Hidden Cultures: Refugees

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: July 2012
Group Free
Pin It

Phoenix isn’t famous for its diversity. But peer into its margins, and you’ll find a city flush with people from around the world.In the final installment of a three-part series, we delve into the Valley’s Sudanese, Bhutanese and Burmese refugee communities.

South Sudanese {Lost Boys}

Population: Approximately 8.2 million
Estimated population of Sudanese refugees in Phoenix: 1,700

PHM0712HCRef 2A

 July 9, 2011 was “miracle day” for Kuol Awan. As one of the Lost Boys of Sudan displaced by civil war, Awan had never known peace in his birth country. He’d left his village in Maar at the age of 8 – one of tens of thousands of barefoot war orphans traversing a landscape of burned African bush and collapsed thatched huts, hiding in trees at night to guard against gunfire and animal attacks. It was 1987, and Awan’s parents, like those of most Lost Boys, had been taken from their village and killed. His sorrow over the fact that he could not follow the tribal tradition of burying his father was superseded by a drive to survive.

Awan walked for five years and nearly a thousand miles before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya, often carrying younger boys on his shoulders. Many of his fellow travelers perished. “Some people died, some went in a different direction,” he says. Early in his journey, several people ran into a river to escape gunfire and drowned.

By the time he came to the United States as a refugee in 2001, Awan was 22 and far past the point where he might have dared to dream there would someday be harmony in southern Sudan. So when a vote for South Sudan to separate from the north took place in January, 2011 – and passed by 99.47 percent, with July 9 chosen as Independence Day – Awan was both overjoyed and overwhelmed.

“That was amazing, for us to be part of that,” says Awan, who voted in Phoenix along with other Sudanese refugees. “We became part of the struggle in the beginning, and now I feel like I can contribute more by putting my voice out there.”

Kuol Awan

Awan is one of more than 20,000 young boys (average age: 9) who spent years walking across the African countryside in clusters throughout the course of the war, searching for a safe place. An estimated 2.5 million Lost Boys didn’t make it. Most of the young girls were killed or forced into marriages. Less than 3,000 documented Lost Girls made it to camps in Kenya; only 89 came to the U.S.

Nearly 500 Lost Boys resettled in Arizona as refugees from 2001 through 2005, making Phoenix the city with the most Lost Boys in the country.  The AZ Lost Boys Center opened in central Phoenix in 2003 and was renamed the Lost Boys Center for Leadership Development this year. Awan serves as executive director.

Some Sudanese refugees opened local businesses, like SoSudan, an African clothing store on west Van Buren Street, and Goat Meat Store at 27th and Montebello avenues. But many, especially among the Lost Boys, have gone into humanitarian aid – helping other refugees adjust to life in the U.S. through work as translators, ESL teachers, counselors and community outreach figures. “With our new direction, we want to focus more on people like us who got a chance to come to this country,” Awan says. “Even if it was bad [in South Sudan], it turned out that we are now the only educated people from that country.”

South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in Africa. A teenage girl is more likely to die during childbirth than to attend school, and 84 percent of the population is illiterate. Its fledgling economy could be bolstered by oil production, but the new president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, shut down the pipelines in January, in the midst of a dispute with north Sudan over transit fees (South Sudan needs the northern pipelines and port to export oil). It’s the latest dispute between the two halves of Sudan in a conflict that stretches back to 1956, when British colonists pulled out and demarcated a border, leaving the primarily Arabic-speaking, Muslim north at odds with the mostly tribal, animist south. Two huge civil wars – from 1955 to 1972 (the Sudanese government battling the Anyanya rebel army) and from 1983 to 2004 (the Sudanese government versus the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement) – resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3 million people, many of them various tribal peoples of South Sudan.

The largest ethnic tribes in South Sudan are the Dinka and the Nuer. Awan is from the Dinka tribe and herded cows as a young boy. When he arrived in the United States, he’d never seen American appliances before, and was particularly confused by the microwave and vacuum cleaner in his first apartment. He was convinced anything he put in the microwave would burn because there was nowhere to pour water in, and he thought the vaccum cleaner might navigate itself  around the room.

