New refugees seek understanding

In between classes as a full-time student at Marshalltown Community College and working as an interpretor for Child Abuse Prevention Services, Ba Blu Moo is hoping to make a difference in his community.

The 24-year-old comes from a Thailand refugee camp – speaks Karen, Burmese and English – and is a member of Liberty Baptist Church.

Moo, and other staff at CAPS are behind an effort to bridge the gap between new Burmese refugees in Marshalltown and the community in which they live.

“I want to be involved in the community,” Moo said. “I know we can help understand each other and help each other.”

The starting point is a community meeting about basic laws.

Moo and Esi Monroy, a child development specialist, discovered a growing need for community outreach while conducting home visits for the Building Healthy Families program. The program, facilitated by Child Abuse Prevention Services, serves 40 Burmese families.

“We’re having to address so many questions about basic information that quite honestly there are months that go by before we get to child development information,” Monroy said.

Specifically, questions about child safety, supervision and car seat laws are common, she said.

Monroy said the Karen pastor at Liberty Baptist Church said it best – “Where we come from we don’t have many laws. The few laws we do have are not enforced.”

Jana Enfield, executive director of CAPS, said she hopes the community meeting with the Marshalltown Police Department is a springboard for future events.

“We’ve had an awesome opportunity to learn from them about their culture,” she said. “Our purpose is to welcome them and share about these laws … often times it’s just not knowing.”

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said aside from the language and cultural barriers, refugees tend to be apprehensive with police.

“With the obstacles these folks have faced in their home countries, they have a natural tendency to not trust police … that is troublesome, and we want to fix that,” Tupper said.

Community outreach is an integral part of what the police department does.

“We want to help people and we want them to feel comfortable coming to us,” he said.

Tupper recognized that establishing relationships with the Burmese community has been difficult.

“It’s been difficult to identify who the leaders in that community might be,” he said. “Language and cultural barriers have made it difficult for everyone.”

The community meeting will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. April 28 at a familiar place to many Burmese – Liberty Baptist Church.

For Randy Mason, pastor and founder of the church, Marshalltown’s refugee population offers an opportunity to reach across cultural lines.

“It’s interesting how God has placed these different groups in our midst,” Mason said. “We have church services in four different languages every Sunday, which is a lot for a small town like Marshalltown.”

Mason said Chin language church services began at the church in 2011 with about 70 people. It’s grown to approximately 130 members, he said, and operates its ministry under the Liberty Baptist umbrella.

Soon after, the invitation was extended to those who speak the Karen language.

“The church provides a source of stability and we’ve been able to come along and reach out to (refugees) in a number of ways,” Mason said. “They have invested in our ministry, taken jobs here and they are contributing to our community.”

In Marshalltown schools, the largest wave of refugees arrived in the fall of 2010, said Rachel Inks, coordinator of English Language Learners for the school district.

There are currently 180 students from Burma in the school district, she said.

“About 10 percent of our English Language Learner population has changed from Spanish-speaking families to the families of Burma,” Inks said.

While the spike in newcomers has leveled off, schools are still receiving refugee students, she said.

“One of the biggest challenges is that our languages don’t come from the same roots. English and Spanish come from Latin roots,” Inks said. “The languages from Burma don’t have the same orientation for their languages.”

Marshalltown schools can receive a refugee at any age, she said, so the district has seen a significant population at the high school join the school new to the English language.

The most common languages spoken by students are Karen, Karenni and Chin.

At JBS, the company is equipped with community liaisons to help the approximately 600 Burmese workers at the meat-packing plant adapt to Marshalltown.

Mike McQuade, human resources director at JBS, said the attraction to the company is its ability to provide training and services in many of their native languages. The retention rates of Burmese employees are very high, he said.

JBS also recently began a scholarship program for employees to learn English at the Iowa Valley Education & Training Center, he said.

“We’re not going to be able to cleanly remove that (language) barrier but we can sure try to reduce the impact of it,” McQuade said.

Inks said strengthening relationships with the Burmese population is important.

“We need to have some time to get to know each other in order to develop some relationships,” she said.

The upcoming community meeting is a good place to start, according to Monroy.

“The message we want them to know that they’re now in a safe place to practice their culture, religion and traditions,” Monroy said. “That’s what makes their new home in the United States what it is. We can all live here together and make it a good experience for both of us.”

For more information about the community meeting, contact Esi Monroy at Child Abuse Prevention Services at 641-7521730.