Taking refuge 

Yassir Kori
Credit: Mark Hancock

She spent years in a Thai refugee camp.

He was tortured by Myanmar police for a crime he did not commit.

These aren’t headlines scrolling across a ticker; they are the stories of three Oklahoma City residents, and they are just a small sample of a larger population. A substantial number of foreign refugees from nations all across the globe have found a new home in the Sooner State.

Their backgrounds differ as much as the regions from which they’ve come, but they are linked by their quest for political and religious freedom.

“They’re looking for the same things our forefathers were when they came here,” said Brian McAtee, minister with Global Peoples for the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. “These people represent the American dream.”

Along with the Spero Project and Catholic Charities, the First Baptist Church is a pillar of the Oklahoma City Refugee Coalition. The partnership network seeks to guide refugee families through their relocation to the city, often a disorienting time filled with unfamiliar jargon and processes.

Catholic Charities initially receives all incoming refugees; last year that number was 126. Through efforts of coalition members, these families have access to guidance and services — in learning the language, finding a job and adjusting to the culture — for their first three years stateside.

“You’re trying to find them a job with benefits and the things that will give them an opportunity to be self-sustaining and contribute to this community,” McAtee said.

What seems a straightforward objective is filled with as many potholes and bumps in the road as the winding paths these families took to get here. Once the language deficit and culture shock are addressed, refugees still face ongoing challenges in their transition to life here.

In the words of one of their own, Yassir Kori: “You need to understand what it means to be a refugee.”


Long trip alone

Yassir Kori with his son Alfred Alkannama
Credit: Mark Hancok

Kori’s
journey began in a small, isolated Sudanese village. Resisting the
pressure to settle into a more traditional life in which education had
no place, he became the only member of his family to attend school
regularly.

More
pressing, however, was the resistance to Kori’s other break with the
norm: his religion. In a predominantly Muslim population, the then-
11-year-old converted to Christianity because “something happened” the
first time he prayed, a feeling he’d never had before, he said.

In
fear of reprisal, Kori worshipped secret for four years before
telling his father of his beliefs. In return, the 15-year-old was beaten
and thrown out of the house.

With
Christianity illegal in his village, Kori wound up in police custody
for three days. It did little to break his resolve. “God will provide
for me,” he told himself.

Kori
eventually was sent to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, where he served
with a human rights campaign at camps for displaced Sudanese.

While
there, he took issue with government persecution of poor and Christian
residents. After an incident in which private homes were seized by the
government, civilians protested and security forces responded with
violence. A police shootout left 15 dead.

Kori and 105 others took their story to the United Nations and four foreign embassies.

“The kindest people I find are the U.S. people,” he said.

The
U.S. ambassadors gave Kori a letter to take to Egypt to gain political
asylum. Tensions between Egypt and Sudan were high in 1995, however, and
Egypt refused him entrance.

So he turned around. Kori walked for three weeks to reach Sudan’s southern border with Ethiopia, only to be
told, once across, he needed to get to Kenya to parlay with U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services officials.

Even
that experience didn’t prepare him for where he’d first be placed in
the U.S.: the chilly environs of North Dakota. “Let me go back to
Africa,” Kori said he remembers thinking.

But he did not return to Africa.

Instead, in 2007, he found himself in Oklahoma City.


Freedom of religion
That
same year, Tluang Lin Bawi pronounced “boy” — was learning to navigate a
new life in northwest OKC with his wife and three children. The family
was the first of a wave of Chin refugees, a minority group in Myanmar,
and the adjustment was all the more abrupt.

Tluang Lin Bawi
Credit: Mark Hancock

“When
I arrived, it was just me and my family,” Bawi said. “So whenever we
looked outside, everybody’s strange. And everything is different.”

Different wasn’t all bad. The scars on Bawi’s arms tell much of why he fled his home country.

“About
99 percent of Chin people are Christian, but Burma is a Buddhist
country,” he said. “They want all of the Chins to change to Buddhist, so
[the government] did a lot of things — like sometimes we couldn’t go to
church.”

The final
straw was Bawi’s arrest for a crime he didn’t commit. In prison, he
said, he was tortured as a scapegoat. Bawi and his family fled to India,
and later Malaysia, where they stayed in a refugee camp for five years.

They
wound up in OKC in the spring of 2007. A car and job would follow,
thanks to help from Catholic Charities. As more Chin turned up in OKC, a
growing worship community also sprouted.

The
Chin refugees began as a 12-person congregation in Bawi’s apartment.
After partnering with the First Baptist Church, the United Myanmar
Baptist Church now has five congregations serving the nearly 400 Chin
refugees in the area.

Building religious community helped ease the transition, but the traumas of life in Myanmar are not forgotten.

“When
we arrived here, I [was] automatically scared when I saw police or
army,” Bawi said. “But then I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in the United States.’”


‘I feel free’
The
Chin are not the only minorities who have been subject to persecution
in Myanmar. Wah Wah, a 36-yearold mother of two, is Karen, a mostly
Christian ethnic group that has been warring with the central government
for more than 50 years.

As a result, Wah spent a large portion of her life in a Thai refugee camp.

She was not given permission to settle in Thailand.

“We can’t go back to Burma. But the Thai didn’t want us, either,” she said.

The
first step she took on American soil was in June 2009 at Los Angeles
International Airport. It was a moment she remembers viscerally.

“I feel free,” she said, recalling that day.

But
starting a new life doesn’t happen overnight. The challenges facing
refugees are many, but they tend to revolve around three things,
according to McAtee: language, jobs and medical care.

Brian McAtee
Credit: Mark Hancock

The first difficulty is learning English and doing so
swiftly enough to accomplish myriad other goals, such as getting a
driver’s license, attending school and finding a job.

“There’s
a vicious chicken-and-egg cycle here,” McAtee said. “Once you get a job,
the challenge is having time for your 10- to 12-hoursa-day job, trying
to learn English, taking care of your family and then making enough
money to start paying your bills and paying back what you owe the agency
that brought you over here.”

With
each generation born here, the language barrier erodes — as evidenced
by Wah’s 2-yearold, just learning to utter life’s basics of “mommy,”
“daddy” and “sleep.” But Wah still struggles with English at times.

And
there is the matter of health care. Refugees have access to Medicaid
for eight months upon their arrival, but then it disappears, leaving a
steep learning curve for understanding — and affording — a radically
different system of medical care.

Kori, Bawi and Wah each speak of the desire to be understood.

“Once
I tell people I’m a refugee, people think you’re here illegally,” Kori
said. “We are internationally admitted. We have rights like citizens.”

“Hard-working
immigrants” are part of the grand American tradition, McAtee said, and
evidence seems to support him. Bawi and his family were the first Chins
to own a home. Wah and her husband have started a family. Kori has
earned two master’s degrees and continued his fight for the people of
central Sudan.

“These
people have been in countries where they are unwelcome. The government
does not want them,” McAtee said. “And if they come here and hear the
same thing, then we haven’t done anything different than a number of
nasty places. We haven’t shown them that America is any different than
Burma or Iraq or Sudan.”

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