The East Bay's new Burmese immigrants left their homes in Thai refugee camps only to find themselves in an even tougher spot— inner-city Oakland amidst a punishing recession that threatens the assistance they depend upon.
By Momo Chang
Oo Meh, April Ni, Bo Reh, and Groto Ni stand in the breezeway of the apartment complex they share with other recent Burmese refugees. Oo Meh and Groto Ni were Karenni rice farmers who spent more than 20 years in a Thai refrefugee camp before arriving in Oakland just months ago.
Ale Sho had been in the United States just three weeks when he and his neighbor were accosted while returning to their apartments from an Asian grocery. Ale Sho was carrying two bags filled with fruit juice and wearing a produce-stuffed backpack that also contained a benefits card loaded with enough credits to sustain him and his family for a month. As the two friends neared to their Eastlake district apartment, three young men who had been eyeing them crossed the street and began to follow. Walking the last two blocks more briskly with their heavy groceries, Ale Sho told his neighbor, "They do not look nice."
Just as they reached the gate of their complex, one of the young men grabbed Ale Sho's backpack. Although his neighbor had already run upstairs into the complex, Ale Sho refused to surrender the pack. After a short tug-of-war with the robber, he saw one of the young men pointing a gun at him. Miraculously, Ale Sho was able to get inside the gate and shut it with himself and his groceries intact.
"We had many, many hard times in Burma," said Ale Sho, a lanky man in his thirties who spent the prior fourteen years in a Thai refugee camp. "When we came to the US we thought it will be free, so we feel more upset about [the robbery]. We thought we would be released from the hard times, but we are still unsafe."
Nothing was stolen from Ale Sho, who like many other Burmese immigrants uses no surname. But the attempted armed robbery left him with a mental scar. Through a translator, he said he's afraid he will run into those young black men again. And although he speaks little English, he believes the men told him something along the lines of, "We'll see you again." So he stopped wearing his backpack and is now more cautious around African Americans, even though he knows they are not all robbers.
Like thousands of other refugees from Burma, Ale Sho came to the United States straight from the camp in Thailand. In the last three years alone, about 2,000 such refugees have arrived in California, with more than 300 resettling in the East Bay, most of them in Oakland.
Their journey to Oakland is just the latest chapter in a long quest for freedom that includes civil wars, poverty, and forced relocation from a land 9,000 miles from here. But while the US government offered these refugees protection and the promise of a new life, the ones who wound up in Oakland arrived to discover themselves in the middle of another hostile environment — urban America during the worst economic crisis in generations.
Many Burmese refugees in their twenties or even thirties were born in the refugee camps and thus have no work experience, making their transition all the more difficult. Even for those with work experience, transitioning from agrarian village life to urban life is a challenge. They come with little preparation for American life, and almost no money or English skills.
And to complicate matters, many do not even consider themselves Burmese. Instead, they identify themselves through their ethnic affiliation. Ale Sho and most of the other recent arrivals are Karenni, members of a tiny Burmese refugee group. Other immigrants are members of the larger Karen community.
Most of these families are so-called "free cases," a term resettlement workers use to describe refugees who have no family members anywhere in the United States. After all, the first Karenni refugee family arrived in Oakland just last April, although about sixty have since settled here. But the Karenni had no established community here, and their language is little known.
Consequently, resettlement workers often place the new refugees together in the same buildings and neighborhoods. For instance, the apartment complex where Ale Sho lives with his wife, mother, and infant daughter houses four Burmese families. Two are Karenni, one is Indian Burmese, and the other Chin. The interpreter, Nwe Oo, who lives elsewhere in Oakland, is Rakhine, yet another ethnic minority.
Resettlement workers find the task of assisting these refugees, particularly the Karenni, one of the most challenging they have ever undertaken.
"When I compare them in how prepared they are for American culture, I'd say they are the least prepared," said Don Climent, the regional resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee, who during the past thirty years has helped to resettle refugees from as far afield as Bosnia, Iraq, and Bhutan. "They have more things to learn and more things to accomplish before they can fully participate in American society."
For the East Bay's growing Burmese refugee population, it is a particularly bad time to be embarking on a new life.
