Burmese Americans try to help, but have few options

By Gregg Aamot and Verena Dobnik, Associated Press Writers May 7, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. –In the days since Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, Eh Taw Dwe has heard only snippets about the villages he left behind when he fled the country.

Zin Moe has lived with the anguish of not knowing whether his mother and five siblings are alive — and not being able to help directly.

They are among thousands of Burmese immigrants around the United States who are desperately scrambling to organize relief to their ravaged homeland. In the process, they are hearing about a bleak situation: No electricity. Dirty water. Rampant diarrhea and malaria.

“Some people here, they have their family member over there, and they lose their family member or their house was totally destroyed,” Dwe said Wednesday. One of Dwe’s friends is stranded with his family in a village that was cut off from rescue workers. Nobody knows the family’s fate.

The challenge of providing relief has been magnified by the sheer desperation of the situation in Myanmar and a ruling military regime that is hostile to U.S. citizens and supplies. The United Nations and other agencies have said they are trying to persuade the government to issue more visas to speed the aid to sites where it is most needed.

“It’s difficult, because even if we collect things, how are we going to send them?” asked Moe Chan, a Burmese New Yorker.

He is one of more than 10,000 Burmese residents of New York City. Thousands more live in nearby New Jersey and Connecticut, forming the second largest U.S. Burmese community. California has as many as 100,000 residents of Burmese descent.

Dr. Kyaw Htyte, a New York cardiologist and president of the National Burma Action Committee, said that if he could, he would go to Myanmar himself, but it’s impossible to get an entry visa.

Instead, he said his organization relies on “an underground group” of people who enter the country in ways he would not disclose, for security reasons, and bring in money, medicine and other supplies.

These are only stopgap measures against a need for massive relief.

Four days after the cyclone hit, the best way for Americans to help was still through large international organizations with access to Myanmar, such as the International Red Cross, UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee and the International Medical Corps.

Moe has been using prepaid phone cards every day, calling home during rushed breaks from his job as manager of a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

His family phones in Myanmar sound dead.

As he waits, he’s raising money among dozens of Burmese friends in New York “for the villages, where people are really poor,” said Moe, who has a friend he hopes will somehow enter Myanmar before the end of May.

Dwe (pronounced DEW-ee), 31, is one of perhaps 1,500 refugees from Myanmar who live in Minnesota, many of them from the ethnic Karen rebel group that has been fighting for autonomy in eastern Myanmar for a half-century.

He fears ethnic Karen will be left out of the aid effort.

“It’s the worst disaster in Burma and we need the assistance from the American government and we need the assistance from any country who has humanitarian support,” he said.

A local aid organization, the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, has helped many Burmese in its refugee camp in Thailand, including some who now live in Minnesota. The agency hoped to get passports for two workers so they could enter the country in the next few days to evaluate what kind of help it could offer, spokeswoman Therese Gales said.

The Karen Community of Minnesota, a fraternal group of refugees like Dwe, contacted the agency to see how it could help, realizing that its contribution would be modest.

“If there’s anything we can do, even a dollar, even, you know, a piece of bread, we will do whatever we could,” Dwe said. “I can see the children and the women crying in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the storm and … it’s really sad.”

Verena Dobnik contributed to this report from New York.

From the Boston Globe

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