Myanmar minister finds refuge in Grand Rapids

KENTWOOD -- A Christian minister who fled his native Myanmar last year in a desperate bid for freedom from religious persecution awaits the day he will be reunited with his wife and seven children, who stayed behind.

Call me "Tenglam," the man said in broken English. "That is nickname. I am afraid for my family."

The 56-year-old refugee is a Baptist minister from a Buddhist nation in Asia where Christians have been persecuted for practicing their faith. He also belongs to the Chin ethnic minority, one of many groups under the grip of the military dictatorship that has ruled Myanmar -- known as Burma until 1989 -- since 1962.

Tenglam was jailed three times for daring to say the name of Jesus Christ before his congregation in the capital city of Rangoon. He also was beaten and repeatedly questioned by soldiers.

Last year, seeing no hope at home, he boarded a plane in Rangoon and fled the country. Now he shares an apartment in the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood with two other refugees from Myanmar.

"In our life we have to suffer always," Tenglam told the Grand Rapids Press for a Monday story.

Myanmar, which is about the size of Texas, is surrounded by China, India and Thailand and fronts the Bay of Bengal on the Indian Ocean. Because of its remote location and the government's suppression of dissent and the press, Myanmar remains a mysterious nation to most Americans.

Hope for democracy flickered in 1990, when activist Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won 80 percent of the seats in a national election. The government canceled the results of the election and placed Kyi under house arrest for six years.

In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

The Chin minority, meanwhile, struggles to maintain its identity in the face of decades of forced relocation, religious persecution, illegal seizure of money and false imprisonment.

According to a U.S. State Department report issued in February, Myanmar has at least 1,800 political prisoners.

Tenglam is among eight Christian refugees from Myanmar -- each of them Chin -- who have arrived in western Michigan in recent weeks. Carol Russo, resettlement director for Catholic Human Development Outreach, said the agency could see dozens more in coming months.

"We agreed to take up to 50 through our program," she said. "Some of them are finding places with friends and relatives in other cities, so we are not sure how many we are going to get."

Of those who have come so far, Tenglam is the only one who has left a spouse and children behind. As such, Russo said his immediate family could be eligible for resettlement in the United States -- a process that could take 18 months.

Before he can be united with his family, however, Tenglam also will need to raise at least $15,000 for air fare. Like the other refugees, he is attending English classes and hopes to find work soon.

Tenglam said he has spoken to his wife by telephone just once since arriving, but he tries not to dwell on what he's missing. He said he hopes to someday minister here after his English improves.

"My faith is my life," he said.