Refugees from war-torn Myanmar, once known as Burma, find a home in Northern Kentucky

The leafy, quiet suburb of Villa Hills has become home to about 500 refugees from Myanmar, a war-torn country in southeast Asia. 

Cian Sung, in 2007, was one of the first of these refugees to move to Northern Kentucky. The serenity of her home is in stark contrast to the violence and human rights abuses in Myanmar, once known as Burma. Some migrants and the U.S. Department of State still call it Burma.

Sung grows a beautiful garden, a reminder of subsistence farming in her native country. There are Asian long beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Her sentawk plant, also grown in Burma, looks like a small green pumpkin and tastes like bitter eggplant.

Sung is retired, having worked at Taylor Farms in Covington, formerly known as Club Chef, packaging fresh-cut vegetables for distribution to grocery stores.

Villa Hills, she says, is peaceful and quiet. She never hears people fighting or arguing much. Few ambulances come in and out and she often sees police checking the neighborhood. Sung spoke to us through translator Grace Thawng, a Burmese refugee in her 20s and a community navigator for Refugee Connect in Northern Kentucky.

Sung’s favorite part about Villa Hills is having good neighbors. Sharing plants and seeds with her new neighbors is one of the joys of her backyard garden.

Why did she leave Burma? It’s very hard to survive in the mountainous Chin State in Myanmar, from which Sung and fellow refugees hail. Myanmar is located between India on the west, China to the north, and Thailand and Laos on the east. The Chin, about 90% of whom are Christian, are persecuted by the military juntas who have ruled most of the past 70 years. The dominant religion in Burma is Buddhism. Another minority, the Muslim Rohingya, have also suffered at the hand of the state.

“We don’t have freedoms for anything, freedom of religion, freedom of education, life. A lot of discrimination,” Sung says.

Faith, family, and food are bedrock values for the Chin

Most came to Northern Kentucky from Myanmar between 2010 and 2015. The core group of refugees came around 2007. Safety found in Villa Hills is what caused the Chin community to grow, according to everyone interviewed for this article. While some obtained refugee status from Myanmar, others fled through Thailand to Malaysia, which has large refugee facilities.

The Rev. Thomas Kap is pastor of Calvary Chin Baptist Church, founded in 2008, which meets at the Erlanger Baptist Church building on Sunday afternoons. Kap hopes that Calvary will open its own church building – “by the grace of God” – within the year. This has been a longtime dream since he was one of the first Chin refugees in Northern Kentucky.

Kap spread the word that Villa Hills was a safe, quiet community with many warehouse jobs nearby. He’d invite newcomers to stay with his family, then helped them rent a U-Haul to move here. “Then we grew day by day, months and years,” Kap says.

Kap and others say that Chin migrants work hard, often six or seven days a week, to become homeowners and to send money to relatives in Myanmar.

As the Chin population has grown, a second church emerged in 2015, the Zion Chin Baptist Church in Florence.

Members of Zion Chin Baptist Church gather before a Sunday church service in September. It is one of two Northern Kentucky churches serving the sizable population of Chin refugees from Myanmar (Burma). Photo Joe Simon.Seminary student Moses Lian, also of Villa Hills, smiles at the dozens of children chattering before a September Sunday service at Zion Baptist. One youngster, who leaps like a frog in a playful moment, later recites Scripture from memory in Chin before the crowded congregation. Pre-teens and teens sing and dance to contemporary Christian music, also in Chin, intermingled with solemn sermons and gospel readings.

The Rev. Van Thuam Cin hopes his Zion members find “peace and love” at these two-hour services, far from the physical and psychological persecution of Christian Chin in Myanmar.

Traditional Chin clothing in the “thi-hni” design is worn on women’s ceremonial wrap skirts. The fabric is cotton and silk in rich striped and diamond patterns. The men wear a Nehru-style jacket made of a similar fabric.

The younger children, who attend Kenton County Schools, primarily speak English, while many elders speak the traditional language. “Since this is not even our first generation,” Lian says, the language gap is typical.

Pastor Kap, of Calvary Chin Baptist, says “the United States is a very good country for every pupil, especially to our Chin community.” Besides working hard for survival, he is elated that so many church members have obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “One of my former members, she became a medical doctor,” he says with pride. “Everyone has their opportunity,” Kap says.

