Like many others in his native Myanmar, Thalian Cung aligned himself with a pro-democracy group that opposed the country’s military dictatorship.
Then someone told the kindergarten teacher that the army was looking to arrest him.
So Cung fled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, 12 years ago and began an odyssey that included stops in Guam, Bowling Green, Ky., Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla.
Now central Ohio is his home, and Cung works stamping auto parts at a Honda supplier in West Jefferson. He lives in a two-bedroom West Side apartment with his wife, two young sons, and two brothers-in-law.
“Many Burmese refugees live in this area,” he said yesterday, the flag of his Chin ethnic group displayed over his head on a wall in his apartment.
Nearly 500 Myanmar refugees now live in Columbus, said Hai Vung, pastor of Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church on W. Lane Avenue.
And more are coming.Last year, 15,713 refugees from Myanmar arrived in the United States — 91,408 since 2002, the most from any country, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, which is releasing new data in honor of World Refugee Day, which is today.
On Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Community Refugee and Immigration Services is hosting a celebration at Columbus International High School, 3940 Karl Rd., featuring food, performances and artwork.
From 2002 to 2011, the U.N said, 6,621 refugees moved to Columbus, which ranks the city 18th nationwide. Cleveland had 1,950 refugees, followed by Akron with 1,899 and Cincinnati with 936.
Phoenix led the nation with 14,707.In 2011, Columbus gained 541 refugees, ranking the city 27th nationwide.
Last year, 51,458 refugees resettled in the United States.
Cities across Ohio that have been losing residents, such as Cleveland and Dayton, are encouraging refugees to move there to fill vacant houses, said Evelyn Bissonnette, Ohio’s refugee coordinator.
Columbus is an attractive place for agencies to resettle refugees because of low housing costs and a decent pool of entry-level jobs, such as warehousing or housekeeping at hotels, she said.
“The vast majority of refugees are looking for employment, to become self-sufficient,” Bissonnette said.
In addition to stamping auto parts, Cung said he and his wife, Suit Hlei Tial, also run a sushi bar at a Hilliard Kroger store. Cung said he works at least 60 hours a week at both jobs.
The U.S. State Department contracts with nine American agencies to place people in this country. Those agencies work with local groups such as Community Refugee and Immigration Services and US Together in Columbus.
The U.S. government has been working to resettle refugees in more cities so they’re not concentrated in a handful of areas, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the United Nations refugee agency.
For example, Erie, Pa., received the highest number of Bhutanese Nepali refugees last year, with 760.
For years, the majority of refugees in Columbus came from Somalia. But more are coming from countries such as Myanmar and Bhutan as new U.S. security screening procedures slow the flow from African counties, Bissonnette said.
Cung’s brother-in-law, Bawi Hmung, sneaked out of Myanmar to find his sister in Malaysia.
“The military wanted me to become a soldier. My mother didn’t want me to because I was so young,” said Hmung, who was 16 at the time.
Now he is 20 and yearns to visit the mother he left. But Columbus now is his home.