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What A Conflict In Myanmar Has Done To A Refugee Center In Western Kansas

Corinne Boyer
Kansas News Service
Birgit Lemke reviews with refugees questions that may appear on a U.S. citizenship test.

For years, one of the first stops for immigrant groups arriving in Garden City has been an apartment in a brick building.

A sign posted on the front door welcomes people in four languages. Inside, tables and chairs in the living room and kitchen form a classroom. Refugees learn English and the ways of American life from those who navigated the culture shock just a few years before them.

Regardless of religion or customs, for years refugees at LiveWell Finney County’s Neighborhood Learning Center have bonded while studying and learning to adjust to life in a small American city on the high plains.

More recently, though, the dynamic shifted.

First, the number of people flooding into the region, and the country, slowed.

Then Garden City saw another, more subtle change — tension between Muslims and Buddhists who ran from the same troubled country of Myanmar.

In 2017, workers at the refugee center noticed rifts from the home they’d left had taken roost in the home they’d adopted.

“The Rohingyas ... were just really upset about the situation at home. And then also not that comfortable being around Burmese” said Birgit Lemke, the program coordinator for LiveWell Finney County. “The Rohingyas just didn’t come to class anymore.”

Over the decades, people fleeing political instability, conflict and genocide steadily landed in Garden City. Refugees can quickly find jobs in the region’s meatpacking plants that few native-born Americans will take on. The city also includes immigrant communities that offer them a connection to their homelands of Southeast Asia, Eastern Africa and Central America.

But new federal immigration rules decreased that resettlement drastically. In 2018, the United States took in 22,491 refugees under an immigration limit of 45,000. The cap fell to 30,000 in 2019.

Before the new limits were set, then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration signaled it was less willing to take in more newcomers to Kansas and ended the state’s refugee resettlement program.

The dwindling influx of refugees triggered the closing of the International Rescue Committee’s Garden City office that helped with the day-to-day needs of people adjusting to life in a new country.

As people find their way to southwest Kansas from troubled Myanmar, once known as Burma, ethnic tensions have followed. Families from the predominantly Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority who escaped violence in Myanmar found themselves in the same rooms with Buddhist Burmese refugees — members of the dominant ethnic group they blamed for the purge in their homeland.

Now the Rohingya have mostly abandoned English classes at the local refugee center — signaling that ethnic divisions traveled with them to a new continent.

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Khaing Pyi is a community health worker at the Neighborhood Learning Center and helps translate Karen and Burmese.

Khaing Pyi was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to a Burmese father and a mother from the Karen ethnic group. She sees herself as ethnically Burmese. In 2011, her family immigrated to Milwaukee and then to Garden City where they knew work waited at a meat-packing plant.

Now Pyi, 24, is a community health worker at the learning center, where she helps translate Karen and Burmese.

The center is the nucleus for refugees and immigrants learning English and who need help with health care, housing and job applications.

Immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, Haiti, Myanmar, Laos and the Democratic Republic of Congo sit side by side in a small apartment converted to a classroom and answer questions asked by their teacher. Some students are studying for the citizenship test.

On any given day, the scene at the learning center is similar: immigrants who’ve lived in Kansas for years helping immigrants who have more recently arrived learn English.

But some immigrants are largely absent from that scene. “With the Rohingya people, we try our best to help them,” Pyi said. “They have family back home and me, of course, you're going to feel bad or, you know, because of what happened back home.”

Myanmar has known decades of totalitarian rule and violence. In 2017, the country’s military launched a nearly genocidal purge of Rohingya, an ethnic minority of mostly Muslims and some Hindus in the predominantly Buddhist Burmese country.

More than half of the country’s roughly 1 million Rohingya fled into Bangladesh in barely a year.

As a Rohingya, Saleh Mohammed felt he had little choice but to leave Myanmar. His family now lives in Bangladesh along with more than 700,000 Rohingya in refugee camps.

“The Burmese government doesn’t like Muslim people, Rohingya people,” Mohammed said.

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Saleh Mohammed is a Rohingya refugee. Mohammed attends English classes the Neighborhood Learning Center and is studying for the U.S. citizenship test.

Mohammed left Myanmar for Sri Lanka and then immigrated to the U.S. He met his wife, who is also from Myanmar, in Kansas.

Next year, Mohammed can apply for citizenship, and he continues to study English and practice for the citizenship test.

Numan Mohammed is also Rohingya and continues to study at the center. Meantime, he worries about family still in Myanmar.

“Burma is very difficult right now,” he said.

But despite knowing what is happening in Myanmar, he likes coming to class.

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Numan Mohammed is a meat cutter at Tyson. Mohammed studies English at the Neighborhood Learning Center and is a Rohingya refugee.

“I like school and work,” the 26-year-old said. Both the learning and the work are hard, but necessary because Mohammed says he needs money.

Both men work as meat cutters at Tyson Foods.

Although they attend classes, Lemke said, most Rohingya have shied away from the center.

“People really have not been coming back,” she said.

While Lemke and Pyi have worked to address the absence of Rohingya students, other refugees attending the center may soon have nowhere to go.

Credit Corinne Boyer / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
The Neighborhood Learning Center will close at the end of June if the organization doesn't find additional funding.

The grant funding the Neighborhood Learning Center expires at the end of June, and the organization hasn’t been granted new funding.

Callie Dyer, executive director of Livewell Finney County, says people who arrived in Garden City when the center opened six years ago still go there.

“It’s a place where people feel safe, and they trust the individuals that are there to help them,” Dyer said. “But we also are a place where other organizations in town dovetail, come in and let the residents know of what they’re doing.”

Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Corinne_Boyer.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.