The Biggest Group of Current Refugees in the US? Christians from Myanmar

By Patrick Winn, PRI's The World

For the most part, the United States is a “dreamland" to Kaw Hser, a refugee born in the land-mine-strewn jungles of eastern Myanmar.

But a few years back, that dream dimmed a bit inside a Wal-Mart in upstate New York.

The 26-year-old was working there as a sales associate — one of three jobs he was grinding out while starting his new life in America. Some customer needed help hunting down an item. Kaw Hser, new to the job, didn't know where to find it.

So the woman just went off.

“'Crawl back under the rock where you came from,'" Kaw Hser says. “That's what she told me."

It was one of Kaw Hser's early lessons in America's complex feelings toward refugees.

This is the nation that rescued him from the soul-destroying tedium of a refugee camp. It has similarly welcomed 3 million other refugees in the last three decades. He is eternally grateful.

But it's also a country where many native-born citizens view refugees with deep suspicion. Just over half of all Americans think refugees “pose a great enough risk to further limit their entry."

One of them, of course, is President Donald Trump.

Refugees, namely those escaping war in Syria, are a “trojan horse" of terrorism, according to Trump. Others, he says, are “making up papers" to flood into America — a notion that will exasperate every asylum-seeker slogging through bureaucracy hell.

In Trump-speak, “refugee" is often used as a byword for conniving Muslims who might be sleeper agents of ISIS.

But this indicates profound confusion — or deception — about the origins of US-bound refugees. The No. 1 group of modern refugees in America is neither Syrian nor Iraqi nor Muslim nor Arab.

They're Christians from Myanmar, also called Burma.

In the past 10 years, roughly one in four US-bound refugees have come from Myanmar.

This adds up to about 160,000 people — greater than the population of Macon, Georgia, or Springfield, Massachusetts.

These refugees generally hail from Myanmar's anarchic, jungly fringes. They belong to ethnic groups called Karen or Chin or Kachin. And they often feel a near-spiritual bond with America.

Those who make it to the US, however, find that Americans generally have no idea they exist.

“Everyone thinks I'm Chinese," Kaw Hser says. “That's what they say. 'I thought you were Chinese.' No, I'm Karen. 'Korean?' No, Karen. K-A-R-E-N."

Thanks to the work of seafaring, 19th-century American missionaries, Myanmar's refugees are largely baptist — a faith that, in America at least, is strongly aligned with Trump.

But that won't spare them from Trump's policies. The president plans to wipe out 65,000 available slots this year for refugees — a broadside that will hurt asylum-seekers from Myanmar to Iraq to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The US was set to receive 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, but under Trump's orders, only 50,000 will be admitted. This policy is packaged with his travel ban order, now frozen by the courts, though it's bound to eventually go through. Judges generally don't dispute the president's power to limit incoming refugees.

“We can't understand why the president has to talk like this," says Kaw Hser. (This name is actually a pseudonym. In his three years in America, Kaw Hser has learned that political statements often attract online mobs. He'd rather spare himself the grief.)

“He wants to turn the American citizens against the immigrant population," he says. “We just want to work hard and go to church. … All immigrants don't cause trouble. All immigrants don't cause crazy bombing stuff."

In fact, Christian refugees from Myanmar are often primed to adore America from an early age. Many grow up in Thai refugee camps, overseen by the United Nations, that abut rough patches of Myanmar.

Kaw Hser was raised in these camps. Along with tens of thousands of others, he lived in a world where American aid helped provide clean water, vaccines and basic schooling. His afternoons were spent watching bootlegged Hollywood action movies.

In these camps, there are still flimsy wooden outhouses decked out with the stars and stripes — and the message: “FUNDING PROVIDED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT."

“For years, America has supported us. Not just physically but spiritually, too," says Pastor Winner. He's a 40-year-old preacher in Mae La, one of Asia's largest refugee camps. Located on the Thai-Myanmar border, the camp is filled with Christians from the long-persecuted Karen ethnic group.

“America and the Karen, we are brothers," he says. “This goes back to the 1830s when American missionaries came and converted us. Even before that, in Karen history, we believed white brothers would come to bring this 'good news' to the Karen people."

On Sunday mornings in the camps, the hills behind Winner's church ring out with piano-backed gospel singing that would sound familiar to any Baptist in the US. “We've just copied your old Americans hymns," he says, “and put it into our own language."

These little outposts of American baptist culture are remarkably evocative of Sunday morning scenes in the US south. One noticeable difference: A percentage of Karen worshippers are maimed or limbless — suffering wrought by land mines strewn about their homeland.

American attention toward these refugees has waned in recent years. This is owed in large part to the Obama administration's restoration of ties with Myanmar's central government, which has diverted the focus away from those fleeing its abuses.

Meanwhile, warfare between guerrillas and troops in Myanmar's border areas — where much of the country's Christians are located — continues to rage on.

“Nobody wants to run from their birthplace," says Way Lay, a researcher with the Karen Human Rights Group, an organization that documents abuses in eastern Myanmar.

“I won't say it's as bad as Syria," he says. “But there is fighting with heavy weapons, land mines. Even government airstrikes. It's really terrible."

Under Trump, American assistance to Myanmar is bound to shrivel further — along with foreign aid to the rest of the planet. White House planning documents suggest the administration wants to slash aid to Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest nations, by more than 23 percent.

Kaw Hser is thrilled that he reached America three years ago before the anti-refugee vibe grew particularly toxic. He relishes America's freedom and safety — a land where “anyone can come and work hard as long as you follow the law."

But he is still trying to reconcile the “dreamland" he imagined as a kid, back in those muddy camps, with an America run by politicians nurturing distrust of foreigners.

He has a message for the irate woman at Wal-Mart — and anyone else who believes he should “crawl back" to the war-torn jungles he managed to escape.

“I just want to say, 'Where did you crawl out from? You — or maybe your grandparents or great, great-grandparents — came from somewhere. So you go back first.'"