Burma, now called Myanmar, was once a British colony. During that time, the Karenni or Kayah state — one of the smallest and poorest in Burma — was independent. The region, which is along the southeast border near Thailand, is mostly hilly and agricultural. Many Karenni were poor farmers who worked in rice paddies and cut wood from nearby jungles. When Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the government began occupying these lands. Ever since then, the country has been embroiled in civil wars. Ethnic conflicts in the Karenni state and elsewhere led to purging, village burnings, and forced labor.
Ale Sho grew up under the watch of the Burmese military. His father had been made to do forced labor for the military many times, each time coming back with bruises and scars. Village families were often caught in the crossfire of the civil war between armed rebels and the repressive military. Once, the military arrested nearly half their village. Ale Sho and his father were captured and tortured for a night, and then released. Soon thereafter, in 1994, Ale Sho decided to flee by himself at the tender age of fourteen.
He lived in the jungle and at an ad hoc refugee settlement with other Karenni people for nearly a year before ending up in the refugee camp in Thailand. In those bleak camps, members of Burmese ethnic minorities lived in limbo. They became stateless and belonged to no country. Refugee camps are typically a short-term solution to wars and ethnic cleansing, and the camps were set up in the hope that one day the refugees could return safely to their home country. But returning home to life under the Burmese military junta was not an option for the refugees. Many eventually became "longstayers" who lingered in the camps for decades.
Ale Sho's neighbor Oo Meh and her family fled their village in the late 1970s. For decades — sometimes daily, sometimes a few times a month — Burmese soldiers would come to their village and force them to work. Her father was getting older, and one time they paid another person to work in place of their family. Oo Meh and her family were poor rice farmers and could not keep up with the military's demands. When they fled, they carried with them only rice, a knife and some clothes.
"I was extremely sad," said the petite, long-haired, 49-year-old in an interview from her Eastlake home through a translator from her native Karenni. "My heart hurt. Before we left, I couldn't sleep. I was afraid the Burmese military would come attack us. We brought some food with us, but not enough." During their escape from Burma, they each ate about half a bowl of rice a day for a month while they lived in a nearby jungle. Finally, they crossed over into a Thai refugee camp.
Then 22, Oo Meh met her husband, Groto Ni, a Karenni soldier in the guerilla army, in the refugee camp. They had both of their children while living in the refugee camps.
There were several camps in Thailand, and the quality of life in them varied. But the camps met only the most basic of human needs. Food was rationed, healthcare was scant, work was prohibited, and there was little quality education. There was no electricity and no paved roads, and families lived in woven bamboo shacks with thatch roofs. People rode bicycles and sometimes motorbikes, but there were no cars or buses. In the schools, camp residents learned Burmese and their ethnic language, and some also learned English, but did not practice it much. If residents left the camps, they would have been in Thailand illegally, and could have been caught and deported by the Thai authorities.
So beginning in the 1960s, refugees from Burma began trickling into the United States. Many of the first arrivals — whether refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants for other reasons — were ethnically Chinese or Indian. A democratic student demonstration in 1988 and a coup and ensuing crackdown led to more Burmese arriving in the United States, most of whom were well-educated. Burma is where Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democratic movement who was elected prime minister in 1990, has been under house arrest for more than a decade. The "Saffron Revolution" of 2007, led by Buddhist monks, and the military junta's crackdown displaced more people.
All in all, these conflicts created half a million refugees.
After the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent passage of the USA Patriot Act, the US government barred certain people from entering the country. The list of banned immigrants included anyone who had ever supported an armed antigovernment group, including people who provided weapons or food to such rebels. Because members of Burma's ethnic minorities have been embroiled in wars for years, this automatically enrolled most Burmese refugees into this prohibited category.
But people continued to flee Burma, and the humanitarian crisis in the camps was growing. Overcrowded conditions exacerbated the problem, as did the fact that many refugees lingered in camps for decades. In response to this crisis, and to international pressure from resettlement agencies and the United Nations, in 2006 the United States opened its doors to more Burmese refugees. Nearly 14,000 refugees of Burmese ancestry entered the United States in 2007, more than any other group.
