In good spirits | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The creaky hallway of an apartment building along Whitehall's Skyline Drive might seem like the wrong place to find the Theravada Dhamma Gonyee Monastery. But behind a nondescript door lies what has become a cultural touchstone for Pittsburgh's Burmese refugees.

In what was once an ordinary apartment living room, a bronze statue of Buddha now rises from a wooden base and nearly touches the ceiling, from which hang LED lights. Surrounding the statue are offerings: flowers, mangos, bottles of Aquafina water.

Having opened in January, the center is the first Burmese monastery in the Pittsburgh region. It is located in Prospect Park, a suburban neighborhood whose rental complex has become a nexus for refugees brought to Pittsburgh with the help of local charities. Roughly 30 families attend the monastery regularly; most of them live in the same building. Tending the shrine is U Ponnyananda, a Buddhist monk who provides spiritual guidance to the community. The center, he says, fills a cultural void for refugees who fled Burma (officially known as Myanmar) fearing political persecution.

"They want to live happily and peacefully," Ponnyananda says. He says the monastery serves about 300 people, most of whom were peasants or college students who protested the Burmese government's human-rights record.

"In our country, we cannot do anything," he says. "You cannot talk."

In Prospect Park, the only real constraint is the dimensions of the living room: Traditional Buddhist festivals sometimes require singing and dancing, Ponnyananda says, which is problematic given the apartment size and concerns about neighbors.

Still, Theravada Buddhism does not have regularly scheduled worship times -- religious practice centers on individual meditation -- so members can come for spiritual guidance throughout the day. And in addition to serving as a place of worship, the monastery offers children Buddhist education on weekends and during summer break.

Ponnyananda and his assistant monk, U Ankura, are not refugees themselves; both are here on visas after being recruited by a Burmese family organization. In Burmese Buddhist culture, monks are supported by their community, and Kywa Naing, a member of the group, says members have raised $20,000 so far. Most of that money pays for the monks' living expenses, though some funds are set aside to eventually relocate the monastery to a larger space.

"We are still trying to build a new life," says Naing, who arrived here as a refugee in 2005 and recently became one of the first local Burmese to apply for citizenship.

Nor are they alone. Since 2007, the number of Burmese refugees arriving in America has grown exponentially. Figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that 18,275 Burmese refugees came to America in 2009; 456 of those came to Pennsylvania. Between 2000 and 2006, by contrast, only 5,332 Burmese refugees came to America, with only 61 making their homes in Pennsylvania.

According to Leslie Aizenman, refugee-services director with the Jewish Children's and Family Service in Pittsburgh, refugee populations vary from year to year, making it hard to predict whether the recent spike will be sustained. The federal government decides which refugees to bring to the region, with organizations such as JCFS and Catholic Charities providing health, education and employment services to recent arrivals.

Aizenman has helped settle between 200 and 300 refugees from Burma over the past few years, including Burmese Buddhists and the Karen, a persecuted ethnic group in Burma that is largely Christian.

Pittsburgh is a good place for refugees to resettle because of its affordability and job opportunities, she says. "They have to find a job to pay rent, basically. They don't have to go to work right away, but pretty much."

Naing, for example, landed a job at the Sheraton Hotel in Station Square a little more than a month after he arrived. Two years later, he brought over his family.

When he was a college student, Naing participated in protests in the capital city, Rangoon, to oppose the military junta that seized control of Burma's government. By 2002, he says, it became clear that "I cannot stay in our country, because I am against our government."

A 2010 Human Rights Watch report estimates that the government still detains more than 2,100 political prisoners and "continues to perpetrate violations against civilians in ethnic conflict areas, including extrajudicial [sic] killings, forced labor and sexual violence."

But here in Pittsburgh, they seem to be fitting right in.

"We've enjoyed this population very much," Aizenman says. "They're super community-oriented."

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