The Chin people, who live in the mountainous western part of Burma, are primarily Christian and many are persecuted for their Christian beliefs. Many Chin seek refuge in Malaysia. However, the Malaysian government refuses to recognize the refugee status granted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and so the Chin are designated “illegal aliens.” Chin children are unable to attend public schools and the community lives in constant fear of arrest. Malaysian immigration enforcement routinely conducts raids to extort money, and detain or deport Chin refugees. In 2010, UNHCR estimated 38,700 Chin refugees were registered as refugees in Malaysia, with an estimated 10,000 who remain unregistered.
Most of the estimated 1,800 Chin living in Iowa are more familiar with modernity, having lived in Malaysia. However, they often struggle with language and interpreters for their 20 distinct dialects. There is a pervasive misconception that there is a Chin language that can be understood amongst the sub-ethnic Chins, and that all Chin people speak Burmese. However, this is not the case and some sub-ethnic groups find it difficult to obtain an interpreter. There are significant numbers of Chin refugees in Des Moines and Columbus Junction.
The Karen (ka-REN) peoples are the second largest ethnic group in Burma and live in the region that borders Thailand. The Karen state established the Karen National Union in 1947 to seek independence from the government. However, after the Burmese military dictatorship seized power they implemented an ethnic cleansing campaign. The Karen created an armed insurgency faction to fight the military regime, and as a result, many community members were persecuted and displaced. The United Nations estimates that there are 140,000 Burmese refugees living in nine Thai refugee camps. The majority of Karen in Burma are Buddhist, however, many of the Karen who lived in the camps are Christian, having converted or been raised Christian.
The Karenni live in the smallest ethnic state of Burma and are mainly farmers, hunters and weavers. About one third of the Karenni population has been displaced since 1996 and an estimated 20,000 live in the camps of Thailand. The majority of Karenni practice animism, though some have converted to Christianity.
The Karenni are the most recent ethnic minority from Burma to be resettled in the U.S. and Iowa. This community presents the greatest challenges and needs. Karenni community advocates in Iowa estimate that 50% of their community is illiterate in their own language, having lived in the remote parts of Burma or in refugee camps. Finding interpreters for the Karenni community is an ongoing struggle as many advocates lack formal education and English fluency. Unlike the other ethnic groups in Iowa, the Karenni do not have an organized place of worship. The majority of the Karenni community live in Des Moines, with large numbers of Karenni secondary migrants moving to Waterloo.