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Burmese refugees share a day with Holly Place senior citizens

September 13, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - For a little while Wednesday, southeast Asian hymns and a home-cooked meal linked two cultures that otherwise might not have met.

As residents of Holly Place, a senior citizens' group home, ate lunch, a half-dozen Burmese refugees lounged on a couch, taking turns playing a guitar and singing.

There were noticeable differences: The men were young, soft-spoken and freshly free from oppression half a world away. The group-home residents were older and frailer; some, with mental disabilities, were reserved.

But the dissimilarities - age, ethnicity and language - were rendered irrelevant while the Burmese men strummed, tapped their feet and sang hymns they called up from memory.

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Mary Beth Alphin forged the link.

Alphin knows the men through her work as interim coordinator of the Virginia Council of Churches' refugee resettlement office in Hagerstown. She said most have been in Washington County for a few months, know some English and have jobs.

Through St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Williamsport, she knows the group home and its struggle to stay open because of money problems.

Alphin said the refugees need and want to give back in their new neighborhoods and Holly Place needs help, so she connected them.

The Burmese men don't have money to donate, but they can give of themselves, she said.

Several group-home residents savored a lunch of Burmese noodles, vegetables and chicken, prepared by Judith Thein, a case worker for the resettlement office.

Holly Place Administrator Melanie Davis said she saw signs of how much the residents enjoyed the music and the meal. One woman who usually eats little cleaned her plate and asked for seconds, she said.

The Virginia Council of Churches has brought scores of legal refugees from various countries to Washington County, attracting sympathy from supporters and skepticism from critics.

One of the new refugees is William Sang, 25, who took a turn with the guitar Wednesday. He has been in Hagerstown about a week, and lived in Frederick, Md., for a little more than a month before that.

With translation help from Thein, Sang talked about his family's plight in Burma, which some call Myanmar.

The country is run by what the CIA considers a military junta, or council.

Thein, who also is from Burma and prepared Wednesday's lunch, said Christians face persecution there. "You won't get a job," she said. "You won't get certain things."

The CIA's World Factbook listing for Burma says supporters of the main opposition party, "as well as all those who promote democracy and improved human rights, are routinely harassed and jailed."

With Thein translating, Sang said his mother was put in jail for stitching uniforms for rebels.

For her release, Sang had to sign something promising that his mother would not associate with the insurgency, which includes his father.

Even so, the government watched what she did when she was released, Sang said. She fled to India.

He has been told that his mother has died, but he has no way to be sure and no way to reach her.

Sang brought his wife, Sui Dim, 21, who is also a refugee, and their 4-month-old daughter, Grace, on Wednesday.

Dim was in law school in Burma, but now might study nursing, her husband said.

Asked what the biggest change has been coming to America, Sang said, "Freedom of life."

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