Burmese Americans find a home in Battle Creek

A laid back atmosphere in their adopted hometown keeps Burmese refugees in Battle Creek, says Martha Thwanghmung, executive director of the Burmese America Initiative, headquartered in Springfield.

"The political and social climate here is one aspect of society that they really appreciate," she says. "In Burma there is a cloud of oppression which hangs over people and there is religious and political persecution."

Most Burmese Americans live in metropolitan areas with large immigrant populations -- Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Washington D.C. are the four cities with the largest numbers.

Today more than 1,100 natives of Burma currently live in the Battle Creek area. They are part of a movement that began more than 30 years ago when members of the city’s First Baptist Church agreed to sponsor Thwanghmung and her family.

"I was 9 years old when we came here," says Thwanghmung. "It was really great. But, at the same time it was different."

Even though she did well in school and participated in athletics which enabled her to make friends, she says she experienced racism when she was younger.

"We were called names and told to go back where we came from," she says. "There was no one to process that with."

This changed in 2011 when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave a two-year $400,000 grant to Thwanghmung  for the establishment of  the Burmese American Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering a sense of belonging and building relationships between Burmese families in the larger Battle Creek community.  

The Burma Center is housed in a 1,000-square-foot building at 33 21st N in Springfield. The space is divided into office space and a community center, which includes toys for the youngest Burmese refugees who participate in play groups through a partnership with Early Childhood Connections.

Thwanghmung says the Center is located in Springfield because that’s where most of the area's Burmese residents live.

Thwanghmung leads a staff of six people, many of whom have given up their traditional "day jobs" to support their Burmese neighbors. It’s one thing, she says, to offer a safe haven and new beginning for refugees, but there also need to be resources in place to help them thrive.

"The biggest barrier we see is a fear of stepping out into the community. They don’t have a sense of belonging yet," Thwanghmung says.

One way to help is through assistance with the language barrier. "They need help interpreting and translating information," she says. "But interpreting is just a moment of interaction. They need to have conversations.

"We have the ability to affect their lives. What we’re seeing is that the most important thing we can bring or offer them is hope."

Having a dedicated space of their own has helped create a safe environment to gather and a place to draw strength from one another as they make those initial contacts in the community says Jennifer Thuahzathang, who manages interpretive services for the Burma Center.

"Before we opened, people didn’t really know where to go for help," Thuahzathang says. "It (the Center) is especially important for our young refugees who are new to the community and looking to connect."

The Center offers English as a Second Language classes to about 40 people at any given time. Thwanghmung says language is a barrier when looking for employment, but also is a challenge for those seeking help with any number of issues like obtaining health care.

Thuahzathang says Center staff would like to have an interpreter available onsite to assist with health care needs in the community. The staff also helps refugees navigate local and state systems to ensure they have access to or can maintain their benefits.

"Emotionally, it’s hard not to be self-sufficient," she says. "People want to be self-reliant."

The Burma Center staff assists its constituents with finding jobs and working towards the type of lifestyle many of them never could have attained in their homeland.  

Thwanghmung says in Burma people have to take tests which determine what type of job they would be able to get -- one aspect of the harsh and cruel regime they fled.

Many Burmese men in the Battle Creek area have found work at a slaughterhouse in Plainwell and factories in Fort Custer.  

"They love that they can make a living," Thwanghmung says. "Very few people outside of the Burmese community realize how strong and dedicated these people are to working. They take pride in working in factories and they wear their uniforms with pride."

While the refugees have adapted to their adopted homeland and accepted many of its cultural characteristics of the idea of women in positions of equality is one many Burmese men have had difficulty embracing.

"Women hold less power than men by far," Thwanghmung says. "We really want to promote that women have strengths men don’t have. When we can help even the weakest link, we can help everybody."

Health, education and employment will continue to be a major focus for the Burma Center.  Even so, the staff and clientele will continue to organize events and activities that have given the Burmese population some much-needed visibility.

About 120 Burmese families tend individual plots of land at three different community gardens. There they grow vegetables that so they can eat fresh produce and save money at the same time. Gardening, Thwanghmung says, is an important part of the Burmese lifestyle.

They also were able to showcase some of their unique lifestyle and culture during Chin National Day in February at Springfield Middle School. More than 400 people attended the celebration of all things Burmese.

Events and activities such as these give reason to be hopeful about the future of the Burmese population in Battle Creek, Thwanghmung says.

"Many of these people grew up living in ways we could never think of," she says. "They are very creative and very committed and they can endure a lot. I’ll be curious to see what they do in the next 10 years."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek.

Photos by Erik Holladay.


Martha Thawnghmung is the Executive Director of the Burmese America Initiative.


Members of the Burmese America Initiative perform during their recent cultural show at First Congregational Church in Battle Creek.


Members of the Burmese Center's English as a Second Language program perform at their cultural program at the First Congregational Church in Battle Creek.
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