Tue 22 Dec 2009
Filed under: International
Putting aside any thought of the grim circumstances they left behind, a dozen new Burmese refugees lifted their voices Monday in the crowded vestibule of the International Institute on Delaware Avenue.The performers were Chins, a predominantly Christian ethnic group from the Burma region bordering India, and the songs were native Christmas carols.
The ensemble didn’t simply harmonize, they energetically belted out the lyrics backed by two acoustic guitars and one electric guitar hooked to a portable amplifier. Fellow Burmese stood facing them in a semicircle, smiling, singing and clapping along.
“In Burma, they would be singing these songs in church this week,” said Nanda Sara, a Buddhist monk who fled his homeland, also known as Myanmar, in 2004 and was in the vanguard of refugees who started resettling in Western New York.
Now a caseworker at the institute, Sara does not speak the Chin dialect but understood perfectly the tidings of joy expressed by the exuberant choir. After all, music — in every language— has long been a powerful antidote to political strife the world over.
The choir members are part of a tide of Burmese refugees that is expected to total about 350 in the next year, said Denise Phillips Beehag, International Institute director of refugee and employment services.
They are part of a trend that has seen Erie County and Buffalo become the state’s leading refugee destination — a distinction long and famously owned by New York City. The county has resettled about 5,300 refugees from 45 troubled countries during the past decade, with many more on the way.
Among the nations of origin, few are as problematic for the international community as Burma, which has been ruled by an insular, iron-fisted military regime since 1990.
The number of people living in abject poverty in camps along Burma’s borders has grown to about 1.5 million, and the United Nations is spearheading a global effort to resettle as many as possible. Ethnic Burmese, many of whom were born in those camps, now make up the largest refugee group served by the International Institute, Beehag said.
“We literally meet them at the airport, buy them their first food and then help them find housing, services and jobs,” said Executive Director Eva Hassett. The institute is one of three local agencies expected to welcome a total of about 1,600 refugees this year, she said.
Burmese make up a majority of the 150 people who go to the institute daily and two nights a week for English language classes or other help, Hassett said.
As they have established their own community on Buffalo’s West Side, where three houses have been converted to Buddhist monasteries, Burmese who settled elsewhere in the United States have moved here to join them, she said.
If his countrymen share a goal, it is the determination to succeed in their new surroundings, in a climate that couldn’t be more different than that of tropical Southeast Asia, Sara said.
“The weather is a little hard, but they adapt,” he said. “They can’t go back to Burma anyway, so they say, ‘This is my home.’ ”