- Associated Press - Sunday, January 21, 2018

OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP) - Maung Hlaing was a student activist in Rangoon, Myanmar, protesting a discriminatory government when he fled the country in fear of arrest. A member of one of several minority groups facing persecution, Hlaing is driven to help Myanmar refugees wherever he finds them.

Right now he’s finding them in Ottumwa.

The southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma has endured civil war since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948. As a university student in the country’s capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, Hlaing joined political demonstrations and faced arrest.

Hlaing fled the country for Malaysia, one of two immediate destinations for Myanmar’s refugees. Leaving the country was as dangerous as staying. Hlaing saw human trafficking, sexual assault and people shot and dying in the jungle.

In Malaysia, Hlaing worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help people from his home country. His work there made him a recognized name among Myanmar’s refugees.

After 10 years in Malaysia, Hlaing immigrated to the U.S., taking up residence in Queens in New York City, where he continued to work with refugees from Myanmar.

In 2012, Hlaing took a job with JBS in Marshalltown and built a Myanmar community there. “That is part of my responsibility,” Hlaing said. “To take care of my people.”

Hlaing came to Ottumwa more than a year ago “because my boss gave me the opportunity to build the community here.” Hlaing is president of Myanmar Community Ottumwa, which he founded.

“My responsibility is to help them get a job, get a driver’s license.” He helps the immigrants enroll their children in school, teaches them U.S. laws and regulations. He interprets for them because he speaks English, and 90 percent of the refugees don’t.

Sometimes people in the Myanmar community call Hlaing at 2 a.m. with a flat tire or no heat. He finds services and translates for them, the Ottumwa Courier reported . He works with realtors and banks to find houses for them. “That is part of my responsibility, to take care of my people,” Hlaing said.

When Hlaing moved to Marshalltown, 170 refugees from Myanmar lived there, he said. The community has grown to 740, and 68 families have been able to purchase homes. “Some kids already graduate from the high school and university,” Hlaing said.

In Ottumwa, JBS has 68 Myanmar employees, said Hlaing, but the community totals about 190. Seven Myanmar families in Ottumwa have purchased homes.

JBS brought Hlaing here because the refugees are familiar with him and his work in Malaysia. “Everybody knows me. They trust me.”

Myanmar refugees flee to countries all over the world, the U.K, New Zealand and Australia, according to Hlaing. Ninety percent of them come to the U.S. “U.S. government gave them more opportunity.”

Hlaing believes in giving back to the country and the community that has taken in the refugees and provided them with new lives and opportunities. “That’s why we decide to give our appreciation to the teachers,” he said.

Myanmar Community Ottumwa recognized teacher Amy Ross and assistant Markee Jackson at the Ottumwa Community Preschool this month and donated $300 for school supplies.

“My son study in the preschool,” said Hlaing. “I always pick up my son.” Every day Hlaing visits with two or three different students. “Eighty percent of the kids talk about Miss Amy and Miss Markee,” he said.

Members of the Myanmar community met with Ross and Jackson at the preschool and presented them with plaques. The community plans to recognize teachers and donate to an Ottumwa school every year.

Hlaing also hopes to expose Ottumwa to Myanmar’s culture with a celebration showing off the country’s costumes and dance at Market on Main sometime this year.

“Our Myanmar Community would like to heartily thank you, your teachers and staff for all you do for our kids and all other kids from other ethnic groups from different parts of the world,” Hlaing wrote to the preschool earlier this month.

“Your efforts prepare them for the bright future they dream of, and we are very grateful for your help.

“Our refugees have a very long history for relocating here in the United States. One of the main reasons is to seek a better life. We are grateful to be here in land of opportunity; a place where we can start over; a place where we can have a new dream, and above all a new life.

“We would like to make Ottumwa, Iowa a place we can call home.”


Information from: The Ottumwa Courier, http://www.ottumwacourier.com

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