By Cecilia Chan
The Republic | azcentral.com
Mi Reh lived in a crowded Thailand refugee camp for 20 years after escaping the civil war in his homeland of Burma, now called Myanmar. Three of Reh’s four children were born in the refugee camp, which had no running water and rations that included rice and beans. Five years ago, the 48-year-old and his family resettled in Phoenix. Life was good, he felt happy at his new home, he said through a translator. But a double-homicide on April 28 that police say could be a hate crime changed all that. Two Burmese refugees were stabbed at the Serrano Village Apartments near 28th Avenue and Camelback Road, leaving fellow refugees stunned and afraid. Refugees:
People armed with knives chased them
Ker Reh, 54, and Kay Reh, 24, who are not related, were attacked outside an apartment unit where they were attending a prayer service for a friend who had died of natural causes. Mi Reh said he saw both men on the ground after the stabbings. Since then, he and his wife mostly stay inside their apartment with their children. Thousands of Burmese refugees call Phoenix home, and the homicides highlighted the struggles the community faces. Community leaders and the police department are working to overcome some of those issues, such as language barriers and fear of the police.
Burmese in Arizona
Kay Reh and Ker Reh belonged to the Karenni community, one of the 135 ethnic groups recognized in Burma. The Burmese resettlement in Arizona peaked in 2009 with 898 refugees coming into the state that year, according to the U.S. Department of State. Since then, the numbers each year have dropped. In fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, 242 Burmese refugees resettled in Arizona. More than 4,100 Burmese refugees have moved to Arizona since fiscal 1999 with a majority of them — 3,858 — concentrated in apartments around Phoenix. More than 60,000 Burmese refugees have relocated to the United States, one of the top-three refugee groups in recent years, according to the State Department. Many of the refugees come from camps in Thailand, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Other camps are in Malaysia.
The refugees began flooding into Thailand in 1988 after a failed pro-democracy uprising against the military dictatorship. The country over the years has been wracked with ethnic turmoil and human-rights violations. Joanne Morales, director of Catholic Charities’ Refugee Programs, said refugees on average stay in the camps for 10 to 15 years. “It is a very slow process from someone escaping prosecution to be resettled in the U.S.,” she said. Language barriers The main stumbling block for the refugees is their lack of English skills, leaders said. Phoenix police had to call a translator on April 28 to the murder scene to help piece together what had happened.
Hay Ray, 33, said many refugees don’t call 911 for help because they can’t speak English. “The 911 ask many questions so people are scared to call,” said Ray, who taught himself English when he arrived to this country.
He spent 20 years in a Thai refugee camp. Phary Reh, 35, said many of the older refugees also fear the police because of their experiences with them in Thailand and Burma. “When they are driving and see police, they are scared,” he said. “In their heart, it reminds them of the police in Thailand.” “They (also) didn’t trust the police in Burma,” he added, citing rampant bribes and coercion among the police force there. Helping each other Phary Reh helps refugees become more comfortable with the police. He and other English-speaking Karenni are alerted of emergencies, and they call 911.
Since the murders, Phary Reh teaches community members safety tips — lock doors, don’t answer the door at night without checking first, bring children indoors by 9 p.m. A workshop is scheduled for August to help refugees adjust, with subjects such as how to use public transportation and U.S. child laws, said Philip Htoon, Phoenix chapter president of a national organization that focuses on the welfare of Asian Pacific Americans.
Police spokesman Steve Martos said the department also is enhancing its ability to serve the Myanmar refugees. “This incident helped us address a deficiency as it relates to language barriers,” he said. “We have since worked with the refugee community to find ways we can have access to their community leaders and someone to translate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Detective Luis Samudio, who works with refugees, recently hosted a meet-and-greet with officers and representatives of different refugee groups.
Now, officers can carry a card that includes contact numbers for refugee agencies and questions to ask refugees to better identify appropriate resources. Families still grieving The deaths have been hard on the families, Phary Reh said. He knew both men and was friends with Kay Reh. Phary Reh, who learned English in the camp’s school and eventually became a teacher there, said Kay Reh as the oldest son helped support his family and translated for his parents.
Kay Reh had two younger brothers and a sister. And the widow Tay Moh still talks and thinks about her husband, Ker Reh, he said. The couple had two daughters and a son, all under 15. Police have arrested suspects in the case.