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Loved Ones in a Hotspot Zone: Part Two

Sometimes we worry about our family members when they are away, whether it's a child at daycare or an aging parent. But imagine if a loved one was in trouble...on the other side of the world. In the second part of a three-part series, KSMU's Benjamin Fry talks with a Springfield man whose relatives face oppression in his native country while he faces another set of difficulties here in Springfield.

(sound of knife on chopping)

Meet Ngun.

That's his name, just Ngun.

He demonstrates his skills with knives, which he uses frequently in his job making sushi for Price Cutter.

He says the business opportunity in making sushi is what brought him to Springfield.

But that isn't why Ngun first came to the United States eight years ago.

He explains why he left his home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

"Because the government is a military government. And we are Christians and there [is] persecution, forced labor, and everything over there," Ngun said.

Ngun and his family are members of an ethnic minority group from Myanmar known as Chin.

He grew up near the city of Haka in the western region of Myanmar.

The hilly terrain there is dotted with forests, which are occupied by deer and the occasional tiger.

Two of Ngun's brothers reside there and make a living by farming rice, corn and beans.

It's almost impossible to make a yearly yield though; Ngun says the soil in that part of the country wears out quickly and farmers have to find a new plot of land every three years.

He says this difficulty is compounded when the army shows up and forces the people into unpaid labor.

"For example, you have to come to build a house, at least one member of the house. So every family has to participate in the government project," Ngun said.

And he says those who don't cooperate face torture or imprisonment.

In a closed-off country where the government has a history of suppressing its ethnic and religious minorities, many feel compelled to abandon their homes and leave the country.

"Every year, of my people, about 10,000 people came to the states as refugees, who came via Malaysia," Ngun said.

But Ngun had an easier road to get to the United States.

Working as a minister at a college in Myanmar, he had the opportunity to get his Masters Degree in theology at a university in Chicago.

Using his student visa, he, his wife, and kids applied for political asylum after they arrived.

"If I go back and the government know, it's really dangerous," Ngun said.

Ngun and his family came to Springfield three years ago, where they first felt very isolated.

"We felt very lonely, because we were the only family," Ngun said.

But gradually, many of Ngun's friends and relatives arrived as refugees, and today there's a Burmese community in Springfield of about 30 people.

But different barriers, such as education and language, make it difficult for them to find work, so the burden of providing for them falls on Ngun.

"My family is the only family who can help them. This make[s] me so busy, driving all day," Ngun said.

While Ngun looks after his extended family here, he calls his brothers in Myanmar every two weeks and prays for their safety.

Ken Rutherford is a political science professor at Missouri State University.

He says in Myanmar, the military government's persecution typically isn't focused on a particular group or minority.

Instead, he says it stems from paranoia of losing power.

"The Myanmar government will come down hard on anybody, regardless of religion, who does not support their rule. Or where the government feels that a consensus is developing outside its government. Whether around a religious activity, or a social activity, because this consensus can easily spill over into opposition," Rutherford said.

As for Ngun, he says he's not optimistic about the prospect of democracy in Myanmar.

He says even before the military government took over, rulers in Myanmar had a history of corruption.

"When we were ruled by the king, if the king thought somebody becomes powerful, they kill," Ngun said.

Ngun is thankful to be living in the United States, but often feels overwhelmed in his efforts to help his friends and family.

More Burmese refugees are arriving in the U.S. each month, and some of them are settling here in the Ozarks.

Ngun says he'd like to see the development of an agency in Springfield dedicated to helping refugees who live here.

He says that would go a long way in providing assistance and education to his community.

For KSMU News, I'm Benjamin Fry.