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Baptist Burmese find new Kentucky home

CINCINNATI – Pastor Thomas Kap rattles off the accomplishments of his congregation of Myanmar immigrants as if they were family.

“We have five college students and 86 students total in the church,” he said. “There are 296 of us now.”

Seemingly overnight, Crescent Springs in northern Kentucky – just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati – has become home to a vibrant Burmese community that will soon top 300 as more immigrants make their way to the commonwealth. They all fled Myanmar, formerly Burma, where the military-led government suppressed their Baptist faith and deprived them of other rights that Americans may take for granted.

The catalyst for the migration to Northern Kentucky is Kap, an unassuming man who has quietly and tirelessly worked to relocate refugees who have followed in his footsteps.

“He’s amazing, really, for what he does for all of the people he’s helping,” said Barbara Klein, the Lexington office director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which works with the U.S. State Department to relocate and settle refugees.

All or nearly all of the Myanmar refugees in Northern Kentucky are part of Myanmar’s Chin ethnic minority, which is predominantly Christian in a country dominated by Buddhists. Kap explained that ethnic and religious identity predetermines how far you can climb the social ladder.

“Even in the military, Christians can’t rise to the highest ranks,” he said.

Worse for Kap, 42, was the suppression of his faith. He led a growing congregation in his village, but could not get a permit to build a larger church through normal channels, forcing him to apply for the permit under his name as if he were building a structure for non-religious, personal use.

Each week, he had to print out his sermon and run it by government censors who edited out anything they didn’t like. The government encouraged Buddhist men to marry Christian women, offering them cash for converting the Christians. Christian families too poor to send their children to school were offered free educations with a catch – being indoctrinated in the Buddhist faith.

By 2003, Kap had had enough and fled to Malaysia, where he began plotting his move to America. In 2008, along with his wife, Esther Sung, and 3-year-old daughter, he had the family’s application approved to move to Kentucky with the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Lexington, relying on a hope and a prayer and little other information.

“I just knew there was a state called Kentucky,” he said.

Kap and his family quickly warmed to their new home, with his daughter enrolling in River Ridge Elementary. Kap worked for a time at Levi Strauss in Hebron but gradually shifted his workload back to his original calling as a minister. He volunteers to help the newly resettled refugees, doing big and little things, like driving them to Lexington for two rounds of extensive physicals that are paid for by the State Department.

Immigrants who are designated by the State Department as refugees generally those fleeing oppressive governments arrive after a long bureaucratic journey with a permanent employable status and the opportunity to apply for full citizenship five years after arriving. They have access to most services as U.S. citizens, including receiving a Social Security card, Medicaid benefits and other support.

But agencies like Kentucky Refugee Ministries are charged with a goal of helping the refugees become self-sufficient within 100 days of arrival.

Northern Kentucky has no federally designated refugee office, though Catholic Refugee Services tried unsuccessfully two years ago to obtain the funding, said William Jones, executive director of the Catholic Charities in the Covington diocese.

As a result, most initial placements in Kentucky occur in the Louisville and Lexington areas, where Kentucky Refugee Ministries is a federally designated refugee service provider.

Within the Chin Myanmar community, the results have been nearly picture perfect. “We have had 100 percent success within 120 days of the Myanmar Chin refugees becoming self-sufficient,” Klein said.

Klein said her office continues to reunite relatives of those refugees already in Northern Kentucky.

Darko Mihaylovich, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities in Louisville, another official refugee relocation agent, worked with the Covington diocese on its unsuccessful effort to be designated a refugee sub office and receive federal funds. He said Northern Kentucky has drawn many refugees who were placed elsewhere because of the job opportunities and because of Kap.

Kap’s reputation has made Northern Kentucky a coveted spot for Myanmar refugees who want to continue practicing their faith and building a new life among family and friends.

In January alone, another six adults and three children moved to the area. All of them attended Kap’s service offered in their native language on Jan. 27 at Crescent Springs Baptist Church, joining 100 or more in the congregation that chilly afternoon. Most wore the slacks or dresses typical of churchgoers in Northern Kentucky, though some wore black or red blazers or skirts embroidered with a Chin pattern of vertical stripes of colorful diamonds.

After the two-hour service, which featured sermons offered by different people, a youth choir and soloists backed up by electric guitars, piano and drums, Kap gathered the nine new immigrants in the first pew to share some of their stories. Kap translated for them.

It took Cung Bik Thawng and his family eight years to make it from Myanmar to Northern Kentucky by way of Malaysia.

“In our country, there is no freedom. There is a lot of persecution from our government, especially the military,” said Ngum Hlei Tlem. “When we were in Malaysia, we heard news of the State of Kentucky and the Chin people living here.”

Whatever apprehensions Zaar Thang had about being accepted here have already begun to dissipate.

“Here it is better, I think. I always see smiling faces. All of my burden is gone.”

Story distributed by The Associated Press.