Burmese Immigration Exploding in Waterloo: Part One - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Burmese Immigration Exploding in Waterloo: Part One

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

In the 1990s, Waterloo experienced a major influx of Bosnian immigrants as they fled their war-torn country.  Over the past two years, a similar pattern's been developing with Burmese immigrants.  It's estimated up to 800 Burmese may now be living in the Cedar Valley.

So what's influencing people from Myanmar to relocate to Iowa??

For starters Myanmar, formerly known as "Burma", is in the midst of the longest civil war in history, which has lasted nearly 50 years!  Also, with a population that's 90 percent Buddhist, many Christians face persecution, even torture.

In Iowa, the Burmese have found good jobs, affordable living, and most importantly---acceptance.

Kyaw Lwin, his wife Monica and their four children recently moved to Waterloo.  Kyaw and Monica speak little English, and talked with us through an interpreter.  The Lwins left behind a difficult life in Myanmar.

"In our country, the Burmese military took order and then they took our animals and our land,"  Kyaw Lwin said.

Like many others in Myanmar, that forced the Lwins to flee to a refugee camp in nearby Thailand.  A few years ago, they made the big move to the U.S., living in Chicago before ultimately coming to Waterloo.  Their four kids fully understand the hardships they left behind to come here.

"It's very hard because well, our house is up in the mountain, and we have to go down to get water.  And it's very hard.  We have to get so many water because we don't have water in our home like we do here.  We travel with our feet, and like, we don't have any electric," said Stella Lwin, who is just 11 years old.

So the family's found a much better life here in Iowa.  Kyaw, like many of the other Burmese immigrants, has found work with Tyson Foods in Waterloo.  All four of the Lwin kids attend Cedar Valley Catholic Schools.  Currently, there are nearly a hundred Burmese students enrolled in CVCS, half of them at Sacred Heart Elementary.  Teaching them English has been the biggest hurdle.

"The kids get along well together, and we think that the earlier--especially at the elementary level--the sooner we can get them started in our schools and immersed in English, they're going to become the translators for their families," said Julie Niemeyer, Sacred Heart principal.

The local Catholic school system has never dealt with such a large influx of immigrant students, and is adapting to their needs one step at a time.  But one things seems inevitable.  Many of the Burmese families, like the Lwins, now feel at home, and are here to stay.

"I'm happy to live here because there's a lot of people who care about us.  I would like to stay here forever," said Stella Lwin.

To further help the Burmese immigrant transition into the community and meet their basic needs, from clothing to housing, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has designated $150,000 to establish a local refugee office.  The location of that office hasn't been determined yet.

Monday night at 10, we'll explore further the ways Local schools and the community are adapting to the growing Burmese population.

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