Chin community

Ruth Iang, left, 13, Sui Me Zi, center, 13, Ngun Hnem Iang, right, 10, all of Elkridge sing during the children's service at Cornerstone Church in Columbia. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / November 17, 2012)

On a recent Wednesday morning inside an Elkridge apartment, three foreign-speaking mothers gather around two volunteers to learn how to decrypt the English language.

The mothers, all Chin natives, hover over elementary-level workbooks and flashcards, occasionally watching as one of their teachers stands to illustrate the meaning of simple words, such as "tail" and "wagging."

Nearing the end of the lesson, the mothers are asked a few simple questions, to which one woman is able to answer, "I like pizza," and another that she prefers "Chin food."

Then, the students are prodded for more reflective thoughts. They are asked about life as refugees.

Sign up to receive our free daily email newsletter: Columbia Today

Before long, Than Sian, a gentle, middle-aged woman and one of the more vocal students in the class, mentions the health insurance and the other benefits she receives while living in America. She smiles broadly with appreciation.

In just a few years, Howard County has become home to nearly 1,500 Chin refugees who fled persecution from their home state in western Burma (also known as Myanmar).

Howard competes with Frederick County as the Maryland county with the highest number of ethnic Chins. Its services to help new arrivals are steadily growing, and a network of concerned churches and organizations is beginning to emerge as the population increases.

Guided here by the United Nations and other relocation services, refugees come seeking asylum, reconnection with relatives and relief from a history of oppression. As they assimilate into American culture, many must bury memories of abuse and unspeakable miseries.

"We are in a Democratic country and we have full human rights," Peter Thang Tum, 46, a Chin refugee who has been in the U.S. for close to two years. "I don't find discrimination, so I feel very, very free."

Chin history

Chin State, an area where political freedom is almost nonexistent and the economy remains severely underdeveloped, was established as an independent democracy prior to the 1962 military coup of Burma.

Following a bloody government crackdown against a pro-democracy demonstration in 1988, unrest escalated. The Burmese military regime, dominated by Buddhists, clashed with Chin State, comprised predominantly of Christians. Tens of thousands of Chins began to flee first into neighboring India and then into areas beyond.

"The pastors and church leaders could not do anything … but to flee ... but to go away from their respective villages," says Tum, recalling how officials would burn crosses and harass Christian believers. "I am one of them."

Like Tum, many have fled Burma to preserve their lives. But to gain recognition as refugees, many must still journey far and illegally to reach Malaysia, New Dehli or elsewhere in Asia where refugee services are located. The long trek is usually followed by months of waiting for official recognition, all the while remaining undercover.

Shiang Kung, 40, faced detention four separate times as he sought refuge in various areas, including Malaysia, Thailand and India.

"I never cut my hair so my hair was long … The police would call me, 'Long hair! Long hair!'' " he says, referring to his time in Thai prison. "The worst thing at jail ... sometimes they don't allow us to wear any clothes. Sometimes the police officers, they got mad and they told us to remove our clothes."

Shiang said a friend and an uncle died from maltreatment in jail, due to lack of food and frequent neglect. In some jails, he says, nearly 500 people had to share one toilet.

Outside intervention has freed some from their imprisonment and has allowed many more Chins to move about on foreign soil without fear of arrest. However, harsh daily struggles await even those who have already gained refugee status.

"Malaysia living was … so hard," Lydia Sung, 17, wrote in an online message recounting when she and her family fled Burma for a better life.We were so poor. We always [ate] chicken liver. I was sick of it."

By age 13, Lydia was working at a Malaysian restaurant to help support her two younger sisters and parents, both of whom fell sick during their time in Malaysia. After five years in Malaysia, her family was relocated to Howard County, where communities of Chin were being settled in Savage, Laurel, Elkridge, Jessup and Ellicott City.