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 Sunday night when the men found a small dead turtle on the side of the road and split it five ways with some rice at their apartment. Only some had brought food, and they wanted to save what little cash they had for emergencies. The next day they started work. According to So, the men were ill-equipped for the job, which involves rapid-fire labor on an assembly line. The oldest of the group, Shaw Reh, is 60.

"Who sent these people here?" So remembers thinking.

The next morning, two of the men couldn't get out of bed. All refused to return to work. So called Naing, who asked the men to stay at least a month. The men demanded to go home. So then called a manager, whom he claims told him to kick the men out of the apartment and tell them the police had been called.

Phe Bu and eight of his friends say they were misled into taking a job in Alabama and then threatened when they tried to come home.
Chris Curry
Phe Bu and eight of his friends say they were misled into taking a job in Alabama and then threatened when they tried to come home.
Burmese soldiers tried to arrest Phe Bu Reh when he was discovered sending food to starving rebels.
Chris Curry
Burmese soldiers tried to arrest Phe Bu Reh when he was discovered sending food to starving rebels.

"They were just trying to threaten them, trying to scare them a little, so they'd go back to work. The manager didn't really call the police," So says. "They were losing a lot of money."

Ray Wiley, the owner of East Coast Labor, says his managers would never threaten workers and blames So, whom he says has been suspended, for trying to manipulate the men. Alliance staffers spoke several times with Wiley and So during the standoff and say only So mentioned anything about police. Wiley also says he employs refugees from around the country and that men of all ages work in the plants without issue.

The men ran into the nearby woods and hid under a tree while So waited in his car across the street. Nobody spoke. Phe Bu shivered with fear, and he tried to figure out a way home. He remembers thinking, "If he comes back, I will ask him to draw me a map."

About two hours after their first conversation, Phe Bu spoke with Naing once more on So's phone. Naing offered them Greyhound tickets, but said they'd have to pay him back. The next morning, the men were taken to the Greyhound station in Huntsville. From there they connected in Birmingham; Montgomery; Mobile; Baton Rouge; Orange, Texas; and finally Houston, managing each transfer by walking onto buses until they were not kicked off. They missed their ride from the agency. Using hand gestures, a card with the Ranchester address and $22 apiece, the men made it at last back to Sun Blossom. Later, Naing collected the $132 in bus fare from each, which they paid from their monthly cash assistance.

(Alliance was not aware the men had paid and immediately reimbursed them when alerted by the Press. Naing has since been dismissed.)

"I never expected my life to be like this," Phe Bu says.


"Ay-vee-ay-shunnnn," the teacher says. "Ree-few-lerrrrrs."

About 50 people of all ages and from around the world pack a small, stuffy apartment complex classroom where none of the tables or chairs look the same. Children make animal noises as they crawl across the floor. Women bounce babies and try to follow along. This is English class. Instead of textbooks, students have the classifieds.

Some seem fluent, and others can't introduce themselves. They flip through the booklets in search of words such as "full-time" and "benefits."

Whether in normal conversation or in front of his class, Scott Poteet speaks with the upbeat cadence of a seasoned teacher whose voice is impossible to tune out. Bald and bespectacled, Poteet, who works for Interfaith, looks the part of the high-school teacher he was for 15 years in Houston before moving to China with the Peace Corps. After that he taught in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he picked up some Thai and Burmese. Poteet spreads his arms and tilts from side to side as he tries to explain a want ad for aviation refuelers.

Jobs are the heart of the resettlement program. "The moment they pay the rent — to tell you the truth, everything we do is for that moment," Tate of Interfaith says. Self-sufficient refugees are on the path to stability, complete with green cards (after one year) and citizenship (after five). Unemployed ones drain precious manpower and money. Job placement rates also determine how agencies are judged, and can lead to bumps or drops in clients and funding.

Some agencies, like Alliance, have been pushed by the economy to look outside the city for help. Oleg Jolic of Catholic Charities, which is widely considered to have the best employment program and most organized services, something Jolic credits to well-defined staff positions, visited a manufacturing plant in Port Lavaca before sending over a group of Burmese. Too many departures look bad on the books, but if the family remains in Houston, it counts as a placement.

Desperation can inspire refugees to turn elsewhere, too. Agencies must watch out for employers who try to round up refugees on their own. Last year, Houston saw a massive migration of its Burmese to a Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus, a small town outside Amarillo with nothing in the way of refugee services. More than 400 people left at once and, as a Wall Street Journal article noted, the recruiter made $200 per head.

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