Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar plan $2M church in north Omaha

Three-year-old Saw Khee La Htoo is among the singers during a Sunday service held by Karen Christian Revival Church, which meets at Mount View Presbyterian Church. The congregation of refugees from the country once known as Burma envisions building its own church, complete with classrooms, offices and a soccer field.

By Christopher Burbach / World-Herald staff writer

Ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar are embarking on a $2.5 million project to build a church in Omaha, eight years after they began arriving in numbers from their war-torn country in Southeast Asia.

The Karen Christian Revival Church plans to build a church with classrooms, offices and a soccer field on long-neglected land in north Omaha, north of Sorensen Parkway at 49th Street.

Church leaders envision it as a big step forward not only in their church life, but also in their journey from civil war in Myanmar to years in refugee camps in Thailand, to self-sufficiency and full participation in American life.

“People have been coming to Omaha from Myanmar since 2005. We came here with just our backpacks,” said Po Hteh, a church elder. “Zero money. Zero knowledge. Zero English. But 100 percent faith.”

Karen people were one of several ethnic groups involved in decades-long civil strife with the government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

About 4,000 Karen refugees live in metropolitan Omaha, said Saw “Rocky” Khu, a community leader and an associate pastor of Karen Christian Revival Church.

Many were resettled directly to Omaha from refugee camps in Thailand, where some had lived for decades. Some were resettled to other cities first, then moved to Omaha for its jobs and affordable housing, and the support of the growing Karen community, Khu said.

Omaha now has one of the largest Karen populations in the United States, after Minnesota and New York.

In Omaha, Khu and others formed the Karen Christian Revival Church. It provides social services and education as well as religious services. It has grown to 860 members, including about 200 children in 270 families.

The majority of adults work as laborers at Cargill, Hormel, Tyson and other meatpacking plants. Others work in hotels and schools.

A few Karen families own businesses, including ethnic groceries and car repair shops. Khu and his relatives own a grocery store and Salween Thai, a popular Thai restaurant on Omaha's Northwest Radial.

To be sure, many former refugee families struggle financially and with adapting to American life.

But Khu said about 300 Karen families have bought homes in Omaha.

And they have donated enough to their church that it can afford this project.

The church paid $330,000 cash for the 12-acre parcel in a neighborhood that's a little bit of country smack in the middle of the city. Horses live on acreages, and school buses travel a gravel road en route to nearby Wakonda Elementary School.

The church has all its financing in place for the construction project, Brad Blakeman of Blakeman Engineering told the Omaha Planning Board this month.

He said church members hope to begin construction by spring 2014 and to move in by 2015.

In a wrinkle, the church's costs will probably include nearly a half-million dollars to improve a section of gravel road that somehow escaped pavement for decades, until a congregation of refugees came along to build a church beside it.

The congregation will also spend about $150,000 to extend a water main in the area.

People who build in-fill developments in Omaha neighborhoods with substandard infrastructure often bear the costs of improvements. The city requires that new developments bring the abutting streets and sidewalks up to city standards.

For Karen Christian Revival Church, that includes agreeing to pave about one-sixth mile of North 49th Street, The church agreed to do so as a condition of receiving a permit to conduct religious assembly on land zoned for residential use.

The Omaha Planning Board voted this month to approve the conditional use permit.

“When we heard we had to build that street, we thought it's not really fair,” Khu said. “But if we don't build that road, we can't have our church.”

And they are determined to have their church.

“We are building a strong foundation for the kids, for the sake of our future and to do something good for our city and country,” said Saw Ner Clay, another associate pastor.

The congregation has outgrown the space it shares with Mount View Presbyterian Church, 5308 Hartman Ave.

The new church would hold 600 people. Leaders wanted to build it large enough to hold 1,000 people, but the road construction cost is squeezing their budget and causing them to downsize the design, Khu said.

Church leaders want space for the church to grow beyond its ethnic beginnings.

“Anybody can come and join, not only Karen, but black, white, everyone,” Khu said.

Church leaders also want a place of their own to host community celebrations that attract thousands of people, such as Karen New Year and Karen Martyrs' Day.

A 2010 celebration attracted 40 soccer teams from the United States and Canada.

“We are crazy with soccer,” Ner Clay said.