Local assistance

Upon their arrival in the States, Chins are often assisted by local resettlement agencies alerted to their arrival. They also rely heavily on existing Chin communities and their churches for help getting situated.

Chin Bethel Church, in Columbia, has adopted 407 refugees since its opening 2 1/2 years ago. It remains the only Chin church in Howard County, although Chin Baptist Mission Church stands nearby in Silver Spring. Both churches receive members from Howard County and work closely with two other Chin churches in Baltimore.

Recently, community leaders have been working to create an alliance between Chin churches and other churches in the county. Tim Siemens, family pastor at Grace Community Church in Fulton, has helped his church coordinate clothing and furniture drives for the nearby Chin community.

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The assistance was welcomed, for it was not uncommon for refugees to enter their first apartments with just a suitcase or handbag in tow.

"We're taking baby steps and I think through that .. we'll learn," Siemens says. "It'll then build into bigger things as a result of [more people having] an opportunity to serve and be exposed.

"We're beginning to understand what the needs are in the Chin community," Siemens said.

Refugees must also adopt an entirely new language, culture and system of transportation, banking and education, according to Chin activist Zo Tum Hmung.

Laurel Conran, an ESOL teacher at Bollman Bridge Elementary in Savage, works to bridge the gap between parents, students and their educators. In addition to teaching English to the children in her ESOL program, Conran visits many Chin parents in their workplace at Sunbelt Coastal Produce, also in Savage, where they work cutting and packing cold vegetables.

Conran tutors parents once a week during their lunch hour in a variety of subjects, ranging from how to call your child in sickto how celebrate American holidays.

At the request of some of her students, Conran also began teaching Chin mothers how to cook and bake American foods. She hosts her cooking lessons inside private kitchens, working hand-in-hand with Chin mothers and their children who sometimes offer translation between mother and teacher.

"You don't need to be an ESOL teacher to go up and initiate a conversation with someone who doesn't speak English," she says. She later adds, "And these young moms, they could really use an English-speaking partner."

'Treated like royalty'

Conran remembers with ease the first time a Chin child asked her to teach his mother to cook. She describes a familiar scene: Receiving a warm invitation and reception by child and mother to teach inside their home.

Back in the Elkridge apartment where the group tutoring session is wrapping up, the two teachers share a similar sentiment.

"We're treated like royalty," Joan Simon, a retired occupational therapist, says fondly.

She and Jane Scott, a retired elementary-school librarian and a fellow volunteer from Bethany United Methodist Church, reach for the two bowls of cut-up fruit laid in front of them.

Once their bowls are clean and the conversation winds down, Mrs. Simon and Mrs. Scott stand to take their leave. The house stirs as children emerge from their hiding places and the mothers see their teachers out. Saying goodbye, the mothers are left awaiting next week's lessons, growing more hopeful with each new lesson of becoming self-sufficient American citizens.

For more information, visit http://www.chinseekingrefuge.com.