. Moore emphasized, "I'm really hoping people will sign up for five bucks a month, ten bucks a month, forty bucks a month, whatever it is."

The WKFR began soon after a group of Rossland residents were inspired by a presentation given by the EKFB at the home of Kate Mahoney this summer. Mahoney is herself an inspiring Rosslander with 12 years of international experience in post-conflict relief and development, but she is not directly involved with WKFR due to her work with UNHCR.

"I am really pleased with how fast the WKFR have come together,"  Moore said about the group that also includes Susan and Marty Shaw, Jan Micklethwaite, Jana O'Brien, Christine Demarco, Dave Cornelius, and most recently, Nicola Everton.

"It's really exciting, here's something we can do," Moore said. "There are so many big problems in the world. It's small, but hugely meaningful for the people we're helping. We have so much and yet so many people have so little."

"I also think this is a fantastic opportunity for Rossland," Moore added. "We're excited to welcome these kids to Rossland while they're still young enough to go to our high school. It's a great learning opportunity for cultural expansion for the whole town."

To donate or set up monthly contributions, visit the NDCU and reference the account for West Kootenay Friends of Refugees (NDCU #40005710). For more information or to get involved with the West Kootenay Friends of Refugees contact Kathy Moore at 250-362-3319. For more information about refugee sponsorship in general, visit www.ekfriendsofburma.org and www.calgaryfriendsofburma2.com.