Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Local church reaches out to refugees

By Jennifer Eisenbart

 Staff Writer Imagine,

 If you will, growing up without a home. Not the idea of being homeless in the traditional sense, but simply that the place you were born – the country – will no longer be safe for you. Imagine then, fleeing that country with just the possessions you can carry and your family. Your new home? A refugee camp with no running water or electricity. Imagine that being the only home you remember. That is the case for 20-year-old Taw Meh, one of a family of Burmese refugees that Burlington United Methodist Church sponsored to the United States from Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. Taw Meh and her family fled the violence of what amounts to a long-lasting civil war in Burma. Fighting has been a constant in the country – also known at Myanmar – for more than 60 years. 
 But Taw Meh doesn’t remember anything about the fighting. She remembers very little at all, actually. She was just 2 1/2 years old when her father carried her and her sister Pleh Meh the five or six days – by foot – to reach refugees camps in Thailand. She spent 15 years in the refugee camps before being sponsored to come to this country. Thailand is what she remembers as home. Hundreds of thousands of refugees – many not caring about the conflict and simply wanting to be safe – have left their home. Now, through the help of sponsorships such as this one, those refugees are finding new homes. “Knowing that there are thousands of people living in difficult conditions with little control over their lives made us want to help,” said Molly Ellingstad, one of several members of the church working the refugees. Or, in the words of United Methodist Pastor Ebenezer Insor, “The world needs healing.” Planning Back in 2008, members of United Methodist Church were aware of the plight of the Burmese refugees, and asked the church council for approval to be sponsors. They also asked for the support of the congregation. Both were given, and a small committee was put together to move forward with sponsoring a family.

 Originally the plan was to sponsor the brother of a refugee already here through another church (St. John the Divine). Then that church agreed to take on an additional group. “Sponsors were in short supply at the time, so it was the right thing to do,” said Ellingstad. “Next on the list were Hoh Reh and Pleh Meh, a young couple married less than a year and we were happy to plan for them.” Hoe Reh and Pleh Meh are Taw Meh’s brother-in-law and older sister, respectively. They came first, and then about a year later, Taw Meh, her parents and other sisters. Sadly, one sister still remains in the refugee camps in Thailand. That sister, Bor Meh, is married with three children. Taw Meh will occasionally speak to her by phone, asking her questions such as, “Are you safe there? Are you healthy?” And of course, “Are you going to come over here or not?” Refugees Pleh Meh and Hoe Reh arrived in the country unable to speak English. From a country where many different dialects exist, they often cannot even communicate with other Burmese refugees effectively, as they don’t speak the same language.

 However, the church has opened its arms to what is, by all accounts, a hard-working family. Hoe Reh works at Kenosha Beef six days a week, pulling in many overtime hours. In order to find work, Taw Meh’s mother and father moved to St. Paul late last year, taking Pleh Meh and Taw Meh’s two younger sisters with them. Taw Meh hopes to graduate from Burlington High School next year, and in the meantime, is working full-time for the school district this summer. The church helped arrange housing, medical care, education and transportation. Since arriving in the country, Pleh Meh has given birth to her son, Augustine (he will be 2 in August) and another child is on the way. The changes in their lives are stunning. After living in a bamboo hut in the refugee camps for 15 years, forced to walk 1-2 miles for water and lighting the dark with candles, the family now shares an apartment. 

They have luxuries most Americans take for granted – running water, electricity, and of course, a hot shower. The latter comes in handy, because, compared to Thailand, the climate in Wisconsin is, well… “Cold!” said Taw Meh with a laugh. Looking ahead Now, with the family settled in two different states, life continues to move forward for Taw Meh and her sister. On Sunday at United Methodist Church, Taw Meh and her family helped the church celebrate Refugee Day. There was Burmese music (thanks to the help of YouTube), and both sisters sang along with the words. Insor’s sermon dealt specifically with the plight of refugees – and “welcoming the stranger.” “One of the places we need to pay attention to are those who are displaced from their primary abode,” Insor explained. “How do they cope … unless someone comes to their rescue?” Insor spoke of the biblical story of Joseph – sold into slavery, with his father having believed he had died – and his ability to move forward with the blessings he received, going forth into the world. That story worked hand in hand with the Burmese refugees the church has helped. “This is what God is calling us to do,” said Insor. “Do it for others, you do it for God.” Pat Hahn, another church member, introduced the family and said simply, “We are just so thankful.” And – in going forth with the blessings Insor cited Joseph as receiving – Taw Meh wonders what the future might bring. She is not sure of her future. That future will hopefully bring a high school graduation, and afterward, further education at Gateway Technical College. It may also, eventually, take her back home. A change in government appears to have made things better, but only time will tell. In the meantime, she has embraced her second family – her church family.

 “I feel good,” said Taw Meh. “Friends and neighbors.”