Though the culture shock was sometimes comical, it could be challenging, too. Awan, who has a master’s degree in psychology from ASU, says he initially came to the center specifically to help treat trauma. He says many Lost Boys had difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S. once they got residences and jobs – and time to think about everything they’d gone through. They come from a culture where problems are addressed as groups, Awan explains, and an environment where banding together was necessary for survival. “With all these horrible things that happened when we were in Africa, we kind of find a positive way of dealing with it, and that was having ourselves a team – staying together and being able to face it,” Awan says. “Because we used to sit together and have a chat and all that – those things went out when we came here. And then people started reliving the trauma.”

Awan’s solution: Bring more group activities to the Lost Boys Center – soccer teams, running groups, art projects – to foster a social network and provide healing familiar to their culture. “If you sent a Sudanese to a therapist in an American way, to be one-on-one, that’s not how we used to do it,” Awan says. “Even in this country, [no Sudanese] would go to one person. You do it in a different way, by talking as a group or addressing it as a team.”

Since 2003, with the aid of various programs at the center, 103 Lost Boys have completed a community or four-year college program, and 112 refugees have become U.S. citizens.

Achan Dumo wants to be among them soon. Almost half a century ago, she was a soldier in the Anyanya rebel army in the First Sudanese Civil War. Now, she is at the Lost Boys Center five days a week, studying for her U.S. citizenship test.

PHM0712HCRef 7AThe mother of six lost one of her sons during the second war; he was killed at age 19. Her remaining sons are Lost Boys who managed to escape to the U.S. and bring her to Phoenix (Dumo fled to Egypt during the second war). Even in her 70s, she can lift and lug a PC tower down a long hallway like it’s nothing. Asked what she’d like to do in this country after obtaining citizenship, Dumo says, “Anything that a citizen can do, whether it’s a war or someone attacking us, me and my children can defend the country.”

Dumo’s “children” aren’t just the ones she gave birth to – because the majority of Lost Boys came to the U.S. as orphans, she serves as a surrogate mother figure to all at the Lost Boys Center. “I have even more sons,” Dumo says with a smile. “They are my boys.”

Kuol Awan returned to South Sudan in 2008 and 2009, and finally held a memorial service for his father. But he didn’t return to his village until 2011, followed by cameras for the BBC documentary This World: Return of the Lost Boys of Sudan, which aired last December. “When I was leaving here, I thought, ‘Just show up and you’ll be happy to meet people,’ but as you’ll see in the film, it was very powerful to see the land and how it has been deformed by the war,” Awan says. “It was amazing to be back, but at the same time, it was more emotional than I thought. And the thing that was killing me was, I want to do something but I don’t know how. I didn’t have the power to do what I needed to do.”

At the Lost Boys Center for Leadership Development, Awan has found power in empowering others. “We are excited to look at things like leadership, so they can go back and lead in whatever capacity. You don’t have to be the leader of a country, but you can be the leader of a classroom in a village. You can be the leader of a small group of people that are doing something like marketing,” he says. “For the last 10 years [the Lost Boys] have been here is all about getting an education. Now, most of us got it. So now it’s putting it into action and making it work. Education is part of what we make ourselves [obtain] so we can become independent and go back and hopefully make that a wonderful country.”

PHM0712HCRef 3A

Bhutanese {Lhotshampa}
Population: Approximately 708,427
Estimated population of Bhutanese refugees in Phoenix: 2,468

As a young boy in the South Asian country of Bhutan, Tara Nepal eagerly devoured volumes of history, folklore and educational texts in his native Nepali language. He loves literature, and will never forget the stories, the language, the characters he found between the covers of books – or the smell of burning pages while he watched hundreds of tomes incinerate in the courtyard of his primary school, earthy-smoky like a campfire but with a slightly chemical tang.

Soon after the book burnings, Tara Nepal’s school closed. Then, his parents packed up and took the family west across the Indian state of Sikkim to the riverbanks of Nepal, where they lived in a tent camp for five months and ate nothing but rice, vegetable oil, lentils and salt. Nepal’s parents didn’t tell him why they left until three years later. “My dad was given an ultimatum: Either leave the country, or be taken into prison for life,” Nepal says. “[My parents] told us that ‘We decided to leave, because [with] life in prison, we never know. They will kill as many people in the prison. So if we stay, we still should be dying by their hand. We never know when they’ll torture us now and then. So instead of staying where life is going to be torture, why don’t we take the torture that we do not know?’”

