A New Beginning
Writer / Amanda Ennis
Photographer / Forrest Mellot
Would you leave the only home you’ve ever known — abandon your community with little money and few, if any, possessions? Would you travel to a foreign land, a completely alien culture thousands of miles away? Would you dare to start over in a country with a completely different language, where even the climate and landscape is vastly different?
More than 100,000 Burmese refugees have done so, fleeing their homeland to come to the United States. Since the 1990s, approximately 10,000 ethnic minority Chin refugees who left the rolling hills and mountains of their homeland now call Indianapolis home. This group’s native land is the Chin State in Burma (also known as Myanmar) in southern Asia.
In Burma, the Chin experience persecution by their military government, including forced labor, physical abuse and land confiscation. While denied the right to worship freely, 90 percent of the Chin population is Christian.
Since Indiana first welcomed Chin refugees, the Indianapolis area continues to appeal as more people from Chin State want to settle where either family members or others with ties to their homeland villages have settled.
Starting over made easier
Multiple organizations, including local churches, partner with these larger agencies to help the refugees. One such church is Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Center Grove, through its Family Partnership Ministry. In this ministry, an American family is partnered with a Chin family to show them love and care and to help them adjust to life in America.
In 2008, the Family Partnership Ministry was introduced to the MPCC congregation. One worship service included a Chin choir from Chin Evangelical Baptist Church in Indianapolis. All in attendance together sang “How Great Thou Art.” In a chorus of English and Hakha (one of many Chin languages), Center Grove resident and MPCC attendee Tami Haynes recalls, “Every person in the room was the same in Christ, no matter the language barrier. It was very powerful and moving.” Haynes was there along with her husband, Paul, and their young children Morgan, Hailey and Zach. The kids were 6, 4 and 2 at the time.
MPCC was looking for American families to come alongside Chin families from Chin Evangelical Baptist Church to help them acclimate to their new lives. They needed volunteers willing to explain their mail, give directions or provide transportation to the store and help them learn to tackle the many things we do every day. Such volunteers would need to spend one hour per week to be a partner.
Ways to help
Donate Land: MPCC helps the Chin community find land to garden. In Burma, many Chin provide for their family through farming. One to two acres can be divided among 25 to 30 families. Any person or church interested in helping in this way can contact the church office at 881-6727.
Donate furniture, household goods and clothing:
• Storehouse Ministries, Grace Assembly of God, 6822 N. U.S. Hwy. 31, New Whiteland, accepts and picks up furniture, mattresses and working appliances. They also accept household items, baby items and hygiene items. For drop-off hours and home pick-up information, call 535-5640.
• Exodus Refugee Immigration, 1125 E. Brookside Ave., Suite C9, Indianapolis, accepts financial donations as well as household goods such as furnishings, dishes, bedding, diapers, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, etc. Exodus picks up large furniture donations. It also takes gently used coats and cold weather accessories, baby clothes, toys and children’s books. Call 921-0836 for more information.
Provide language assistance: The language barrier continues to be a challenge for adults within the Chin community who have little opportunity to learn English because of work and family responsibilities.
• Southport Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis offers English classes to Chin adults on Saturday mornings. In the future, this program may be in need of more volunteer teachers. Anyone who is willing and able to teach English to the Chin community can contact Tom McCoy at email@example.com.
“In that moment, Paul and I knew we really wanted to do something. The hallway of the church was lined with pictures of families who needed partners. We looked at the pictures with our kids, and since our children were still so young, we thought it would be great to pick a family with older kids,” Haynes recalls.
The Haynes family chose the Sang Uk Family. Because Chin families typically do not have last names, the family is referred to by the father’s first name. The Sang Uk family had only been in the United States for five months. The mother and father spoke no English, and the children had just begun learning English in school. MPCC does what it can to support the partnering families.
“They gave us a mentor who understood the Chin culture. They also provided opportunities for partnership families to share issues facing their Chin families and suggestions for how to handle them,” Haynes says.
A perfect fit
The Haynes and the Sang Uk family relationship developed into something much deeper than just checking in. As these two families began to live life together, a special bond formed — one that transcended culture and language. Just two years after the two families met, Tami and Paul had the honor of giving the family’s newborn child his American name. They named him Gabriel because it means “God is my strength.”
“Because our son Zach was so little when we became partners with them, he will never know life without our Chin family,” shares Tami. The two families celebrate birthdays, Christmas and other milestones, such as graduations and homeownership for the Sang Uk family two years ago. They enjoy dinners together, movies and trips to amusement parks. When the Sang Uk family’s oldest child, Chin Par, needed help with the college application and scholarship process, the Haynes walked her through it.
When asked about the Haynes family, Chin Par smiles and affectionately refers to them as her second family. “I have two moms and two dads who care for me and help me make decisions, especially when language is an issue,” she says.
“They are always there for us. God has provided them to love and protect us. We cannot repay them, but God will,” Chin Par’s mom, Ngun Khia, says (with Chin Par translating).
The decision to go
Husband and father Sang Uk recalls life in Chin State to his daughter, who translates: “In our daily lives we experienced military persecution. There was little work. We paid the government to go to school, paid the government to worship in church. By God’s grace, our kids can have an education here, and Chin Par is in college.”
When the family decided to leave Burma, Sang Uk left first, hoping to find a stable situation for his family and needing to save more money to afford the entire family’s exodus. When the time came for his family to join him, they left at night and began their long and arduous journey.
“We made it through Burma, crossing borders, a river, Thailand and finally into Malaysia. We were illegal refugees in Malaysia, so we lived in hiding with two other families in a two-bedroom apartment. Our family all shared one room,” says Chin Par, who was 16 at the time. “If we were caught, we’d be arrested. My dad still left during the day to work in order to feed his family, but at any time, he could’ve been caught by the police and arrested.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped the family leave Malaysia and come to the United States. “Our family came to Indianapolis because I had uncles and aunts who lived here,” says Chin Par.
She recalls the family’s first hours in Indianapolis: “Two hours after we finally arrived here, my brother and I went to a Wednesday night youth service at a local Chin church.”
Chin Par and her family are still members of that same church, Chin Evangelical Baptist Church. It is one of more than 30 Chin Christian churches on the south side of Indianapolis.
After living in America for one year, the Sang Uk family applied for and received green cards. Having lived in America now for five years, they will soon apply to become U.S. citizens.
A bright future
Chin Par graduated 14th in her class at Southport High School and currently attends Butler University on a full-tuition Lilly Endowment Scholarship.
“I want to be an optometrist and do mission work. As many others have served us, I want to serve others,” says Chin Par. When she thinks about her life, Chin Par recalls God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11. “God has been planning all along for me. Even when we were in Malaysia, most refugees are there for up to four years. We were only there one year. God made it easier for us.”
[When asked about the difference life in the United States has made in their lives, sons Uk, 20, and Bawi, 17, smile and share that they have been “blessed by friendships and a better future.”]
What matters most
Paul Haynes has been just as active a partner as his wife, Tami. “Partnering with the Sang Uk family reminds me of what matters most in life: Faith and family are the most important things. When we spend time with the Sang Uk family, we are reminded of the importance of both. We have been blessed much more than we’ve given,” he says.
Tami Haynes echoes that thought: “This is one of the times in my life when I know for sure that God was working. Only God can bring together two families from across the world, with different cultures and languages, and make them a perfect fit. That is what He did with our families. He made us a perfect fit.”