Archive for February, 2010

Burmese soldier turned promoter of democracy. Myo Myint, part one

Posted in burmese, documentary, Myo Myint, refugee with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2010 by yearningtobreathefree

Myo Myint in Umpiem Mai refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, June 2008. © Nic Dunlop. All rights reserved.

It is time to begin telling the story of a Burmese political refugee who has become a friend of mine since we were first introduced nine months ago. Myo Myint’s story is an amazing and inspiring and horrific tale. I will bring his life’s many facets to you in installments in the coming months.

If this whole endeavor I’ve named Yearning to Breathe Free should end prematurely and never result in a fully produced exhibition and/or documentary, at least I have met Myo Myint. We share the same middle-age decade, possess similar body types — except he’s missing some of his, and we share a love of literature. Oh, and we both like beer.

And that’s about where our similarities end. Our life experiences are vastly different. So different that it’s almost laughable . . . but for the fact that his tales make you want to cry. And herein lies the poignancy of our having met and become friends — a Westerner born into a democratic, free land and an Asian born into a one-party-ruled, brutal land — now both living in the middle of America.

A benefit, I think, to the United States of America opening her arms to offer refuge to those needing a new home is a rich worldly awareness that refugees bring into the lives of all of us.

So. Where to begin telling you about Myo Myint? For nearly five years now, a soft spoken, courageous Irish-born photojournalist and author, Nic Dunlop, has worked to share Myo Myint’s story in a documentary film. The movie is nearly finished and will soon air on HBO. I’ll post its air date here when it is known.

As an introduction to Myo Myint and my own storytelling of his life, I am posting the movie trailer here. Thanks to Nic’s kindness and permission, I will be illustrating Myo Myint’s considerable tale on this blog with Nic’s photographic images, as well as with my own photos, video, and scans of the few articles Myo Myint was able to conceal as he smuggled himself out of Burma and the torment of hell . . . .

Burma Soldier feature documentary, directed by Nic Dunlop, Annie Sundberg, and Ricki Stern.

A LeBrocquy Fraser / Break Thru Films production.

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Cultural diasporas in our midst

Posted in burmese, documentary, immigrant, refugee, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2010 by yearningtobreathefree
Merrilee Beckman of Iowa City, Iowa, wrote the following after viewing Yearning to Breathe Free blog entries. I found her information on cultural diasporas in today’s world so helpful that I asked for approval to post her thoughts as a blog entry. She attributes many of her thoughts to the writings of Jeremy Rifkin, author and social thinker.
Guest blogger Merrilee writes:
I know the Burmese focused on here were pushed out of their country by a vicious military who have no moral qualms about the death of their own people.  They are a people with a powerful sense of communal and religious identity.  It used to be that immigrants to our country assimilated fairly quickly.  Most of them were more than ready to leave their pasts behind and become Americans.  The whole idea of ‘starting over’ was part of the American Dream.  Today it is so different.  The entire world is experiencing a great migration upheaval.

Isa Lawan Dambazan, born in Nigeria in 1964, keeps one foot in Nigeria and one in Fort Wayne, Indiana, because he has family in both places. © 2009 John Gevers.

Two worlds at once
Millions of humans are in transit each year, and these immigrants bring their culture with them, existing in tight knit communities that keep their cultures intact abroad. Immigrants always did this to some extent but it’s different now because of all our communications technology allowing people to be in two worlds at once.  In the past you’d migrate to a country to stay. You’d write letters home but they took so long that it was hard to keep contact with family and friends in the old country.  The old cultural ways stayed alive for awhile but inevitably faded. Today an immigrant can use the Internet and cell phones to make contact with relatives left behind both constantly and instantly.  Cultures are becoming de-territorialized and mobile in a way that couldn’t be conceived before.  They are no longer bound by geography.

A cultural diaspora in Fort Wayne, Indiana. © 2009 John Gevers.

