By Celine Klosterman
COLUMBUS JUNCTION – Ephraim Kihm believes he’s in Iowa through the grace of God.
“Anywhere I go, anything I do, I remember the Lord is with me,” he said. “It’s God’s blessing that I’m here.”
The 40-year-old is one of a growing number of immigrants from Burma, also known as Myanmar, who have found a spiritual home at St. Joseph Catholic Church. Most came to Columbus Junction to work at Tyson Foods years after fleeing political unrest and economic struggles in their homeland in southeast Asia.
Once a seminarian in the predominately Buddhist Burma, Kihm had to drop out because he didn’t pass all his high-school courses. Facing a future with bleak job prospects, he fled to Thailand at age 28 and later moved to Malaysia. There, he worked in construction before coming to Indianapolis a few years ago through a refugee program.
While working temporary jobs in Indiana, friends told him of the opportunity to find longer-term work at Tyson in Columbus Junction. So he rented a home with a few other Burmese immigrants, including his brother. One day, Kihm noticed a rosary hanging in a neighbor’s car and asked the neighbor’s family where he could attend Mass.
Since then, Kihm has been an altar server at St. Joseph’s and translated for Father Joseph Sia, the parish’s parochial vicar. The priest has baptized Burmese babies and adults, and is preparing a Burmese woman for confirmation and getting her and her fiancé ready for marriage.
Fr. Sia said he began noticing Burmese Catholics attending Mass at St. Joseph’s a little more than a year ago. “I had heard that there were new Burmese immigrants in town, but I did not realize that there would be Christians, much less Catholics, among them. Ephraim and the other Catholic Burmese in Columbus Junction represent the very few Christian Burmese in the whole world!” Most of the local Christian immigrants are Baptists who attend a local Methodist church, he noted.
The first Chin-Burmese individuals arrived in Columbus Junction about four years ago. About five Burmese immigrants were among people Tyson hired during a recruitment effort in 2008, said Gary Mickelson, director of public relations for the company. The workers later encouraged some friends and relatives to apply for work at the plant.
About 165 of the almost 1,200 people employed at the Louisa County pork plant are Burmese, he said. Columbus Junction is home to 16 schoolchildren from Burma, said Mallory Smith, community development director for the city of about 1,900.
At first, Burmese refugees from Indianapolis often returned to their wives and children there on weekends, Smith said. As time passed, more families decided to reunite and move to Columbus Junction. “This is a common pattern for us because of Tyson.” Many Hispanic immigrants living in Columbus Junction took the approach of the Burmese as well, she noted.
The Columbus Junction community has worked with Muscatine Community College to provide English as a Second Language classes, she said. The Columbus Community School District has hired a bilingual aide to communicate with Burmese parents who speak Lai-Chin. And Columbus Junction tries to communicate instructions on everyday matters – like paying a water bill – through images and simplified English. Community organizations and churches are working to address immigrants’ needs as well.
A native of the Philippines, Fr. Sia said he is familiar with stories of Burma’s military government and has spoken during Mass about the struggles many refugees have endured. “This is a great opportunity to reach out to them and share with them the gifts of our parish and community. It is an exercise in patience, especially with the language barrier, but the fruits will be very rewarding.”
“I love it when I celebrate Mass and I see all these diverse faces — Anglo, Hispanic, Asian — worshipping God in the same liturgy in rural Iowa,” Fr. Sia continued. “I hope the people of Columbus Junction can be inspired by the story of Myanmar to cherish and defend the freedoms and opportunities they have here in the U.S. I hope the immigrants’ presence at the church will remind us Catholics of the universality of our Church and Jesus’ offer of salvation to all the world.”
Background on Burma
According to the U.S. Department of State:
“Burma remains an authoritarian country dominated by active or former members of the military. … The military remains an institution unto itself, and the head of the armed forces retains the right to invoke extraordinary powers including the ability to suspend civil liberties…”
“Despite Burma’s growing GDP, the regime’s mismanagement of the economy has created a downward economic spiral for the people of Burma. The state remains heavily and inefficiently involved in most parts of the economy, infrastructure has deteriorated, and rule of law does not exist. The majority of Burmese citizens lead a subsistence-level existence with minimal opportunity for economic improvement.”
“Burmese authorities have perpetrated numerous documented human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, torture, and incommunicado detentions.…. Over two million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled for economic and political reasons to Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere.”
“The State Peace and Development Council changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar’ in 1989, but some members of the democratic opposition and other political activists do not recognize the name change and continue to use the name “Burma.” Out of support for the democratic opposition, and its victory in the 1990 election, the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma.’”