When the United States welcomed the Burmese, refugees like Oo Meh and Groto Ni took the chance. "We planned for one year to come to the US." Oo Meh said. "We felt happy to leave."
But just months after arriving in the United States, many of these same refugees were expressing frustration and fear, combined with a loss of hope. "I don't feel well," Oo Meh said. "I want to go back to the camps. I can't speak the language. I don't have my friends, my people."
Oo Meh and Groto Ni take English classes through the Oakland adult schools, but they say they don't really understand much of what is taught in class. Meanwhile, robbery victim Ale Sho has been in the country for nine months and is taking English classes. He is receiving public assistance and only recently began looking for a job through Lao Family Community Development, because he couldn't get into the International Rescue Committee's employement program. Until recently, he didn't know where to get help or how to find a job.
Other refugee groups typically arrive in the United States with better language skills. For instance, many Iraqi refugees are professionals who speak English, and even most Bhutanese refugees have English skills. But for the Karen and Karenni refugees, English isn't their second or even third language. They speak their native tongue, Burmese, and often some Thai.
"For new communities in general, access to the English language is one of the key ingredients for incorporation success," says Khatharya Um, associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, whose work focuses on Southeast Asian refugees. For instance, Um said, an English-speaking refugee with no more than a third-grade education is in a better position to navigate the system and find a job than a high-school graduate who cannot speak English.
That principal was on display one brisk November morning when Oo Meh and Groto Ni's sons, Bo Reh and April Ni, went cold-calling for jobs. Because both young men had been in the International Rescue Committee's employment program for three months and had no luck finding a job, staff members there decided it was time to go door-to-door. And because April Ni washed dishes in one of the Thai refugee camp's kitchens and both young men knew some Thai from their life there, the men focused their job search on Thai restaurants.
At around 11 a.m., they hopped on an AC Transit bus and headed toward Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with Aurora Almendral, the International Rescue Committee volunteer who had picked them up at the airport when they first arrived in the United States. After three hours, they had hit up fifteen Thai restaurants.
"We talked to workers and owners to see if they were hiring, and we brought their résumés," Almendral said. But the young men were hesitant about their English skills, and Almendral did most of the talking. Only four restaurants took their résumés. Many managers said they were not hiring, and a few even said they planned on closing soon.
"They just seemed overwhelmed and nervous about all the people that they talked to," Almendral said of her young companions. "About twelve or thirteen of the places didn't say anything hopeful."
April Ni, 19, was born in the refugee camp and had never had a job before. He was taking English classes in the morning and waiting for work, like his brother. "If I get any kind of job, I'm ready to go to work," he said through a translator. "If they call, we'll go. But if they don't, we can't."
Bo Reh, 21, shared the same stark assessment as his mother. "The camp is our village," he said through a translator. "The place is ours. We can play, we can go to school. It is better than here. If I had any opportunity to go back to camp, I would go."
Still, as a result of their job search, Bo Reh eventually began working in landscaping after the husband of one of the restaurant managers hired him on an on-call basis. And April Ni found a job washing dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland. He now works there part-time in the evenings, but admits he is sometimes afraid to ride the bus back after his late-night shift.
The two brothers are fortunate. More than 40 percent of the refugees in the International Rescue Committee employment program are unable to find a job within six months.
The International Rescue Committee handles the bulk of Burmese refugee cases in the Bay Area, and is one of ten nongovernmental organizations with which the US State Department contracts to resettle refugees. The committee's Oakland office is a stone's throw from the Tribune Tower, in the heart of the hustle and bustle of downtown. At any given time you'll see people from all over the world waiting in the organization's lobby. Committee case managers handle all sorts of issues — from picking them up at the airport and helping refugees find a place to live to translating between parents and their children's schools to finding work for the new arrivals.
The committee has typically located many recent refugees in Oakland because of its relatively low cost of living, access to public transportation, and — at one time — manufacturing jobs. Just two years ago, when Karen refugees started arriving in larger groups, the International Rescue Committee placed 78 percent of refugees in jobs within the first six months of moving here. But that number is now down to 58 percent, and the staff expects it to dip still more in the coming months.
"People are hopeless," said interpreter Nwe Oo, a refugee who arrived in 2005. "They come to the US, but they cannot find a job."
