The First International Baptist Church of Memphis brings together resettled refugees from a variety of backgrounds as they find a new American life in Binghampton.
This is one in a series of stories that look at the immigrant and refugee experience in Memphis, particularly in Binghampton.
Thi Mitsamphanh is a proud father.
After a few pleasantries he starts a recent conversation with the news he and his wife recently had a baby girl. It’s quickly clear that family is important to Thi.
But so is where he came from before he lived in the U.S. – Laos. His family was part of the waves of refugees in the 1970s and ’80s who fled their homeland after the war and the new regime took over. His family was part of the third wave that came in 1986, but only after Thi’s father escaped imprisonment from a political camp where he was held for seven years.
The family escaped across the border, ending up in Thailand where they lived in a refugee camp for two years. Young Thi wasn’t even 1 when he left Laos. He was 4 when he, his parents and six siblings finally made it to Nashville.
A typical story for millions of refugees over the years who have fled home for a multitude of reasons. But Thi’s happy story doesn’t end in Nashville where he and his family were welcomed by a local church that helped them acclimate to a new life. He grew up in Nashville, attended Middle Tennessee State University and decided to pursue a life in ministry.
He moved to Memphis in 2008 to further his theological studies at seminary. Thi felt called to start a church that works among the city’s refugee population, which brought him to Binghampton. He first worked primarily with refugees from Southeast Asia such as Bhutanese and Burmese.
Today the First International Baptist Church of Memphis meets at First Baptist Church of Memphis at the corner of Poplar Avenue and East Parkway on the southwest edge of Binghampton.
“That’s how we got to know the community,” Thi said, adding that many in the congregation all live in one apartment complex in the neighborhood. “When we first started visiting them we came to realize that the complex was 100 percent international, Somali, Congo and Nepal. It opened our eyes to the international demographic of this community.”
In addition to pastoring the church, Thi also joined the staff of World Relief Memphis a year ago as a church mobilizer. His job is to help churches become aware of the refugee crisis and dispel myths about refugees.
Working in community for Thi and his congregation means simply meeting the needs of families they encounter. It also completes a circle for Thi, who remembers the Nashville church that helped his large family in a foreign land.
“Whenever I meet a family – especially a large one – I see my family,” he said. “When I see a 4- or 5-year-old kid I see myself. And parents struggling with English – that was my parents. It’s personal. I feel blessed to help these newly arrived families and be a blessing to them, the same way people 30 years ago were a blessing to my family.”
More than his transition to America as a child in Nashville, Thi relates to the refugees who now live in Binghampton because his family relates. No, he doesn’t have memories of escaping Laos. But he knows the facts.
When the new regime took over the government in Laos Thi’s father had served in the military. Everyone who served in the military or worked for the old regime was told they were going away for three months. It was to “re-educate them in the communist ideology.”
“That three months turned to seven years,” Thi said.
During those long seven years in the re-education camp, Thi’s father gained the trust of his communist captors. Because the camp was deep in the jungle they had to send someone to a nearby town to get supplies. Thi’s father was that person.
Every month or so he made the journey to get supplies for the communist officers. But then on one of those journeys he didn’t return. He escaped, gathered his family and paid a fisherman to put the family under a cover in a boat.
“In the darkness of night, it’s a journey many Laos people made,” Thi said. “Today people are crossing the Mediterranean, not a river. People drown, boats capsize. It was a dangerous crossing. It hasn’t changed too much. Similar to the process today.”
Because Thi’s father had fought against the communists his family was given priority as political asylees. They were given a choice of France, Australia or the U.S. They were familiar with the United States, and ended up in Nashville after World Relief Nashville picked the family.
The First International Baptist Church can trace its origins to 1980 as a ministry to refugees from Laos. That congregation was restarted by Thi but changed direction to reach as many ethnic groups as it could. And today those early members who were helped with their transition are helping the new wave of immigrants.
One of the first families was from Nepal. The son, who was in high school at the time, went on to attend and graduate from the University of Memphis. With the growing Syrian refugee crisis he mobilized the community to put together a toy drive for Syrian refugee children.
It’s a simple story, but those are the ones that sometimes are felt the most. Take Thi. While he’s fluent in Lao, he doesn’t know the languages of other refugees in his congregation. So he went on YouTube to learn how to speak Nepali and better communicate with that population.
“Love transcends language,” he said, simply. “I learned basic phrases. People are really happy when you try to learn their language and try to connect with them in their culture.”
Those cultural differences are roadblocks for everyone, whether a new arrival in the U.S. or a Memphian who has been in the city for 40 years. But Thi wants everyone to understand that it’s already been such a long journey for refugees coming to Memphis.
“Coming to America isn’t their first challenge,” he said. “On the average, a stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Nepalese people their kids are born and raised in camp. They haven’t had a place to call home. And with that long journey comes trauma. For Syrians it’s the trauma of war. Having schools blown up. Family members killed. The trauma of depression. And those in camp for 18 years waiting for a crisis to end. Imagine an 18-year crisis.”
For some, the idea of America is that all problems are solved once they arrive here. But for many, the new challenge becomes adapting to a fast-paced American culture. Language barriers make getting a job harder. Some who have lived in camps for years arrive without an education.
But others, such as Syrians and Iraqis, they were chefs and doctors before leaving home. Those credentials don’t transfer to the U.S.
“Here they are cleaning toilets but back home they had servants and cars,” Thi said. “If they don’t have people come alongside and befriend them how do they get places and know how to go? … I want people to know that welcoming refugees is something that will bring positive contributions to our cities and to society. I’m second generation. Think about the past generation of refugees that was Vietnamese and Laos. Now today you see Vietnamese restaurants and businesses, doctors, people making great contributions.”