It’s amazing how many coats and jackets a family can accumulate over the years, and how many are left hanging in the closet, hardly ever worn. This week, I took a bunch of coats to the Asian Pacific Development Center to be distributed to one of Denver’s newest immigrant communities, the Burmese.
The APDC is a non-profit that offers health and social services to the local Asian communities, and Erin serves its the board of directors. The APDC conducted a food and goods drive for the Burmese over the holiday season, and is still accepting donations at its three locations: 1544 Elmira Street in Aurora, 1825 York Street in Denver and 6055 Lehman Drive, Suite 103 in Colorado Springs. Last summer, the APDC helped collect donated school supplies for students from both the Burmese and another Asian immigrant community, the Bhutanese.
Because many Asian communities have been in the U.S. for two, three or even four or more generations and we’ve assimilated into American society, it’s easy to forget that there are recent immigrants from Asia who are not as fortunate as those of us from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and other countries, whose families came here to seek better opportunities. In the case of the Burmese, and also the Bhutanese, another recent Asian immigrant group, they’ve arrived in America as refugees, like the waves of Vietnamese, Laotians and Hmong in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Bhutanese and Burmese refugees fled an oppressive regime or have been resettled from refugee camps across the globe.
But unfortunately, once here, they’re facing more oppression: In the past year, both Bhutanese and Burmese students were singled out and attacked in the Denver area. The first attacks were reported last spring; on December 11, a group of Bhutanese students were beaten and robbed after getting off a bus and one required emergency room treatment. The Denver Police Department distributed special cell phones to Bhutanese that are set to dial 911 in case of future attacks, but the community understandably would prefer the violence just stop. In the Denver Post story following the attacks, one Bhutanese refugee said:
“If they kill me and my son, what will my daughter and wife do?” said Dambar Bhujel, father of an 18-year-old victim, who is now wary of letting his son go to school.
“At first, I was happy to come to the United States. After one year, I’m feeling very bad and I don’t want to stay longer. But we can’t go back to Bhutan and we can’t go back to Nepal,” Bhujel said. “They told us America was secure.”
A lot of Americans have heard of Burma (also called Myanmar), mostly because of the country’s military rulers’ imprisonment of opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But they probably don’t know too much about the country itself. Burma, which is officially named “Union of Myanmar,” is a country of 262,000 square miles surrounded by Bangladesh, Tibet, India, China, Laos and Thailand, with an estimated population of 50 million.
If people recognize the name Burma without knowing much a bout the country, I bet very few Americans know anything about Bhutan, a tiny country of less than 700,000 people that covers less than 15,000 square miles, sandwiched between India and China.
Refugees from Burma are fleeing repressive rule; in Bhutan, the situation’s a bit more complicated, and involves ethnic clashes. Here’s a passage from a CNN report about Bhutanese refugees:
Bhutan stripped the minority ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and forced them into exile in the early 1990s, allegedly in an attempt to ensure a homogenous culture, according to the independent, nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch. Many of the Nepalis have taken up arms and joined with violent Maoist rebels, the group said.
The refugees claim they were forced to leave Bhutan by security forces, but Bhutan has disputed whether all are truly refugees.
Political refugees are an ages-old problem, and one that’s unfortunately still with us. Even within the last couple of weeks, a group of Asian refugees — the Hmong, who have been in refugee camps in Thailand for over two decades after the Vietnam war ended — made the news when Thailand forcibly repatriated refugees from one camp to Laos, even though they would most likely face persecution.
Every bit of media coverage helps educate the general public about these little-known communities, and it’s especially important in these times, when new immigrants are facing prejudice and hatred.