Grace Thawng, the translator for Refugee Connect, came to America when she was 13. She recognizes the blessings of the Chin community and says most people would find them to be a “chill community.” But she wants more. Like better recreational activities, especially hiking. Above all, she wishes there were places offering Southeast Asian or fusion cuisine. Lacking a good restaurant, the Chin community at least now has the Thawng Asian Grocery in Erlanger. Operated by her husband’s family, Thawng is glad to have access to familiar vegetables and high-quality rice.

Kap would like to see more people from Myanmar move to Northern Kentucky. With all their success building lives here, Chin don’t stop thinking about relatives who remain in Burma after its brief but failed experiment with democracy.

Some wish the United Nations would resume offering refugee status to persecuted Chin and other ethnic minorities who have fled to Thailand since the 2021 military crackdown in Myanmar. Several in the local Chin community express irritation that the United States has been so generous in Ukraine’s fight for democracy. They don’t begrudge the Ukraine help, but they would at least like more Americans to become aware of the human rights debacle in Myanmar.

U.S. Department of State statistics confirm that refugees from Chin State came to Kentucky mostly between 2010 and 2015. Besides Northern Kentucky, there are Chin communities in Bowling Green and Louisville. The flow of Chin refugees fell off starting in 2017 (only 123 compared to 438 the year before). By 2021, the number was only 21.

A United Nations official responded to our inquiry about the decline in Chin refugees. “The lower numbers of Chin being resettled in recent years, particularly in 2021, is a consequence of both fewer remaining Chin being identified as most in need of resettlement and pandemic-related travel restrictions limiting departures to third countries like the United States,” says Kasita Rochanakorn, spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

“UNHCR remains gravely concerned with the escalating violence in North-West Myanmar and the resulting human suffering and displacement this is causing. The security, humanitarian and human rights situation in Chin State, as well as in Sagaing and Magway regions, has been deteriorating in recent months following the intensification of armed conflict. Following the military takeover on Feb. 1, 2021, Chin State was the first to witness an escalation of violence, particularly after mid-May when clashes erupted in the town of Mindat. The escalation of violence and armed conflict has since expanded geographically to include neighboring Sagaing and Magway Regions, resulting in hundreds of thousands fleeing to seek safety elsewhere,” the UN official adds.

Rochanakorn referred questions about U.S. visa procedures and immigration to the U.S. State Department. A State Department spokesperson responded on Sept. 27.

“We have repeatedly and strongly condemned the February 2021 military coup in Burma. We call on the military regime to stop the violence, release all those unjustly detained, restore Burma’s path to democracy, and allow unhindered humanitarian access as we promote accountability for all those responsible for the coup, atrocities, and other human rights abuses. 

“We continue to underscore the need for unhindered humanitarian access to all
people requiring assistance in Burma. We are also working closely with neighboring countries to offer humanitarian support for those fleeing the atrocities of the military regime,” the spokesperson says.

In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. government has provided more than $363 million in humanitarian assistance, of which nearly $91 million is for internally displaced persons and other vulnerable communities in Burma and more than $272 million for those who have fled Burma to Bangladesh and other countries in the region. As the crisis in Burma worsens, the U.S. government is working with partners to enhance humanitarian support, the spokesperson says.

“The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) does not discriminate against any group or persecution type and will consider all refugees that are referred for resettlement consideration by UNHCR and other partners.  The United States assesses vulnerability as a central tenet of refugee admissions to address the urgent need for resettlement across all regions. We also do not discriminate based on country of origin or religious affiliation. We will continue to resettle refugees from Burma according to the Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY23,” the spokesperson concludes.

The report states the U.S. has “taken steps to increase the resettlement of members of particularly vulnerable populations through USRAP, including refugees from the Americas, Congolese, Syrians, Ukrainians, populations from Burma, and many other nationalities,” all while providing additional initial resettlement support to more than 80,000 Afghans in communities across the United States – the largest resettlement effort in 40 years.

Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include reading, photography, watching streaming TV including "Succession" and "The Patient," and playing the "Alphabet Game" on Zoom with five siblings across the globe.