Many refugees have to wait months before finding work, sometimes years. About half of the refugees that the International Rescue Committee works with join its employment program upon arrival. But in Oakland, the unofficial unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent, and jobs are no guarantee.
Even for those refugees who do get jobs, the numbers are bleak. As recently as 2006, the average wage for refugees placed in part-time jobs by the regional International Rescue Committee office was $14.73. In 2009, it plummeted to $8.56.
Meanwhile, the quality of jobs has changed. Four years ago, International Rescue Committee employment specialist Igor Radulovic rarely considered service sector jobs for the refugees he worked with because those are usually part time and often don't include benefits. But today, restaurant and hotel jobs are the only ones he can find for new refugees, he said. Higher-paying factory or production jobs are extremely scarce. Most of the jobs now are part-time.
Transportation also is a huge issue, since most of them rely on public transit. Some find a job only to resign once they discover that they simply can't afford to commute to Fremont or San Francisco by BART and then bus.
Refugees who can't locate or keep jobs are thrown into the welfare system. In California, they can receive public assistance: CalWorks for families with children, or Refugee Cash Assistance for single people. Families of four receive about $800 a month from CalWorks, with a lifetime cap of five years of assistance. A single person receives about $345 a month from Refugee Cash Assistance, which lasts eight months. After that, they may be able to tap into the General Assistance welfare pool, which provides even less than Refugee Cash Assistance.
But with a two-bedroom apartment in the Eastlake district of Oakland running about $1,000 a month, families who rely on public assistance typically have almost no money after rent.
Consequently, Climent notes, this year the committee has had to reject many Burmese refugees who hoped to flee the camps for the United States. For example, it won't accept families with five or more kids with unemployable parents. A couple with five children would receive $1,162 a month from CalWorks, but since, by law, the International Rescue Committee has to find a three-bedroom for larger families, CalWorks funds wouldn't even cover the rent. At a time when welfare benefits have been cut and the unemployment rate is so high, to welcome such families to the United States would just be setting them up for failure.
Climent said refugees' needs have changed. When he started working at the International Rescue Committee in 1979, it was resettling primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees. But today, refugees come from all over the world, necessitating more staffing and more nuanced support. And yet welfare and other public assistance have been cut back drastically. The Refugee Cash Assistance once lasted five years; now it's just eight months. CalWorks was recently reduced by 4 percent. Consequently, he and representatives of other US refugee resettlement agencies are urging the federal government to change its policies in supporting new refugees.
"For high-need populations, three or six months is not enough to transition to full self-sufficiency," agreed Um, the Berkeley professor. "Once they're no longer eligible for refugee programs, they may still have challenges, so they have to access the general programs that are there to assist families in need. They just become a part of America's poor and vulnerable."
Um believes the government should invest in language skills, training, and job development for refugees. "It is important that we as a society invest in our human resources, including new refugees, and not just focus on the short-term filling of needs of the economy, without any kind of real investment in our population," she said. "Our human resources are the backbone of America."
Karenni men typically wear a bright red, sleeveless poncho-like shirt, but April Ni and his 22-year-old neighbor Maw Reh have not worn theirs since arriving in the United States. During a recent interview at their apartment complex, they explained why.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, they were told not to wear their traditional clothing. "They don't like the color red," April Ni said vaguely. When pressed, he acknowledged hearing at the Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church that the color red is affiliated with gangs. Consequently, all of the Karenni refugees interviewed for this story wear Western clothing, although many Karen refugees still wear traditional clothing, or at least a woven sling bag.
Traditional clothing may make refugees an easy target for crime, but just being Asian may be a factor. In the months prior to the robbery that Ale Sho narrowly avoided outside his apartment, a number of other Burmese refugees were robbed while walking down the street, according to Climent and others interviewed.
And just within the last few months, there has been a spike in street robberies specifically targeting Asians in the Eastlake district, according to Alan Yu, Asian liaison officer for the Oakland Police Department. While the actual numbers of robberies in Oakland's Area 2 — the area just east of Lake Merritt to High Street — was not unusual in October and November, almost half of the robbery victims during those months were Asian and many of those robberies were concentrated in the Eastlake area. Language barriers, the notion that Asians keep a lot of cash on hand, and underreporting in Asian communities are some of the biggest factors in these crimes. Like many immigrant communities, Asians are less likely to report crimes to police when they occur, making them more vulnerable to criminals who think they can get away with their crimes.