Split loyalties and allegiances
Cultures are becoming transnational and global, and cultural diasporas have split loyalties and allegiances in a way they didn’t before.  Many of the immigrants are poor, discrimminated against, jobless, and living in squalid conditions in what amounts to ghettos, and because they stick to themselves they are often regarded with suspicion and fear.  And, of course, when the economy is suffering it’s feared they’ll ‘steal’ valuable jobs from the rest of us.  The vast majority of all these immigrants are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

A Burmese refugee who is now resettled into an apartment complex in Fort Wayne, Indiana. © 2009 John Gevers.

Retaining a cultural diaspora in our midst
For centuries, a people and culture were inseparable from their property and territory.  No longer.  Again, sophisticated communication and transportation technologies now allow cultures to stay linked socially across myriad national boundaries. You can see why people like these gentle Burmese need to retain a cultural diaspora in our midst.  It gives them a way to keep their sense of identity while negotiating their way in a radically strange, new world.  The Burmese in Fort Wayne are one node in a whole postnational network of diaspora going on today. They hold onto their cultural identity as a way to be “both here and there.”  Cultural diasporas are increasingly living in multiple places with multiple loyalties, and it’s the job of their host countries to find ways to help them interact across traditional boundaries.  Having lost the comfort of their geographical boundaries, they must now discover a way to bond with those of their host culture in a way that will draw them into a real community.  How to find a new shared purpose that is as powerful as the bond of their cultural identity?  For them, and for us.

From Burma, a refugee resettled in Indiana, maintaining homeland tradition. © 2009 John Gevers.

“Us-them” divisions and a shared sense of meaning
One of the biggest differences between people like the Somalians in Minneapolis or the Burmese in Fort Wayne is that in modern Western societies there is a highly honed individuality and fewer gender differences/roles.  Both men and women here engage in all kinds of activities that aren’t permitted by tradition-bound, communal cultures.  But when individuals (that’s us) have a shared sense of meaning and undertake a cooperative effort to achieve a common goal,  then the “us-them” divisions tend to disappear, and those cooperating in the common endeavor blend into a single “us-group.”  Those who were “them” become part of “us.”  All stereotypes and prejudices are based on “us-them.” So we have to find a shared sense of meaning.  We have to find opportunities to simply mingle with one another.  That gives us chances to recognize our common humanity.

Mother and child from Burma. © 2009 John Gevers.

Contact is essential, empathy crucial
Contact is essential — interacting as social equals, the way you did when you went to take the pictures posted here.  Empathy is the crucial ingredient for an “us-us” perspective where we can see them involved in the same kind of human activities, showing the same basic human emotions, we have.  That’s what your photos in Yearning to Breathe Free do for a wider audience. They creatively turn strangers into “us.”  You can see their peaceful culture reflected in their faces and in the courtesy they extend. The power of these  beautiful photos takes away the fear of knowing there is a group of foreign immigrants living “near us,” and actually makes you want to meet some of them and get to know them better.

What is the distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant?’

Posted in documentary, immigrant, refugee with tags , , , , , , on February 25, 2010 by yearningtobreathefree

Great question! This deserves its own post in addition to being answered on the FAQ page.

The answer is provided by Joe Johns:

Many people don’t see a distinction, however there is a significant distinction resulting from the fact that immigrants have a choice and refugees don’t. Immigrants freely choose to retain or reject citizenship of their homeland whereas refugees are forced to flee their country of origin to save their lives. Although a refugee is still legally a citizen of the country he or she flees, technically it means very little because their homeland affords them no protection, a central concept of citizenship.

Understanding this helps USA-born Americans distinguish the refugee resettlement issue from however they might feel about immigration policy in general, much less illegal immigration. Having said that, what’s good for refugees is often good for immigrants—particularly if the immigrant is seeking political asylum.  So there is common ground between the two when the immigrant is a political asylee as opposed to someone with some means simply trying to better his or her economic situation in America.

— Joe Johns is director of Missional Living at Fellowship Missionary Church and a board member of The Reclamation Project, both in Fort Wayne, Indiana.