Burmese Natives Seek Hope in Jacksonville about 100 Refugees Want to Stay Together

By Andino, Alliniece T. | The Florida Times Union, August 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Burmese Natives Seek Hope in Jacksonville about 100 Refugees Want to Stay Together


Andino, Alliniece T., The Florida Times Union


Byline: Alliniece T. Andino, Times-Union staff writer

He comes from a place where he doesn't know who is a government informant and who is not.

His parents have died, one at the hands of the military. So he no longer has anyone to shield in the country he left behind.

Ja Dan Bawmwang journeyed from Myanmar to England for schooling, to the U.S. territory of Guam for refuge and then to Jacksonville with his wife for political asylum.

Bawmwang, 33, and his wife fled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, because they disagree with the military rule. Had they stayed there and spoken out, they say their lives and their families' lives would have been endangered.

"I had a problem for criticizing the government. I had to leave Burma," said Bawmwang, who recently arrived in Jacksonville. The country's name was changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, after the military seized power the previous year.

Bawmwang was among the more than 1,000 people who fled to Guam from the Southeast Asian country in the past year. About 100 will resettle in Jacksonville this month.

"I just sought a safe place, then I found I could seek political asylum there," said Bawmwang, who arrived in Guam in August 2000.

Bawmwang and other refugees entered Guam under a visa waiver program that promotes tourism, but they remained after their two weeks expired. They applied for political asylum and waited. After five months, they applied for work permits and several more months passed. Out of 1,000 Burmese, Bawmwang guessed fewer than 20 were able to work.

Some Burmese lived with 40 others in four-bedroom apartments. Bawmwang and his wife shared a three-bedroom flat with 10 others because he said, "If you didn't do that, who is going to help you?" He laughed, eyes squinting, as he recalled the hardest part was sharing the one bathroom.

Often the Burmese came to Guam with money, $300 or $500. But the funds ran out quickly in the small province that caters to the expensive tastes of Japanese tourists. And as the Burmese awaited word that their asylum was granted or they were approved for work, they started to burden the economy. A refugee resettlement coordinator said Guam had an unemployment rate of 15 percent.

Guam's congressional delegate, Robert A. Underwood, sought assistance. At his urging, Myanmar was suspended from the visa waiver program, but not before about 1,000 Burmese had moved to Guam.

The government stepped in to help resettle the Burmese; among the workers was Russell Bloom, program director of Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida. Bloom suggested the 100 Kachin, an ethnic group in Myanmar who were among those seeking political asylum and who didn't want to be dispersed, come to Jacksonville.

Bawmwang and his wife are Kachin. As one of the ethnic minorities who practice Christianity in a predominantly Buddhist nation, Bawmwang recalled a childhood where he despised the government.

Bawmwang speaks somewhat freely, but he is guarded.

He said he was 2 years old when his father, a member of the Kachin Independent Army, died in a bombing engineered by the military. …

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