Refugees are under fire in the U.S. and in Arizona.
In its most recent session, the state legislature considered bills that could negatively impact refugee resettlement. (See: Public and legislative support, opposition for refugee resettlement.) Some presidential candidates have railed against letting people across our borders. And national polls show a majority of Americans think resettlement programs should stop.
Stories: • Arizona an unlikely haven
• A new home
• College a challenge
• A father's sacrifice
• About the project
• Refugees from Burma
• Refugees from around Africa
• Refugees from Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan
• Refugees from Southeast Asia
But despite the political noise, Lal Len Mawi and her family are thriving in Arizona – one of the reddest states in the U.S.
The Burmese, including Mawi and her ethnic group known as the Chin, are celebrating their 15th anniversary in Phoenix. The growing refugee community in Arizona contradicts the state’s image as an immigration foe.
According to the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, the first 41 Burmese refugees arrived in Arizona in 2001. The Chin Burmese, however, haven’t been here as long.
Today, the Burmese community totals more than 4,000, according to the program.
Over the past 40 years, more than 60,000 refugees have resettled in Arizona, including 1,000 since October.
“Chin peoples are honest and work hard,” said Chin community president Tom Taknan. “Mostly Chins who came to the U.S. as refugees are from the village, the rural area.”
Mawi built government bridges at gunpoint as a child worker in Burma.
“With the government works and it’s pretty tough,” Mawi said. “Sometimes I had to work, we’d carry rock and sand.”
Burma (officially called Myanmar by the U.S. government) is made up of many peoples and languages.
The 17 states within the country are not homogenous. Instead, each state is composed of dozens of different ethnic groups speaking dozens of languages. Refugees may speak any number of languages and dialects.
The Chin hail from a mountainous region called Chin State in west Burma. This region is exceedingly poor, according to the United Nations Development Programme with poverty rates higher than 70 percent and many of the inhabitants are farmers.
Refugees say the central Burmese government created many of the circumstances that forced them out of the country. The government has held onto its power since uniting the states in a resistance movement during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and '40s. The country has been in a state of civil war since.
Halfway around the world from Burma, Mawi is a nursing student at Arizona State University. Her bright future is a cause to celebrate.
“I had a grandma who passed away when I was about 10 years old,” said Mawi. “Before she died, we went to hospital and found out how nurses treat differently based on wealth. I feel bad. I think all people should be treated equally – whether you’re rich or poor. It’s inspired me to become a good nurse and help everyone equally.”
Her story is not uncommon among the tens of thousands of refugees who have resettled in Arizona since 1975. In fact, the Grand Canyon State is a refugee magnet – number six in the nation for refugee resettlement, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement's 2014 annual report.
“My future dream is that not only becoming a nurse but to be able to help others in planning to create another organization ... maybe from four years from now or five years and where people especially refugee family can come and get help,“ said Mawi.
For her, members of the Chin community and other refugees, Arizona is home and they are here to stay.