The nation of Myanmar, previously Burma, is made up of eight ethnic teams talking 135 completely different dialects. The Mon, making up simply two % of Myanmar’s estimated 55 million individuals, are one of many smallest teams and in addition one of many oldest. In some histories, the Mon are often called the primary individuals to convey Theravada Buddhism to Indochina. Extra not too long ago, they’ve introduced that very same custom to Akron, Ohio.
“Akron is one of the best place for refugees. There are extra job alternatives right here,” mentioned Khin Maug Soe, a Mon man who works as an employment case supervisor on the Worldwide Institute of Akron (IIA), a refugee placement and settlement program. Based on Soe, about 80 % of the Mon residing in Akron have steady jobs and have purchased homes. “They plan to remain right here,” he mentioned.
In latest many years, Myanmar has been dominated by an oppressive navy junta. Whereas the scenario has stabilized considerably after latest political reforms, interethnic battle persists, most notably within the Rakhine state, the place genocidal violence towards Rohingya Muslims has compelled a whole lot of hundreds to flee to Bangladesh. The Mon individuals have additionally lengthy confronted persecution, and their language is in decline. A few of them have been searching for a greater life in the USA, and lots of say they’ve discovered it in Akron.
The Mon individuals in Akron
“Coming as a foreigner is difficult if you’re not along with individuals who share your language and tradition,” mentioned Mon Kyaw, 26. Kyaw grew up attending the Mon Buddhist Temple of Akron, the place he discovered the neighborhood that he wanted to flourish. Now he works as a sushi chef in Cleveland however nonetheless drives the 45-odd minutes again to the temple each time he can to attend providers or lend his assist with cleansing and upkeep work or by serving as a translator. “For us as foreigners, as Mon individuals, as refugees from Burma, our faith is Buddha. We take heed to the monks and what the Buddha need to say. They present us the way in which,” he mentioned.
Kyaw was talking exterior the temple on Akron’s Chittenden Road on October 19. It was the night time earlier than Kathina, an historic custom that follows Vassa, a three-month-long retreat throughout the wet season. When the monks emerge from their temples on the finish of the retreat, they provide new blessings to their neighborhood, who in flip convey the monks material for brand spanking new robes and different wanted donations. (The customized is called “the offering of robes.”) Sangha members gathered on the temple to scrub up, increase a banner saying the vacation, and put together meals for the temple’s eight monks and their neighborhood.
The following day, the temple was filled with dozens of Mon households carrying material for his or her monks’ new robes, flowers, and different presents. Ladies and ladies wore vivid hand-sewn outfits as they stuffed a desk with a feast’s value of home made Burmese delicacies. The temple’s monks got here out and delivered a blessing to their neighborhood earlier than sitting right down to eat, adopted by a common neighborhood feast.
“Temples like these have so much to supply,” mentioned Htaw Mon, 25, who additionally left Myanmar for the US as a youth and is now finding out to be a pharmacist. “It’s a method for our neighborhood to get collectively each week to, on the very least, seize a maintain onto our tradition.”
Quickly, the members of this temple, estimated at round 300, could have somewhat bit extra room to rejoice. They’re renovating a former landscaper’s store on a five-acre plot two miles away on Palmetto Avenue, a tree-lined residential oasis in an in any other case industrial space. They are saying it is going to be the most important Mon temple within the US. As soon as overgrown and strewn with rubble, the land was cleared by neighborhood volunteers. It’s now a spot of serenity, with elm bushes, kutis (housing) for the monks, brightly painted tires repurposed as planters, brick partitions that a monk helped lay by hand, and a fig tree—of the identical species because the famed Bodhi tree.
“For the final 15 or so years, the households have come, they’ve saved their cash, they’ve labored onerous [for] minimal wage, and now they purchase this. That is what they’ve wished for therefore lengthy, their very own temple and a few area away from the town [center],” mentioned John Walter, a local Akronite who joined the temple. “We’re delighted to have them; I’m so glad I’ve actual Buddhist monks right here in my city.”
New vitality for a stagnating metropolis
Because the Mon neighborhood put down roots in Akron—which now hosts the second-largest Mon population in the US after Fort Wayne, Indiana—they’ve discovered financial stability. Myanmar is likely one of the poorest nations in Asia with a 26 % poverty price, however in Akron, which has declined from its days as the middle of home rubber manufacturing, many Mon refugees have discovered work at native crops; others have discovered success as enterprise house owners.
