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Burmese student engineering a better life
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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Pah Bi is a Burmese refugee who is active in the Christian church.
ROCK ISLAND — Pah Bi, a 26-year-old whose family is from Burma (also known as Myanmar), never knew his home country and never even has been there.

He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, to which his family had fled in 1984 because of the civil war in neighboring Burma. His family lived in three refugee camps (two of which were burned down by the Burmese Army) before they moved to the Quad-Cities in 2007.

"Living in Thailand, we're not going to have a good life," Mr. Bi said from his modest apartment at Manor Homes, noting thousands of Burmese refugees were fed and educated by a United Nations humanitarian agency. "I don't want to die in Thailand. I want to go further."

He and his family were resettled here by World Relief in Moline; Mr. Bi said they just applied to come to America and didn't specify where. World Relief found them a place to live (his brother also is at Manor Homes). Mr. Bi is considered a legal permanent resident, here on a green card.

"When I came here, my English was not good," Mr. Bi said. "It was hard. I was scared. It was very hard when I first get here. America, the people are different; everything's different. People who are nice make me feel good. I choose this country because I'm thinking to have a good life, to have a good job. That's why I come here."

"We provide financial assistance up to six months, and we provide ongoing services for much longer than that, to help individuals apply to become citizens," said Amy Rowell, director of World Relief in Moline. "We really want to help individuals become U.S. citizens and become positive members of the society."

There is a significant Burmese population in the Quad-Cities area, and resettlement agencies typically place refugees in cities where they either have existing friends or family, or residents of the same ethnic group, she said.

Mr. Bi is Karen, an ethnic minority in Burma. Many of them fled because of religious and ethnic persecution by the government. It's estimated there are 140,000 refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps in Thailand, some for as many as 20 years.

Burma was colonized by the British and gained independence in 1948. Civil war broke out, and in 1962 military rule began, with constant fighting throughout the years between the military government and various factions, including the Karen.

In Rock Island, students who speak Karen comprise the second-highest percentage of English language learners in the school district next to Spanish. This year, there are 126 Karen K-12 students in the Rock Island-Milan district, including Mr. Bi's niece and nephew.

When he first moved here, Mr. Bi took an English as a second language class at Black Hawk College. After a few months, he got a job on the assembly line at Norcross Safety Products in Rock Island and continued to study ESL. He worked there two years and moved to Tyson Fresh Meats in Joslin, meat processing, for two years.

Since the fall, Mr. Bi has been a student at Scott Community College, working toward an associate's degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. He wants to get a job at John Deere. Learning English is hard, he said.

Mr. Bi has had no problems working, and it's been easier having his family here. "Around here, there are many Karen people, and other Karen want to live here," he said. Occasionally, he has faced discrimination, more so when he first arrived.

Mr. Bi also volunteers as a youth leader at First Baptist Church in Moline, where many Karen families attend. In Burma, a majority of Karen are Buddhist, and fewer than 30 percent are Christian.

He said the goal of Karen there is not necessarily to have their own independent state. "We want opportunity, to have a good life, to work for freedom," Mr. Bi said. "We want the government to love the peace. They treat people like slaves."

He said he feels kind of in limbo because he's not a Burmese citizen, not a Thai citizen and not yet a U.S. citizen. "That's kind of hard," Mr. Bi said. "I'm not sure about Burma. Even if there was opportunity, if Burma doesn't have peace, I'm not going to go back. I'll stay here."

Mr. Bi wants to become a U.S. citizen and maybe later this year will apply. He said it would be the culmination of a dream.

"I want to vote," he said.


 -- Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand.

-- Population: 54,584,650 (July 2012 estimate). No. 24 in the world.

-- Languages: Burmese (official). Minority ethnic groups have their own languages.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Local events heading

  Today is Monday, April 21, the 111th day of 2014. There are 254 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The female sex seems to have gone crazy on the subject of dry goods. When high prices keep them from increasing their wardrobes, they turn to stealing. Yard goods, hats, shoes and other items are being picked up and carried home.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Members of Everts Commandery No. 18, Knights Templar, under Commander H.C. Cleaveland, marched from the Masonic Temple to Trinity Episcopal Church for their annual Easter services.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Nate Hultgren pitched the Augustana College baseball team to a 10-3 victory over Carthage, striking out 11 men and allowing only four hits.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Marvel Leonhardi, a Rock Island High School senior, was the winner of an essay contest on advertising sponsored by The Argus and Advertising Age, a national advertising publication.
1964 -- 50 years ago: The Augustana College band drew a crowd of 1,200 people for its annual home concert in Centennial Hall. The size of the crowd was indicative of the fact the band is rapidly approaching the stature of the Augustana Choir.
1989 -- 25 years ago: A benefit to raise money for extracurricular activities in the Rock Island Milan School District will be April 27 at the Quad City Downs harness race track. People buying $17.50 tickets to the second annual "Night at the Quad City Downs" will be entitled to an evening of harness racing and dinner.

(More History)