Nepal’s father’s crime was refusing to convert to Buddhism and abandon his cultural heritage. The family is Lhotshampa (“southerners” in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan), a primarily Hindu ethnic group with Nepalese roots. The majority were exiled from their homes in southern Bhutan in 1990, under King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s policies to preserve the country’s Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist identity. Last year, 490 refugees from Bhutan arrived in Arizona, and at press time, 215 had arrived in 2012. Nepal’s family came to Arizona as refugees in 2008. Now, he helps other refugees resettle here through his job as a case manager at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – an important position, considering the state houses nearly 2,500 Bhutanese refugees.

Bhutanese interpreter Tek Chhetri

Ironically, Bhutan is known as “the land of the peaceful dragon” and was rated the happiest country in Asia by Business Week in 2006. It’s the only country in the world that measures its “gross national happiness” as a domestic product, or GDP. Until 1974, it was all but kept under lock and key; the only foreigners allowed entry were guests of the royal family. Now, tourists are required by the Bhutanese government to pay a “daily tariff” of $200-$250. Traveliers love Bhutan for its biodiversity; it’s viewed as a pillar of conservation, where Bengal tigers, sloth bears and gray langurs roam the lush, mountainous landscapes.

Bhutan consists of three geographic regions: the undeveloped, sparsely-populated northern Himalayas area; the hilly, livestock-rich middle region, where there’s little development and a majority Buddhist, Dzongkha-speaking population with roots in Tibet; and the most highly developed southern region. There, the majority used to be Lhotshampa, who migrated from nearby Nepal in the late 1800s and retained cultural ties to that country, embracing Buddhism and Hinduism and speaking both Dzongkha and Nepali. Tara Nepal says these migrants provided much of the country’s infrastructure. “If you go to Bhutan, you’ll see roads – in those difficult cliffs, there are roads. Big, big boulders were broken by our people and roads were constructed,” he says. “All this physical labor was used from our people to construct all those kinds of things.”

But in 1990, seeing a rise in the number of Lhotshampa in southern Bhutan, the king decreed that all Lhotshampa who could not produce a document proving they’d been in Bhutan before 1958 (when the Bhutanese Citizenship Act was enacted) be labeled illegal immigrants. They were forced to leave the country, and their lands and homes were seized. The Lhotshampa protested the policies with what Tara Nepal says were “peaceful demonstrations, just asking the king of Bhutan to stop doing all those kinds of separations in terms of religion, and let us live with at least some basic, fundamental rights,” he says. “We must be given our rights to practice our language and religion.” Shortly after the protests, all schools that taught primarily in Nepali were closed, and all Nepali texts destroyed.

“Buddhism and Hinduism are pretty much the same,” says Nepal, who is Hindu but has a picture of Buddha in his home. “It’s not the religion, but the king – no matter what, he wanted everybody to give up their religion and change themselves to Buddhism. So think about those people who were Hindus from their forefathers, and all of a sudden, they have to change to Buddhism. It would be hard.

IRC case worker Tara Nepal

Either change or leave.”

But a switch to Buddhism wasn’t just difficult because of family traditions, Nepal explains. Cows and bulls are revered as sacred animals in Hinduism, so Hindus never eat beef. “But in Buddhism, they don’t have those kind of restrictions,” Nepal says. “But the king of Bhutan, he started taking people and forcing them to do those activities which were against their religion.”

Nepal says even after being evicted, Lhotshampa in the refugee camps of Nepal wanted to return to Bhutan. He says groups of people would gather rice and sell it to raise funds for the repatriation cause; unfortunately, they have not been allowed to return. If they ever are, they must renounce their native language and religious identity. In the eyes of the king, they are “anti-nationalists” for leaving Bhutan rather than conform to his policy of “One Nation, One People.” In July 2010, Bhutan prime minister Jigme Y Thinley referred to Bhutanese refugees as “illegal immigrants.”

One of those refugees, Tek Chhetri, works as an interpreter for IRC in Phoenix. He was a teacher in Bhutan and says in the early ’80s, he would have never thought the Bhutanese government would enforce discriminating policies against the Lhotshampa. “[The king] wanted to strengthen the monarchy,” Chhetri says. “Now he talks of ‘national happiness.’ One-sixth of its population is in exile, living as refugees.”

