Researching rural refugees

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UI graduate student helps Chin Burmese population in Columbus Junction

By Lois Gray for Iowa Now | Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Cristina Ortiz

Cristina Ortiz remembers growing up as part of the lone Latino family in Leon, Iowa, a tiny town in south central Iowa with less than 2,000 residents.

“My paternal grandparents were Mexican-American migrant workers, and the Latino population in Leon was basically my family,” says the 32-year-old University of Iowa anthropology doctoral student who is pursuing research that includes the Chin Burmese refugee population in Columbus Junction, Iowa, her new home during graduate school.

While many graduate students prefer to live close to campus, Ortiz relishes the small-town, community environment.

"I like the familiarity of small towns," Ortiz says. "The people I meet remind me of people I know: my grandparents, my parents, my friends, my mentors. Many rural Iowans I meet reflect a desire for vibrant community I was taught to value growing up."

Ortiz says she became interested in refugee and immigrant communities because of her heritage and her interest in culture.

“I think understanding refugee experiences helps us be more effective in welcoming newcomers to our communities,” Ortiz says.

In fact, Ortiz believes in this so strongly that she is sharing her research and work at the upcoming University of Iowa Refugees in the Heartland Conference April 4-7. She encouraged a Chin Burmese youth group to participate, and they will perform traditional dances at the cultural fair Thursday.

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