“I adore it right here,” mentioned Siri Paing, 36, who got here to the US in 2013 and now owns a small Asian grocery retailer together with her household, promoting every part from rice and imported tea to recent kaffir lime leaves clipped off of a four-year-old tree on the entrance of the store. “We love our temple. Now we have a powerful neighborhood right here…. My children can be taught our language. I like to inform the individuals—Akron is nice for beginning a life right here.”
Akron has many refugees and immigrants, most of whom dwell within the North Hill and Firestone Park neighborhoods, and the town says they’re serving to to maintain its financial system sturdy.
“We wish individuals right here to diversify our communities,” mentioned Annie McFadden, deputy chief of workers at Akron’s Mayor’s Workplace. “They infuse new tax , new enterprise, a brand new range of cultures and meals into the town, and make it a extra vibrant, numerous neighborhood.”
Like many different post-industrial American cities, Akron has seen its inhabitants shrink—from round 300,000 within the sixties to simply beneath 200,000 as we speak. Since 2002, at the least 2,173 refugees have resettled in Akron—with 1,210 of them from Myanmar, in line with an Omaha World-Herald report (though not all of those individuals stayed there completely).
However beneath the Trump administration, limits on refugees have been repeatedly slashed—from 85,000 in 2016 to what will likely be a document low of 18,000 in 2020 beneath a coverage change introduced in September. These cuts have led to the elimination of 1 refugee resettlement company in Akron.
“It’s been a rollercoaster within the final 12 months,” mentioned Madhu Sharma, IIA’s government director, who famous that organizations like hers are budgeted in line with the variety of new refugees. The discount in sources has made it harder to serve the present refugee communities.
“There’s a number of chaos,” Sharma mentioned. However, she provides, “we’ve been lucky.” Akron has been a really profitable settlement website up to now, and regardless of a dip within the numbers, Sharma and her colleagues stay “stalwart.” “I actually hope that we are going to survive these years wherein refugee resettlement is at a document low,” she advised Tricycle.
In 2017, the governments of Akron and surrounding Summit County declared themselves “welcoming” to immigrants, and launched a report noting that a 30 % improve in foreign-born residents from 2007 to 2013 had considerably offset the world’s inhabitants loss.
The Mon neighborhood in Akron is massive sufficient to assist two temples. The newer one, Htanjanu Ramonnya Temple (roughly translated because the “Place of Bliss Mon Buddhist Temple”) is on Sherman Road and serves an estimated 200 Mon. In August 2018, the neighborhood accomplished building on a conventional Burmese pagoda on temple grounds. The pagoda is the primary of its sort in Ohio, reflecting the normal Burmese design of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (previously Rangoon).
Many Mon neighborhood members imagine that it was a Mon monk who, in 1056, transformed King Anawrahta to Theravada Buddhism. He made it the state faith, spreading Buddhism throughout Myanmar and later to all of Indochina. Whereas some historians debate the veracity of this story, it’s a level of pleasure for a individuals who have lengthy suffered persecution.
“The kids want to know, have to know the place their household got here from,” mentioned Raymond Roteain, 49, a refugee who got here to the US in 2001 and is now a member and volunteer on the Mon Buddhist Monastery. “At some point the Burmese troopers got here to assault our village and so they destroyed every part. And so they requested my mother and father, my father in Burmese, ‘Are you guys towards the federal government?’ My father, he’s Mon, he doesn’t communicate Burmese. So he doesn’t reply as a result of he doesn’t know. And so they beat him.”
One of many monks at Mon Buddhist Monastery, Ven. Soma, 53, recalled being taken out of faculty in second grade and compelled to work within the rice fields. He was finally in a position to get again to his spiritual research, after which to Akron in 2010, after being invited to affix the monastery.
“When individuals needed to work within the communities, the military was watching. In the event that they don’t like the way you act, possibly they arrive and arrest you,” he recalled.
However as he gazed out on the grounds of the long run temple on Palmetto Avenue, Soma was optimistic about his future.
“It’s good,” he mentioned. “That is just like after we keep within the temple in Monland, as a result of we just like the quiet, somewhat removed from the village. Once we do meditation, nobody disturbs us.”
Additional studying: In case you’re excited by studying extra about Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, learn journalist and former monk Matthew Gindin’s article “The Rohingya Are Not the Only Ones.” For our most up-to-date protection of the Rohingya disaster, take a look at our Buddha Buzz Weekly columns, posted each Saturday.