Myanmar to connect with US community

OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP) — Maung Hlaing was a student activist in Rangoon, Myanmar, protesting a discriminatory government when he fled the country in fear of arrest. A member of one of several minority groups facing persecution, Hlaing is driven to help Myanmar refugees wherever he finds them.

Right now he’s finding them in Ottumwa.

The southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma has endured civil war since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948. As a university student in the country’s capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, Hlaing joined political demonstrations and faced arrest.

Hlaing fled the country for Malaysia, one of two immediate destinations for Myanmar’s refugees. Leaving the country was as dangerous as staying. Hlaing saw human trafficking, sexual assault and people shot and dying in the jungle.

In Malaysia, Hlaing worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help people from his home country. His work there made him a recognized name among Myanmar’s refugees.

After 10 years in Malaysia, Hlaing immigrated to the U.S., taking up residence in Queens in New York City, where he continued to work with refugees from Myanmar.

In 2012, Hlaing took a job with JBS in Marshalltown and built a Myanmar community there. “That is part of my responsibility,” Hlaing said. “To take care of my people.”

Hlaing came to Ottumwa more than a year ago “because my boss gave me the opportunity to build the community here.” Hlaing is president of Myanmar Community Ottumwa, which he founded.

“My responsibility is to help them get a job, get a driver’s license.” He helps the immigrants enroll their children in school, teaches them U.S. laws and regulations. He interprets for them because he speaks English, and 90 percent of the refugees don’t.

Sometimes people in the Myanmar community call Hlaing at 2 a.m. with a flat tire or no heat. He finds services and translates for them, the Ottumwa Courier reported . He works with realtors and banks to find houses for them. “That is part of my responsibility, to take care of my people,” Hlaing said.

When Hlaing moved to Marshalltown, 170 refugees from Myanmar lived there, he said. The community has grown to 740, and 68 families have been able to purchase homes. “Some kids already graduate from the high school and university,” Hlaing said.

In Ottumwa, JBS has 68 Myanmar employees, said Hlaing, but the community totals about 190. Seven Myanmar families in Ottumwa have purchased homes.

JBS brought Hlaing here because the refugees are familiar with him and his work in Malaysia. “Everybody knows me. They trust me.”

Myanmar refugees flee to countries all over the world, the U.K, New Zealand and Australia, according to Hlaing. Ninety percent of them come to the U.S. “U.S. government gave them more opportunity.”