Friday, February 25, 2011

Free to Worship: Asylee from Burma cherishes one of our most sacred rights

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When Chhuingi La Hming lived in Burma, the military would monitor her practically non-stop, keeping tabs on her comings and goings and brashly questioning visitors to her home.  Today, La Hming is a client with our Immigration Legal Services program, working to secure her asylum status and living a far freer life than she did before. The government in Burma keeps strict control over its citizens, even where they eat and sleep.  They're not allowed to worship freely, either. 

But it's hard to turn your back on your beliefs. And the intrepid La Hming broke the law numerous times by secretly teaching Sunday school in a back room at her home.  After her first arrest, she swore never to teach again, but quickly broke her promise.  That meant she would face the wrath of the military government and more jail time, or worse.  So La Hming sought refuge in the United States and came to Catholic Charities for help.

When I met La Hming at our offices in Washington a few weeks ago, she gave me a friendly smile and announced that she'd lived in the United States for over two years. She still teaches Sunday school and volunteers regularly at her church in Gaithersburg, Md.  She also holds down a steady job as a waitress in the District.  But the most important change in her life? She no longer fears being arrested for sharing her beliefs with others.

For about two years, she's been working closely with David Cleveland, an attorney who graciously volunteers full-time with our Immigration Legal Services program.  Their goal is to obtain asylee status for La Hming and her sister so they can stay in the United States permanently. 

That means David and La Hming have to describe in detail the persecution and humiliation La Hming endured so that she could teach others about her religion.  Then a judge will decide whether or not she and her sister have a legitimate reason to stay.

La Hming said that if she can't remain here, she'd just go back to jail in Burma rather than turn her back on what she believes.  "I came for religious freedom," she explained.  But the courts are slow, and she will still have to wait to hear whether or not her case is approved.

In the meantime, the work of our Immigration Legal Services department has helped La Hming and her sister start a better life by ensuring they can remain in the country while petitioning for permanent residency in the United States.  They enjoy volunteering and taking trips to the beach when they're not working--and they attend church every Sunday.

"We are very pleased and thankful to the government and Catholic Charities, but even more thankful to David Cleveland for all his help," La Hming added. 

Our Immigration Legal team deals with hundreds of cases just like this every single year, and they help many, many refugees and asylees gain the freedom to worship when and how they choose.  You guys do some awesome work, and we're grateful for all you do!


Practicing attorneys interested in inspiring and rewarding pro bono work with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services’ clients should contact Debi Sanders at debi.sanders@catholiccharitiesdc.org.