The Burmese Come to Houston

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

"It was a little bit unrealistic in a strong economy. In the current situation, it's next to impossible," says Carey, who also chairs the advocacy coalition Refugee Council USA. "Refugees have had a great history of success. I think that's been taken for granted."

Houston has fared better than most cities, and so its share of refugees is increasing — 2,000 arrived in the first three quarters of the fiscal year alone. But jobs are drying up here as well. As clients need longer and more intensive help, agencies and their small staffs are scrambling to keep up, and refugees are being increasingly left to piece together their new lives on their own. For some, the experience is nothing like they expected.

"We're introducing people to America. And we'd like to introduce them to the America that we'd like America to be," says Aaron Tate, the resettlement director at Interfaith. "But the truth is, we have to introduce them to the America that's really there."

The Burmese community at the Sun Blossom apartments on Ranchester Drive has so far expanded to include more than 100 families.
Chris Curry
The Burmese community at the Sun Blossom apartments on Ranchester Drive has so far expanded to include more than 100 families.
Among the first obstacles for new arrivals is finding a rice cooker. Until then, they use a frying pan.
Chris Curry
Among the first obstacles for new arrivals is finding a rice cooker. Until then, they use a frying pan.

Phe Bu was told he had four months to pay his rent, and that work was scarce in Houston. It was in a panic that, less than two months after he arrived, he saw a sign with a word he recognized — "job" — on a wall in the Alliance offices and went to his caseworker, Ko Ko Naing.


The sign advertised jobs at a chicken plant in Louisiana. Naing told Phe Bu he could go if he found some co-workers. Phe Bu gathered eight friends from Sun Blossom, who are all from his village in Burma, and therefore all have the surname "Reh." Their families were to stay in Houston, where Alliance could continue to help. The men say they believed they would be driven back to visit twice a month, and that the jobs were in Louisiana and six hours away. ­Naing arranged a departure date of July 21.

Naing came to Houston with a small wave of Burmese refugees in 2004. He lives in Sun Blossom, where he is endlessly badgered by residents. This recent group is especially needy. Few speak English, and some can't speak Burmese, either, or sign their names. Those from states in eastern Burma such as Kaya and Karen lived in camps for as long as two decades; their children say they're from Thailand. They were not allowed to work and received little education. Refugees from western Burma, meanwhile, lived and worked illegally in Malaysia, where they could easily end up in detention centers or in the hands of human traffickers. Confusion and suspicion are rampant.

"Some clients, whatever the caseworker says, they don't believe," Naing says. "They think I take the food, take the money. Some people think it's Ko Ko eating the food."

Caseworkers make around $12 an hour and annually handle as many as 150 clients. Alliance has received more than 700 refugees so far this fiscal year and has eight people in its resettlement department, including four caseworkers. Naing gets all the Burmese. He spent the better part of last week shuttling students around for enrollment, and uses his free time on refugees as well. Since he lives nearby, clients from every agency knock on his door with all sorts of problems.

"They don't care what time. It's weekend, or it's night," Naing says. "When they receive the letter, they knock on my door. Any letter, whether it's their name or not."

On a Tuesday afternoon, the Reh clan boarded a white van with a driver sent from the plant. Six hours passed, and Phe Bu says he asked if they were close. He was told there was still a ways to go. The men spent the night in a small town along the way and finally arrived the next day. Only they were in Alabama. A translator was waiting for them.

The men say they were told that since they didn't yet have all their documents they were illegal (this was untrue), but the manager would allow them to work all the same. For Phe Bu, who had heard on the radio about illegal immigration and who comes from a place where police are dangerous and corrupt, this was a terrifying idea. The men say they were also advised not to go anywhere without their translator. He was their transportation to and from the two apartments the employer — East Coast Labor, which provides and manages the workers at plants like the one in Alabama — had arranged. As far as visits to Houston, the men say they were told one might be possible in a few months.

Naing insists the men knew where they were going. Alliance has placed 17 clients at a Louisiana plant run by East Coast Labor that Naing and Alliance's job developer visited first. According to Alliance, those clients are treated well and return home every two weeks. Naing says the men chose the Alabama job for its slightly higher pay. Both the translator, Kevin So, and driver, Henry Naw Seng, say the men did not mention any confusion about their destination. The Houston Press interviewed seven of the men. All say they believed they were on a six-hour trip to Louisiana.

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