Burmese Refugees In Northern Illinois

Jan 25, 2013

Members of the audience at a church discussion on Burmese refugees
Credit Mike Moen

In recent years, Illinois has seen a gradual increase in refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma. As these immigrants try to establish a new life, volunteers in one city are trying to raise public awareness about their growing presence.

On a cold winter morning, Enrique Gonzales is tapping on the front window of a duplex on Rockford’s southeast side. He had arranged a meeting with a Burmese refugee who lives at this address. After no success, Gonzalez heads back toward the front sidewalk. That’s when he spots a woman on the other side of the duplex. The woman appears older, and does not seem bothered by the cold weather, even though she’s not bundled up. After some introductions, the woman says she too is a refugee.

The dozens of estimated Burmese refugees in Rockford were brought to the U.S. as part of an effort spearheaded by Catholic Charities.

This woman says she been here for more than a year, and has five children with her. She also indicated that she’s happier here than she was in her native country.

A home in southeast Rockford where Burmese refugees live

But because she speaks very little English, the conversation pretty much ended there. Gonzalez does the best he can to communicate, but he doesn’t speak the native language of these refugees, an added challenge to the assistance he’s trying to provide.

Gonzalez is a pastor at Rockford’s Centennial United Methodist Church. He says they began helping these refugees when a handful of families were encouraged to take part in the church’s English as a Second Language program.

“After several months of attending, we started to see needs in the families, [such as] clothing, more regular shelter,” Gonzalez said.

Another challenge Gonzalez relates is that the men in these families, desperate for work, often take jobs at food processing plants in Iowa, keeping them away from home for long stretches.

But the pastor says getting past the language barrier tends to be the biggest obstacle in providing help, especially when these refugees are trying to adapt to an urban environment with so many different ethnicities. He says they might feel intimidated by the people in their neighborhood. He says neighborhood residents might be feeling the same thing.

“It creates an environment of potential, major struggles,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez says that’s why his church, along with Rockford Urban Ministries, is encouraging the community to get a better sense of the history and the needs of the refugees. The church hosted a welcoming event Thursday night.

One of the speakers was Catherine Raymond, the Director of the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University. She says many of these people spent time in refugee camps along Myanmar’s border with Thailand.

Raymond says after living in poor conditions, they come here with the hope of a better life, even if the odds are stacked against them.

“The first two years are difficult for them until they find a job and a community that can help them” Raymond said.

Raymond says that’s why young children in these families are so important. She says when they enroll in school, they become translators for older family members.

But Raymond says it can be difficult to get up to speed for those who don’t have an easier way to learning English. And she they can’t always turn to other families of refugees for help, because there are so many different dialects in their native country.

Meanwhile, Raymond says she sees some positives in communities pooling resources to better assist these individuals:

“In Fort Wayne, Indiana, where you have 7,000 refugees over the last ten years, they’ve been extremely well organized to help,” Raymond said.

In Illinois, Raymond says roughly 3,000 Burmese refugees have found their way here. That number could reach 10,000 in the coming years. She says that’s why creating awareness is an important step in making these refugees feel more at home.