Politics In Myanmar Reverberate In Upstate NY

Several thousand residents of Utica, NY, are watching events in Myanmar with particular interest. They're Burmese Karens who came to upstate New York from refugee camps after waves of violence forced them out of their homeland.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to a refugee community in upstate New York. The people come from Myanmar also known as Burma. They're members of the Karen ethnic minority and they're making you live this while keeping a close watch on changes back home.

Our story comes from David Chanatry of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH ORGAN)

DAVID CHANATRY, BYLINE: Tabernacle Baptist in downtown Utica is a beautiful old church, with a stone steeple reaching to the heavens. Inside, its sanctuary is dominated by a large pipe organ behind the altar, and on Sunday mornings, by hundreds of Karens sitting in the pews. So many refugees from Myanmar worship here that hymns are sung in two languages.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING)

CHANATRY: On a recent Sunday morning, the focus of prayer was very much on the rapid political changes in Myanmar, especially the ceasefire between the government and Karen rebels who have been fighting it ever since the country became independent after the Second World War.

Each week, Reverend Mark Caruana leads an English language service for a congregation that's at least three quarters Karen.

REVEREND MARK CARUANA: Let us pray together that in the midst of all these changes that have happened...

CHANATRY: They're praying the government will keep its promises and bring peace to the country. Whether Myanmar's rulers will live up to their word is a major question among the refugees here.

Twenty-nine-year old Lup Way Doh has been here six months. He's never lived in his own country. He was born along the border with Thailand after his parents fled the fighting.

LUP WAY DOH: I'm not saying I don't believe it, but I'm not sure about their credibility in the agreement.

CHANATRY: The U.S. State Department has resettled the Karen in Utica over the past 15 years. They're working, going to school and some own homes. Even as they become part of the larger community, many still maintain close contact with relatives back in the refugee camps. But they're worried because the president in the new civilian government in Myanmar used to be a general, and some refugees here say a tiger can't change his stripes.

AUNG TIN MOE: I think that when you look at his background, he came from the military. Just he changed the coat, just change the clothes.

CHANATRY: That's Aung Tin Moe. He was one of the student protesters who took to the streets 24 years ago, only to have their movement crushed by the military. After fighting with the Karen rebels, he fled to a refugee camp. He and his wife were resettled to Utica 11 years ago among the earliest arrivals. They've become part of a support system for the surge of Karen who came after another failed uprising five years ago.

Refugees can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years. Lup Way Doh is happy for the opportunity to build a life here.

DOH: Comparing to what we've been through, we consider this a better place. After decades of difficulties, hardships and fear, this a better place. You can live here without fearing of being killed or being attacked by your enemy.

CHANATRY: But if peace and democracy do come to Myanmar, it will give refugees like Aung Tin Moe a chance many thought they would never get.

MOE: I can't go over to see my family. Now I haven't seen my family almost 30 years.

CHANATRY: For NPR News, I'm David Chanatry in Utica, New York.

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