The Burmese Come to Houston

Get in, get out. Refugees have a shrinking window of support until it's time to fend for themselves.

Inside the urban jungle of southwest Houston there is an apartment complex like any other. Laundry dries from identical balconies stacked three at a time. The units are modest and slightly damp, and some have cockroaches. There is a pool.

Beyond the thick iron gate that surrounds the complex, strange things are afoot. Men wear dresses. Women, with tan swirls of makeup on their cheeks, squat along the sidewalk, or near a drain in the grass, sifting ants from a mound of white rice. Bright parasols dot the parking lot on hot afternoons. One resident calls Sun Blossom Mountain, on Ranchester Drive, his first glimpse of home since fleeing from Burma 16 years ago.

The refugees have even built a court for chinlone, their favorite sport. In a shady corner between two trees they strung a net, as if for badminton, but players use their feet to volley a small ball of woven palms carried over from a camp in Thailand. A chiseled man wearing only underwear jumps at the net and, with his heel, spikes the ball across and into the dirt.

Chinlone, in which players kick a small ball made from dried palms over a net, is one of the most popular sports in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Chris Curry
Chinlone, in which players kick a small ball made from dried palms over a net, is one of the most popular sports in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Children sometimes wander the apartment complex on their own as they did in refugee camps, where the community made sure they were safe.
Chris Curry
Children sometimes wander the apartment complex on their own as they did in refugee camps, where the community made sure they were safe.

More than 100 Burmese families now live at Sun Blossom Mountain and its sister complex across the street. A new family seems to appear every week.

They are entering what refugee workers describe as a "perfect storm" in the U.S. resettlement program. It is outdated and drastically underfunded, and the economy that for so long propped it up has sunk into a recession. At the same time, refugees are arriving in ever greater numbers — especially in Houston.

Following its success with the thousands of Vietnamese who fled here after the fall of Saigon, the city has been a magnet for the masses of refugees the United States resettles every year, which is approaching 75,000 this year. It has an abundance of jobs and affordable housing, along with a reputation as a welcoming international city. Since the turn of the century, nearly 1,600 have arrived annually at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, bleary and unsure if someone from one of the local resettlement agencies will pick them up as promised. There are Iraqis and Afghans, Somalis and Cubans, Burundians from Rwanda and Bhutanese scattered across the city for another chance at life.

The bulk of new faces are Burmese, part of America's new focus on what it considers especially vulnerable groups. In late 2006, it began taking in large numbers of the between one and two million people who have escaped from the frightening military dictatorship in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and into Thai refugee camps or Malaysian cities. Roughly 2,200 have come to Houston over the last three years.

Phe Bu Reh arrived with his wife and three sons on June 2. It was their first time inside a city. Phe Bu, like most incoming Burmese, is not from the educated class forced out as political dissidents in the past. He grew up in the hills of Kaya, one of several ethnic states against which the Burmese military wages perpetual war. He was caught sending food to starving rebels and escaped into the jungle, where he joined a party furtively making its way to the border. Three women gave birth during the slow and nervous trip. For the next eight years, Phe Bu lived in a patchwork bamboo hut inside a Thai refugee camp. He met his wife there.

Phe Bu can have little contact with his old home. His father, overwhelmed by constant interrogation, has become a monk. To resettle in America, a refugee must show that he cannot return to his home country or stay in his current one. Even his camp, which Phe Bu was not allowed to leave, came under attack by Burmese troops. Now he is safe. But he must quickly adjust to life in America and get on his feet.

Refugees once received 36 months of financial support as they learned the language and culture and searched for work. That fell to 22, 18, 12 and finally eight. The funds that cover the first month — including rent and utilities, food, furniture and case management — are at $900, half of what experts recommend. Rent assistance in Houston lasts four to six months, depending on what agencies can afford.

Refugees receive food stamps and eight months of Medicaid and modest cash assistance from the government. They must take health tests and vaccines and learn to speak English, ride the bus, shop and throw out the trash. Their children enroll at school. They must get social security numbers, identification and work permits — and then, most importantly, find jobs and become self-sufficient before it's time to pay the rent. To navigate this complex process, they depend on one of four major resettlement agencies in Houston to which refugees are assigned (the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, Catholic Charities, Interfaith Ministries and YMCA International).

For years, agencies across the country have used private funds, unpaid overtime and volunteers to patch together a system that before the recession was typically able to find jobs for more than 80 percent of refugees after six months. Those numbers are plummeting — to as low as 20 percent at one national agency, the International Rescue Committee, which Bob Carey, its vice president of resettlement and migration policy, expects is more or less the situation at most. In some states, refugees are becoming homeless.

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