Since leaving Bhutan 20 years ago, Chhetri traveled all over Europe campaigning for the cause of Bhutanese refugees, received a degree from Oxford University, and resettled in Phoenix, where he’s become a leader in the local Bhutanese community and says he’s preparing the whole community – including himself – to apply for United States citizenship. “The good thing about the Bhutanese refugees has been that they wasted so many years in the refugee camp, they want to begin life as soon as they come here,” Chhetri says. “That’s why we are trying to get any opportunity we can get. We really salute their spirit in the people in our community, because that’s how we grow.”

PHM0712HCRef 11A

Nepal also helps prepare refugees for citizenship through his work at IRC; he will be eligible himself in 2013. He recently earned a medical assistant diploma from Anthem College but says he can’t imagine working outside the local Bhutanese community. “To work in clinics – my heart told me this is not the field my heart is in. Because I was a teacher back home, a student of humanities, a lover of literature. And when I came here, I started pretty much the same way of life, being close with the communities,” Nepal says. “My life, the interesting part, is being with this community.”

At the end of 2008, seeing the influx of Bhutanese refugees to the Valley, Nepal helped form the Bhutanese Community in Arizona, an organization currently based in a central Phoenix apartment that advocates for Bhutanese refugees and holds social events around town.

Through the IRC, Nepal also visits local schools to talk about the refugee experience. “I tell them I’m a refugee from Bhutan, and tell them my story, the way I’ve told you. And they love it,” he says. “If being with IRC, I can speak about my problem, my story, my heart lamenting the experience of leaving my country and whatever my parents and our people had to go through – if I can be part of advocacy, then I will stick with it.”

PHM0712HCRef 4A

Burmese {Chin & Karen}
Population: Approximately 60.3 million
Estimated population of Burmese refugees in Phoenix: 3,808
The mid-May morning sun blazes on the sprawling vegetable garden behind Cross Connection International Fellowship Church near 39th and Dunlap avenues, baking fissures into the furrows. But between the trenches sprout copious crops as colorful as the floppy straw hats on the 10 Asian refugees tending the land. The wind-like din of traffic and the growling motors in the background don’t seem to disturb the gardeners’ Zen-like focus as they meditatively shovel and scrape rakes across the soil. Farming is their lives, and they’re exceptionally good at it.

This thriving green grange in Glendale – which, in a delightful reversal of the Joni Mitchell song, was a parking lot until two years ago – is one of four community gardens in Phoenix under the umbrella of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit refugee resettlement and assistance group founded at the request of Albert Einstein in 1933 to help people being persecuted under Hitler’s government. Today, the IRC operates in 40 countries, providing various programs to resettle refugees. In Phoenix, an IRC program called New Roots and its Gila Farm Collective help refugees operate the gardens and two 40-acre farms in Chandler and Buckeye, and sell their produce at the IRC booth at local farmers’ markets, including the Downtown Phoenix Public Market (Wednesdays and Saturdays), the Mesa Community Farmers’ Market (Fridays) and Scottsdale’s Old Town Farmers’ Market (Saturdays).

A bounty of vegetables grow around the collective – corn, carrots, watermelons, lettuce, eggplant and okra, to name a few. On this Monday morning, Pastor Denga, a Burmese interpreter for IRC, bends over a plant with dark green leaves and plucks one from its stem. “You make a sauce,” he says, holding out the leaf. “Taste it.”

Burmese refugees U Pha, Zathawng, Sian Liam Thuangneh, Ling Maung and Phun Kil at a community garden

The soft, pliable leaf looks a little like mint, but tastes tangy, almost like sour candy. This species of hibiscus called Roselle thrives in Burma, where it’s known as chin baung. Burmese frequently fry the dried leaves with onions, garlic, ginger and sliced bamboo. And thanks to the Valley’s large Burmese refugee farmer community, a bunch of chin baung grows in this community garden.

Dinga came to Arizona from Burma three years ago and helps translate for the Burmese farmers, who share the plots on this lot with Bhutanese refugee farmers. Because Burma has been under military control since 1962, an estimated 200,000 Burmese – including large numbers of the ethnic groups Karen and Chin – have fled the country over the past three decades. The Burmese Military Junta, which renamed the country Myanmar in 1989, harbors a reputation as one of the most abusive regimes in the world, with countless human rights violations – including child labor, sex slavery and human trafficking – documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Though resources including timber, tin and zinc abound in Burma, its economy remains largely undeveloped, due partly to economic sanctions imposed by other countries. The World Health Organization rated Burma’s health care system the worst in the world.