The long-term impacts of such crimes can be significant, if hard to measure. Maha See, a Burmese-speaking case manager who works at Asian Community Mental Health Services, recently counseled three Burmese refugees who were victims of street robberies.
Almost by definition, most refugees have already experienced trauma, sometimes many times over. A rare study of Karenni refugees published in 2001 by the Centers for Disease Control found that 41 percent experienced depression and 42 percent felt anxiety, along with 4.6 percent who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.
Even among those who did not already suffer from depression because of their forcible relocation or loss of homes, property, or loved ones, depression is an understandable response to a jarring relocation to the United States, See said. He and another Burmese-speaking staff member recently began providing mental health counseling on a part time basis. "Since we come from cultures where there's no such thing as counseling or therapy, they are very unaware with how they can ask for psychological or emotional needs," he said. See believes there needs to be more outreach to new refugees.
But besides Asian Community Mental Health Services and the International Rescue Committee, few places offer solace and services for these refugees. Because many Karen and Karenni refugees are Christian, some refugees receive assistance from the Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church. Volunteers from Refugee Transitions tutor refugees and their children, and the nonprofit group employs a staff member who speaks Burmese. Staff members of Lao Family Community Development also speak Burmese and can help place refugees in jobs, and there is a Burmese-speaking worker at the Eastmont Wellness Center.
In recent years, the Oakland Unified School District hired a refugee specialist after being awarded a refugee school-impact grant from the US Office of Refugee and Resettlement. Each month at Catholic Charities, groups who work with refugees meet to talk about the different populations as part of the East Bay Refugee Forum.
Still, there is no organization that focuses solely on Burmese refugees in the East Bay. Although there is an existing Burmese community in the East Bay, earlier immigrants were mostly Chinese, Indian, or Burman, not Karen, Karenni, Chin, or Kachin. And there are language, economic, and cultural gaps between all groups.
"That sense of pan-ethnic identity is certainly emerging, but it takes time," said Um, who noted that the same thing happened to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees after the war in Vietnam. Uniting this fractured group might be difficult but necessary.
Sometimes, new arrivals just need help translating their mail. The International Rescue Committee does much of the work, but sometimes refugees need to be told things many times before they remember, said Zar Ni Maung, a family advocate at Refugee Transitions. There is simply too much information being thrown at them at once.
Other needs are not as easily filled. People need healthcare interpreters, for example, when they go to the hospital. And new arrivals typically don't understand how to navigate systems such as banking or public transportation. Maung tells a story about how one single mother on welfare accidentally opened a savings account instead of a checking account, and overdrafted eight times; now she owes $400 in fees even though she had originally deposited only $175 and taken out $120 from the ATM.
Maung, translator Nwe Oo, and several others are in the process of forming a nonprofit tentatively called the Burmese Refugee Family Network. They have not filed for nonprofit status yet, but have been planning for more than a year. The goal is to fill in the gaps of these other organizations, and assist the organizations since many of the Burmese-speaking social workers are already overloaded. They feel like some of the basic needs of new families are not met. They envision that much of the work will be training volunteers to help translate and advocate on behalf of refugee families.
Still, while the current outlook is bleak, refugee resettlement officials hope the situation is temporary.
"Is it a good idea to come here during this time?" asked Climent. "I think the answer is still yes. ... Their lives in refugee camps was dismal. Even though it is hard for them here, it is a step up. They will have access to education, they will have access to jobs. There is a future there for them here."
Nwe Oo, a mother of three, ultimately believes a community group focused on families' voices and their basic needs is necessary to improve the lives of Burmese refugees.
"There are a lot of Burmese refugees coming here, and they face many issues," Oo said. "The IRC and other organizations are trying to help, but they have limitations. We are trying to help our community, especially with basic needs. ... They can learn English, and later on, they can get a better job. Their family life will change little by little. People who came last year, their English skills have improved. So that's what we hope. Change little by little."