VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 12/13/17)—In early November, a delegation of American Baptist leaders traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, visiting the Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) diaspora communities to learn about their current situation, engage in advocacy on their behalf, and explore ways that American Baptists can be of assistance to them in the future.
Representing the American Baptist Churches USA Burma Refugee Commission were from American Baptist International Ministries: Rev. Leslie Turley, Area Director for Southeast Asia and Japan; Special Assistants Rev. Dr. Paul and Mrs. Gail Aita, who also work with refugee immigrants from Burma in the Seattle area; and Global Servants Rev. Dr. Ann Borquist and Rev. Ray Schellinger. Representing American Baptist Home Mission Societies were: Rev. Florence Li, National Coordinator for Asian Ministries, Intercultural Ministries; and Rev. Dr. Saw Ler Htoo, National Coordinator for Burmese Ministries, Intercultural Ministries. Htoo also serves as Executive Secretary of Karen Baptist Churches, USA. Also joining the delegation were Rev. Dr. Biak Mang, Pastor of Myanmar Christian Church of Greater Chicago and General Secretary of Chin Baptist Association of North America, his wife, Mrs. Hniar Mang and an additional guest, Rev. Mehm Tun Than, General Secretary of International Myanmar Baptist Fellowship from Yangon, Myanmar.
The delegation first met with leaders of the “Coalition of Burma Ethnics in Malaysia”, (COBEM), which includes organizations comprised of Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rohingyas, and Shan refugees and asylum seekers. The leaders each provided statistics concerning their respective organizations and outlined the challenges that they faced.
The delegation then met with UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) Representative Dr. Richard Towle to share concerns. Five areas discussed were Resettlement, Security, Education, Repatriation and Employment. According to Towle, there are over 130,000 Burma diaspora people and 65,000 Rohingyas living in Malaysia. The numbers include migrants, registered refugees and asylum seekers. UNHCR is only able to consider 1,700 registered refugees for resettlement to the U.S. in 2018, a significant drop in numbers that was impacted by the latest U.S. immigration and refugee admissions.
The delegation visited several different kinds of ministries, particularly related to education for children, and learned there are many “community learning centers” operated by various ethnic refugee organizations, inasmuch as their children are not permitted to attend public schools in Malaysia. They also visited a medical clinic and two convalescent centers located outside the city. These facilities address the needs of refugees who are considered “illegal migrants” by the Malaysian government and are often unable to secure affordable health care.
Because of a significant drop in resettlement and the complexity of returning to Burma for thousands of displaced people, the representatives of International Ministries sought ways to assist the communities. Working with COBEM leaders, they are seeking to identify particular kinds of pastoral training, leadership skills, counseling and opportunities in the area of education. The community learning centers rely heavily on volunteers. Gail Aita, a retired teacher with deep passion for the refugee children said, “Education is a pathway to a better life.” She plans to return to Malaysia in 2018 to help the community learning centers.
The Burma Refugee Commission continues to do advocacy work and galvanize its efforts to be influential to government officials both here in the U.S. as well as overseas. For detailed information regarding the Malaysia trip and opportunities for volunteer service, please contact Rev. Leslie Turley with International Ministries (mailto:Leslie.Turley@internationalministries.org). For Burma Refugee Commission advocacy work, please contact Rev. Florence Li with American Baptist Home Mission Societies (mailto:Florence.Li@abhms.org).
American Baptist Churches USA is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with approximately 5,000 congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.