Phoenix church helps Asian refugees adjust
Arizona Republic
Feb. 25, 2008


Arrivals from Myanmar revitalized shrinking congregation

Ron Sanzone
Special for The Republic

Enter the West Dunlap Baptist Church in north Phoenix on a Sunday and you are unlikely to hear much English. Instead, you will come across an exotic language spoken by a people most Americans have never heard of, who have fled from a country that few know much about.

These new refugees are the Karen, the largest minority in Burma, renamed Myanmar by a military junta that took control of the Southeast Asian nation in 1988. The Karen have endured ethnic cleansing.

Just as the church on 3901 W. Dunlap Ave. has helped transform the refugees' lives, they have revitalized the church that had shrunk to 15 parishioners, all 60 or older.
A growing number of Karen refugees have begun making their way to the United States, and Phoenix has emerged as one of their most common destinations.

There are 600 Karen spread throughout seven apartment complexes in Phoenix, with several hundred more expected to arrive this year. According to a pastor who works closely with the refugees, the Valley will have the nation's heaviest concentration of Karen by the end of the year.

The Rev. Jeff Jackson came to West Dunlap in December in large part because of his decade-long background of working with Karen refugees in Thailand.

He and Glenn Ramey, who has served as the church's pastor for the past 41 years, estimate that 250 Karen now attend their church. It is a remarkable story of regeneration for a once demographically obsolete church that was dying just three years ago.

The base of the church's congregation, Caucasian city-dwellers, had left for the Valley's expanding suburbs. Ramey struggled with the church's decline and gave serious consideration to closing it down and putting the land up for sale. But at the depth of the demographic crisis, recently arrived Karen refugees, many unable to speak English, began showing up at its doors.

"The infusion of the Karen was a great blessing to us," Ramey said.

The trickle of Karen soon became a flood when one refugee, Tha Hgay, was hired as a pastor to deliver services in the Karen language. Some of Hgay's parishioners in Phoenix had also attended sermons he delivered in a Thai refugee camp, where he spent nearly a decade before coming to Phoenix a year and a half ago.


The Karen are religiously diverse, with significant proportions of their population professing faith in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Of the 30 to 40 percent of Karen who are Christian, many are Baptists, a result of the work of 19th-century American Baptist missionaries in Myanmar.

For a people unaccustomed to much of what they encountered in a developed country like the United States, the confines of a Baptist church offered a rare zone of comfortable familiarity.

"When we have a service at this church, it's like the one we had in Burma," said Say Pwei, who, along with her parents, became the first Karen refugee to settle in Phoenix when she arrived in 2001.

Pwei's journey to Arizona began with a long walk. After spending a month in a Thai refugee camp, she walked 100 miles to Bangkok to find work as a maid. She traveled during the night and through mountains to avoid detection.

Once in Phoenix, she embarked on a different type of search.

After arriving in Phoenix, Pwei began attending a large church. But eventually she walked into the doors of West Dunlap Baptist, which was able to provide both religious and individual attention the larger church couldn't match.

Beyond offering religious services in Karen, the church has helped the refugees find their way in the United States.

The core of the English-speaking congregation had reached retirement when the Karen began coming.

The 15 or so retirees had both the time and charitable motivation to assist the Karen with everything from transportation to placing calls for medical and other appointments.

Jackson believes the arrival of the Karen revived the faith of its older parishioners, reinspiring them to look outside themselves and serve.

Looking for work

Even with help, adjusting to life here is a struggle for many of the Karen refugees.

Many of them grew up in the jungles and hills of Myanmar and had never set foot in an urban area until arriving in Phoenix. Apartments, freeways and even toilets were brand new to some of them. In January, the struggle to adjust turned tragic when a 13-year-old Karen boy was killed while crossing traffic, unaware of the speed at which a car can travel.

Ramey and Jackson point out that despite the assistance the Karen have received, they are not looking for handouts.

They are looking for work.

Most Karen immigrants arrive as unskilled workers. Ramey believes that they are a logical replacement for Arizona's illegal workers who are leaving the state because of the new employer-sanctions law.

Helping to connect refugees with employers is one way the church supports the efforts of agencies that help the Karen and other refugees to settle into new communities.

Craig Thoresen, director of refugee resettlement for Lutheran Social Services, says the West Dunlap church has become a de facto community center for the Karen and complements his organization's work.

"Their work and dedication to this population makes it much easier for everyone," Thoresen said.