The Burmese Come to Houston

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

Tate tried to get his clients to stay, but succeeded with just one. On a recent family trip, he persuaded his wife to let him stop in Cactus. Workers were living in decrepit trailers and shacks. "It was like a third-world country," he says.

Other aspects of resettlement, meanwhile, have been pushed to the wayside. Tasks agencies once handled — driving to the hospital, interpreting bills — are left instead to volunteers and more experienced neighbors. Housing is often dodgy. Food stamp and Medicaid renewal forms go unreturned. Over-burdened caseworkers are hard to reach.

When Miriam Diria, the director at Alliance, started there in 1996, a man from the Social Security office processed applications at the agency. Now each application takes a special trip and more than a month to process. The offices for food stamps and Medicaid had special case managers for refugees. That ended too, and Texas was recently sued for delaying food stamp applications. Interfaith has two staffers who work almost exclusively on benefits. The county health department has a three-month backlog for the medical requirements.

Scott Poteet, an employee with Interfaith Ministries who lives at Sun Blossom, has organized evening English classes there. He teaches adults in one room while refugee volunteers teach children in the next.
Chris Curry
Scott Poteet, an employee with Interfaith Ministries who lives at Sun Blossom, has organized evening English classes there. He teaches adults in one room while refugee volunteers teach children in the next.
Poteet came to watch but ended up a guest of honor at the Karen celebration.
Chris Curry
Poteet came to watch but ended up a guest of honor at the Karen celebration.

"Everything changed, and now we're getting more people," Diria says.

Clients get prioritized. Refugees are technically allowed five years of case management. A recent mandate requires agencies to focus on those here for less than a year. Now it's six months. One family will get four months of rent and another six; one will have its electric bill paid while another sweats it out — "Juggling chainsaws," Tate says. "Spinning plates."

No refugees have gone homeless in Houston, though some have been evicted, and employment rates are hurting. At Catholic Charities, for instance, 87.5 percent of refugees had stable employment after six months in 2007. That has dropped to 78 percent last year and 73 percent today.

Jolic describes the federal refugee program's current $771 million budget as "almost a statistical error" that fails to address the magnitude of the mission at hand.

"This is also crisis management," he says. "Because you can imagine the crises that people will go through. There are two concurrent traumas — what they went through to come here, and the trauma of trying to pick up the pieces."

It's not uncommon for refugees to begin questioning why they came here. Some feel trapped. And there are few resources available for counseling and mental help.

The Burmese military dragged Car Sin from his village in Karen to carry their weapons while they fought his friends. They made him clear trees that were not in the way from a field of Thai mines. Mines are made to maim, but Car Sin's friends thought he was dead for much of the 15-mile walk to the hospital, as he hung from a sheet tied to a branch, unconscious and missing a leg.

In his Sun Blossom apartment, Car Sin rocks a baby in a makeshift hammock. He had been here eight months and denied disability and couldn't pay the rent when he grabbed a rope in the middle of the night and headed for a nearby tree, but accidentally woke his wife.

"My wife, she's pregnant. And only she can work," he says. "She just gets $800 or $900 a month. And we're out of food stamps, out of money. And nobody helped me to get a job. And my leg hurt, and nobody brought me to a doctor. It doesn't make sense. That's why I tried to end my life."

Dario Lipovac, the resettlement director at YMCA who, like Jolic, came to America as a refugee, knows the numbers don't work. But while other countries offer better and longer support, he says, the United States takes at least half of the 100,000 to 150,000 refugees who are resettled worldwide each year. There are an estimated 9 million refugees still in limbo. Some live in camps their entire lives. Refugees are often abused by locals and kept behind fences. Tate says some clients come from camps where the incidence of sexual assault reaches 100 percent.

The U.S. program was based entirely on the experience of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. A multitude of diverse and more difficult groups now arrive each year, and the times have changed. The system has not.

But the Burmese do share two important traits with the Vietnamese, who have flourished in Houston. They have a strong — and at times seemingly fanatical — desire to work. And they tend to help each other out.

"The Burmese are more community-­oriented [than most refugees]," Diria, of Alliance, says. "And that makes them strong."

_____________________

Wherever he goes, John Glenn is an activist.

On July 20, 1969, man first walked on the moon. In Burma shortly thereafter, and before any other babies that day, John Glenn was born. The American embassy sent his mother clothes and toys. She named her son in honor of the occasion.

Throughout his childhood and to this day, people have remarked about Glenn's name. And he has felt compelled to live up to it. The military took control of Burma in 1962. By 1988, the country was in a shambles, and a student movement was brewing. Glenn was part of it. An historic series of protests began that year on August 8, and as night fell Glenn was in the crowd near Rangoon city hall. The battalion facing the protestors was replaced. Glenn then noticed fire trucks, which he suspected were there to wash away blood. He ran home.

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