The coup in Myanmar has shaken thousands in Buffalo’s refugee and immigrant population who once called Burma home. An after-school music program that serves immigrants and refugees on Buffalo’s west side, Buffalo String Works, plans to hold multiple events to educate the public on what is happening in Myanmar, including a virtual concert Saturday.
Executive Director of Buffalo String Works (BSW) Yuki Numata Resnick and her staff are attempting something bold-- close to 20 musical performances by 20 different musicians across the world, who are working together to play an iconic Burmese March on short notice.
“This is essentially almost an ad hoc national anthem for the Burmese community,” Resnick said.
It will be one of several performances that BSW is putting together for a concert that wasn’t on the calendar early last week.
“We had a parent reach out to us directly and said, ‘This terrible thing is happening to our families, to our friends in Myanmar,’” Resnick said. “They asked, ‘Miss Yuki, can you please help us raise awareness and share information with the local Buffalo community about what's happening thousands of miles away?’ And so when we received that message, I immediately sent it on to our staff and teaching artists.”
When news arrived last week the Burmese army was once again rising to power, many refugees who once called Myanmar home wanted to raise awareness of the ethnic conflict that has lasted for decades in their brithland. And it just so happens over 80 percent of String Works students are a part of the local Burmese community.
“We're a music program. But I think so much more than that. We care deeply for our students, our staff and teachers. We have very, very personal relationships with every student and also their parents. So the fact that a parent actually asked us for help, was extremely meaningful to us.”
When BSW started seven years ago, the program wasn’t making the impact they were hoping for. Students did not always come to class and parents were not showing up to concerts.
But then, Resnick said, things quickly changed.
“Suddenly two parents, one Burmese, one Karen, they came to me in our second year. And they said, ‘Miss Yuki, we see that parents are not coming, students are not coming. We want to help.’ And so I said, Yes, please, we need your help. And these two parents single handedly have enrolled 30 plus families into our program. They have rallied the Burmese and Karen community, they have become ambassadors for Buffalo String Works. I think just having that endorsement from them really made all the difference.”
There is now a waiting list to get into BSW.
“We can't actually accommodate everybody,” Resnick said. “The Burmese community has really been essential in helping us build the program. They have contributed musical suggestions. So we play music from the Burmese Water Festival, we play a piece of music called ‘Welcome to Karen State,’ we play the Karen National Anthem. So they've even influenced the music that we're teaching our students.”
Resnick credits String Works teaching artist Laura Jay for suggesting a virtual concert.
“So I decided not only to have just performances, which of course would be great, but also to include information,” said Jay.
Outside of musical performances, the event will have interviews with Burmese families and Dr. Michelle Benson, a political science professor at UB.
Jay also teaches music at Kenmore East High School, where she said music has helped facilitate conversations about the coup.
“And we've been playing through a few Burmese songs in class just to really enjoy it and kind of go from the news aspect and the political aspect, and then bring it into the music aspect.”
Why Buffalo refugees from Myanmar are speaking out
Some of the Burmese/Karen population in Buffalo were once political prisoners. Forced to leave their villages/homes as the Burmese army committed horrific acts of violence and destruction.
And the concern many Myanmar natives have, Resnick said, is things may continue to escalate.
“I think one of the big barriers right now to getting credible information is the fact that the military has turned off phone service, they have restricted internet access. They've shut down Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And I think it's not only to prevent information from leaving the country, but it's also to prevent civilians there from organized protests. So that's another reason why it was very important to our local Burmese people here to be sure that we are seeing exactly and hearing exactly what's happening in their country.”
String Works isn’t the only group asking themselves, what can I do?
Klihtoo Paw is an early childhood education major at SUNY Buffalo State. She moved to Buffalo at the age of 8 after living temporarily at a refugee camp in Thailand.
“I started as a third grader at Campus West, which I guess they don't exist anymore,” Paw laughed.
She encountered a challenge many refugees and immigrants face when moving-- a language barrier.
“I started my education as a third grader, not knowing anything,” Paw said. “I don't even know how to say my name, pronounce my name. It's because it's kind of hard to translate, especially when you're at a young age, when you're introduced to a very, totally different language, and then out of nowhere, it's like you're in like a new environment.”
And that environment isn’t just all Burmese.
“My ethnicity is Karen. I speak Karen,” Paw said. “And then during that time, there were not a lot of Karen people here. So when we first came, it's like, very few foreign people. But luckily, my parents speak Burmese and they understand Burmese. And then we also have a caseworker who was Burmese who helped us.”
Paw, who has family currently in Myanmar, is now trying to raise funds and awareness to help those who are fleeing to the jungle. And she is sharing the letter of a 21 year old woman, similar in age, that Paw said has been running her entire life.
“She talks about her experience, and I just want to share it with other people so they can see how hard it is, especially at a young age. She's 21 right now. And not having the freedom to go to school,” Paw said.
The following letter was written on the January 25, 2021
WARNING: the following letter contains graphic violence.
Paw said the letter and these pictures are all from the past few months.
While Paw has lived in the US most her life, she never got to meet her grandparents in person.
“My mother didn’t really get to know who her mother is because after she was born, her mother just stepped out of the house to go get some things such as rice and stuff to come home and prepare food for the family. As soon as she stepped out of the house, Burmese soldiers killed her directly, shot her,” Paw said. “She wasn’t able to see or know who her mother is since she was a child. She was carried by her father and fleeing her whole life until we moved to like the refugee camp.”
Paw does contact her grandfather, although recently that has been impossible with cuts made to the internet.
“I communicate very often,” she said. “He's in like his 70’s or 80’s. I've never seen him once in my life. I only see him online, thanks to technology.”
Individuals and groups like Paw and BSW want to do something. Both are in the process of figuring out the best way to promote and gather resources.
For the BSW concert Saturday, Jay said she hopes to give the community an action plan.
“Maybe you don't have money to donate, that's okay. Maybe you don't have like I said, 1000 Twitter followers, you can tweet out something too. That's okay. There's lots of different ways you can help. Like a simple thing is going to support your local Burmese business and your community, going to the grocery store and buy at the grocery store, buying a pint of milk or whatever, sharing on social media, just using a hashtag to help your friends and colleagues learn more about it.”
The virtual concert begins at 5 p.m. Saturday on Buffalo String Works’ YouTube page. Jay said there are more events on the way, including an informative Town Hall in March.