KUALA LUMPUR: A group of ethnic Chin ex-seminarians in Malaysia had believed that the Church would not regard them as “refugees.” When they found out that they were wrong in this, they formed a community to care for their people’s spiritual and material needs.
The two-year-old community has since extended aid to any Myanmar refugee who sought its help.
Bernadine Shin Lin Naing, secretary of the K’Cho Catholic Community, says attitudes have changed in the past year or so, and the local Church is giving more emphasis to serving refugees and migrants.
His community tries to respond to the needs of Myanmar refugees by contacting Church organizations and NGOs.
In an interview with the 30-year-old refugee leader on the work his community does and the local Church’s response to refugees.
The K’Cho Chin people originate from the Mindat area of Chin state in western Myanmar. Many are fleeing political and economic persecution in their country.
Malaysia is host to more than 2.2 million foreigners from neighboring countries, who are variously classified as migrant workers, refugees and trafficked people.
How was the K’Cho Catholic Community established?
BERNADINE SHIN LIN NAING: Eight ex-seminarians who came to Malaysia as refugees established the community on Dec. 23, 2007. Now I am the only one left from the original eight. All the others have been resettled in USA. Our community now has around 100 core people and there are 12 committee members. When we arrived in Malaysia, we found that undocumented Myanmar Catholics have many problems.
What were the problems?
We could not receive Baptism in church, and refused the Sacraments of Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick. The sacraments are important for us.
We approached the [local Church authorities] and went to different Catholic churches in the country, but got no result. So I wrote to the US bishops’ conference and ICMC (International Catholic Migration Commission) to tell about our difficulties. They replied that they would try to help us. Some months afterward, they said things would change.
Many changes did take place in the Malaysian Catholic Church starting last year. The archbishop [of Kuala Lumpur] announced there was a new push in the ministry to migrants.
You sought “outside” help rather than persist in engaging the local Church?
The Catholic Church is universal. Our Baptism makes us one family. I am a Catholic wherever I go. I don’t consider myself a refugee before the Church.
Who are the people you serve?
We serve all Myanmar people who are refugees and who need assistance; though most people in our community are ethnic chin. Actually, each ethnic group has its own community to serve its own people. Many Myanmar communities in Malaysia serve a mixture of migrants with proper documentation and refugees.
Nevertheless, they collect membership fees and help only those who are members. We do not accept membership. We help any Myanmar refugee in an indirect way — by contacting and channeling them to Catholic groups and NGOs.
We help them be register with UNHCR and with translation. We do not have the funds to help them directly.
There are around 200,000 Chin people in Malaysia. Most were undocumented. However, starting last year, UNHCR started mobile registrations with them, and now a lot of us are registered.
Now the Malaysian government allows those with a UNHCR card to stay here and do odd jobs. Before, refugees were not allowed to work. If they did, they were arrested and jailed. Now we can work.
For example, I do office work in an engineering company. A priest also has employed me to do part-time cleaning work at a Sunday school. We work to support ourselves.
Even though refugees can now work, they still have many problems. Some of them did not get their salaries for six months. I am still trying to get Catholic lawyers to help them.
For people with medical problems, I wrote to the Catholic Doctors Association. They have been very helpful to us. If there is someone really in need, we can send the person to a clinic of one of the Catholic doctor’s free treatment.
Starting in 2008, the association has provided hundreds of our children with vaccination. The local St. Vincent de Paul Society donated more than RM 8,000 (US$2,400) to us for medical purposes.
What other activities do you do?
We have been running a community school for a year from an apartment. We have 40 students aged 5-16 in two classes. We teach English, science and mathematics using Malaysian-published textbooks.
We hold gatherings in different homes in the Kuala Lumpur area, where we do Bible sharing, say the rosary, and share our problems. It is like a mobile BEC [Basic Ecclesial Community]. Twenty to 30 people attend each week. We try to help them through religion.
Many of us do not go to church on Sundays because we work odd hours in restaurants. We usually do not join the local parish BECs because of language difficulties, even though they started welcoming us from 2009. Local BEC communities have also visited refugee families.
Attitudes among the local Catholics are changing a lot. At first, they said we refugees only beg and cheat. There have been refugees who try to take advantage of the Church. So we try to show our honesty — that we try to help ourselves too. Gradually they see we have real needs and they are willing to help us.
Some Catholics say the Church should help poor Malaysians first before helping refugees.
For me this is fair. Asian people normally love their own communities very much. They try to help their own communities first before thinking about refugees.
What motivates you in your ministry to fellow refugees?
When I first came to Malaysia, I did not think of helping others. One day, someone in our community had an accident and wounded. When we brought him to the hospital, they didn’t want to admit him even though it was an emergency case. I felt very sad. Therefore, I decided to do something to help all Myanmar refugees by contacting NGOs and churches, I can speak English. We are refugees, but we are also humans.
What is your greatest hope while still in Malaysia?
I try to educate my people and get them interested in the Internet. When they get resettled [in a third country], they must be familiar with the computer. For example, you save a lot of money if you make phone calls through the Internet. However, it is very hard to motivate them.
I wish the Catholic Church and the government in Malaysia treated refugees as part of the national family. This is a very nice country and I would be very happy if there’s more respect for human rights here. Muslim refugees are also not treated well.
My life in Malaysia was a bad dream but there are a lot of good friends of mine who build my beautiful dreams, I ,deeply in my heart and soul, appreciate them and they are all in my daily prayers. May God see it and rewards to them, blessing and blessing upon them. I miss Malaysia and all my good Malaysian friends.
No wonder I met one of Holland friends in Malaysia, She was a wonderful lady for my family while we were very stressful Life situation. She is an angle sent to my family. I wish she may read this some days.