February 24, 2017

Tips help explain customs, dispell myths about refugees from Myanmar

By Natalie Hoefer

Catholics are one, whether from Myanmar or America.

Nevertheless, there are experiential impacts, cultural differences and myths about Myanmar refugees that can lead to misunderstanding and division.

Here are a few tips in understanding and interacting with refugees from Myanmar, as explained by natives Father David Bu Nyar and Rita Si Si Lwin, coordinator of the archdiocesan Burmese Catholic Community, and Heidi Smith, director of Indianapolis Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigrant Services (RIS):

While civil war in Myanmar (formerly Burma, officially becoming Myanmar in 1989) has played out in stages since 1948, the current refugees from Myanmar started arriving in Indianapolis in the late 1990s as victims of attacks carried out by the government and rebels opposing the government.

“If the government came into a village, you [had] to do whatever they say,” says Lwin. “And when the rebellion came in, they say, ‘You are helping the Burmese government.’ That’s why they kill everyone.”

While circumstances are better now, Father Bu Nyar says, he admits that previously “our political situation was very bad. There was always fighting, murder by the government troops. Some of them, their villages were burned down and they had to flee.”

According to an explanatory article on exodusrefugee.org, “Most [refugees from Myanmar] have survived significant human rights violations such as persecution, war, hunger, genocide, forced relocation, rape and many other unspeakable experiences.”

The refugees fled to camps, mostly in Thailand, living there for more than a decade in many cases.

Myanmar refugees, like refugees from many other nations, made their way to Indianapolis through RIS, which represents the archdiocese as a participant organization in a public-private partnership between the federal government and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Migration and Refugee Services.

Contrary to what some believe, refugees from Myanmar who settle in Indianapolis are not given federal money for homes and cars, says Smith.

“They receive very short-term financial aid that’s meant to cover rent and utilities,” she explains. “They’re very family-oriented and hardworking, so they’re able to save the money they earn very quickly. They start working in the first few months of when they arrive here.

“As refugees, they don’t have much control over their lives, so the minute they can make a life of their own and be independent, they run for it. That’s why people see them buying homes and cars so quickly. It’s all with the money they earned themselves.”

For more information on this and other myths about refugees in Indiana, log onto www.in.gov/isdh/24670.htm.

Myanmar people associate more with their tribe than as “Burmese.”

“At St. Pius [X Parish in Indianapolis] they are mostly of the Karenni tribe,” Lwin explains. “At St. Mark [the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis], it is mixed, but mostly Chin and Kachin.”

Regardless of tribe, three particular Myanmar customs that show respect in their culture but can seem rude to Americans, says Lwin, are the crossing of arms over the chest, the averting of eyes and social reserve.

“Eye contact is one of the big differences,” she says. “In Burma, eye contact is very rude. But here you have to, or people think you don’t pay attention or are not interested.

“Also, arms crossed [over the chest] is how we show respect. But in America if you do like that, they say that you’re not paying attention, or not interested.

“And no hugging—handshakes. We have a lot of issues in our parishes: The parishioners want to hug, and most of our people are shy and run away from that. We are not used to it. It’s not offensive to us, we are just shy.”

While hugs are perhaps uncomfortable for those from Myanmar, asking one’s age is not.

“This is not a rude question in our culture,” says Lwin. “This is something we are told here—don’t ask age, don’t ask salary. But in Burma we are really proud to say, ‘Hey! I’m 25 already!’ When we arrive here, we learn that this is not the culture here, this is very private. But we are very proud of our age!” †


Related story: ‘A gift to us’: Priest’s gentle nature helps to guide refugees whose lives have been touched by violence

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