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.
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 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.
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.
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.