More than 160,000 Burmese have sought protection in 10 refugee camps on the Burma-Thailand border since the early 1980s. They are confined to the camps and face deportation back to Burma, which could be tantamount to a death sentence. A lack of food and an abundance of bad health became the lesser banes in February of this year, when a huge fire ravaged the Umpiem Mai camp in the western Tak province of Thailand, destroying an estimated 1,000 homes and re-displacing several thousand refugees.

Phoenix-based artist Hser Nay Wah grew up in the Umpiem Mai camp after his Karen family fled Burma when he was a young boy. Soon after arriving in the refugee camp, his father died and his mother became ill. Wah, whose uncle taught him to draw when he was 7, sought refuge in art. After he and his mother fled to Arizona in 2008, Wah contributed to the IRC’s “Flight” portfolio, a collection of artwork by rescued refugee artists (including Marc Chagall, Eugene Berman and former Arizona resident Adolph Gottlieb) sold piecemeal to benefit IRC programs and refugees. Wah’s black-and-white portrait of IRC founder Albert Einstein hangs in a hallway of the IRC offices on Seventh Street, a strikingly lifelike drawing of the famous scientist looking gentle and pensive.

the Burmese chin baung plant

While some Burmese refugees excel in the arts, many Burmese refugees in Phoenix are farmers, including Sian Liam Thuangneh, who, like Pastor Dinga, is Chin. The Chin, comprising many dialects, number about 1.5 million in Burma, where they primarily populate a slice of the country near the western border with India. Burma’s military regime has targeted the mainly Christian group, burning Chin churches and arresting and killing some of their clergymen.

Thuangneh was a farmer in Burma until leaving in 2003. He went to Malaysia, where he farmed for seven years, and arrived in Phoenix two years ago, where – you guessed it – he went to work on a farm. “Burmese people like farming very much, so any place where they arrive, they do farming like this,” Dinga says.

Thuangneh says growing crops in Phoenix is about the same as in Burma, where summer temps can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, except that in that humid, monsoon-soaked country, crops are rain-fed. Here, they are manually irrigated twice a week.

The community garden has also sprouted a circle of friendships. “Here I have a lot of friends from Burma,” Thuangneh says. “When we were in Burma, we never saw each other or knew [about each other], but here we become many friends. We are working together, Chin people are working together.”

 Like the Chin, the Karen, which number about 50 million and occupy south and southeastern Burma, endured ethnic cleansing and fled persecution, walking to border refugee camps in surrounding countries, where they fought malnutrition and malaria. An estimated 600 Karen found their way to Phoenix as refugees; about 250 attend the Monte Vista Baptist Church on 36th Street north of Oak Street. The Chin have churches, too, including First Chinese Baptist Church off 49th Street and Earll, and Northwest Chinese Baptist Church off 42nd Avenue and Greenway Road. Such sanctuaries provide a sense of positivity and fellowship as Burmese refugees try to adjust to life in Phoenix.

Sian Liam Thuangneh

Back in Myanmar, there’s hope for change through political reforms pledged by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. They include the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest; labor laws that allow unions and strikes; the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission; and the amnesty of more than 200 political prisoners. Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in 2011 marked the first sojourn to the country by a U.S. Secretary of State in more than 50 years, encouraging progress as the U.S. eased trade sanctions against Myanmar. The European Union followed in April 2012.     

But human rights groups continue to call attention to the atrocities in Burma, particularly against women, who are often raped, killed, or forced into military service. In 2010, the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma held the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma in New York. Twelve women testified about their experiences. One young woman was caned in front of her entire school and sentenced to a year in prison on a charge of prostitution after being gang-raped by a group of Burmese soldiers. Another told of soldiers killing her husband and taking her into the woods to torture and interrogate her; she was then sentenced to 14 months in prison.

“I think the really amazing part about [refugees] is they’re not all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re not all suffering from mental illness, based on the hardships,” says Donna Magnuson, executive director of the IRC office in Phoenix. “That they really are – what’s the American term? – ‘bootstrap people,’ who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and off they go to start life again.”