The Burmese Come to Houston

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

Glenn was right about the trucks. The bloody 8-8-88 uprising, during which thousands were killed, led to an election in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won in a landslide, and she has since been under house arrest.

Glenn kept organizing. He was arrested and tortured for two days in 1989. The following year, he and his colleagues were jailed in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison, where Glenn stayed for two years in an 8x10 cell with three other men. He later helped compose a history of the Burmese student movement, which was sent to Thailand in pieces, before fleeing Burma and working along the border. When he was forced into a camp, he started an English school.

Glenn, who is slight and boyish and favors a longyi (a long sheet of cloth tied around the waist) and T-shirt, has a copy of the massive book in his Sun Blossom apartment. Also on hand is an autographed photo of an old man in an orange space suit — "To John Glenn, from John Glenn" — and a disheveled pile of papers with an eye-catching "Refugee Community Empowerment Association" letterhead.

Red and white threads are tied around the wrist of a Burmese infant to signify unity for ethnic Karen people now scattered across the globe.
Chris Curry
Red and white threads are tied around the wrist of a Burmese infant to signify unity for ethnic Karen people now scattered across the globe.

Since moving to Houston, Glenn has fixed his attention on the agencies — mainly his own, Interfaith. He kept a detailed diary of his first few weeks that describes his isolation and anger as he sat at home for days, waiting for a caseworker to knock on his door. (Glenn, who speaks excellent British English, landed a job fairly quickly in the purchasing department at the Houstonian. His wife is a translator at a Men's Wearhouse.) Tate says Glenn once likened him to a Burmese dictator, and over the course of four months sent him more than 150 e-mails.

The Empowerment Association met regularly for only a month, though it recently arranged a trip to an Asian job fair. But on the wall near his phone, Glenn keeps a long list of what he calls his "bloc," which he taps when there are problems at Sun Blossom.

"Burmese people are born with the fear," he says, and are sometimes afraid to speak out. "I want them to believe. This can work. We can make it. We can help each other."

On a recent evening, refugees sit cross-legged on the floor near Glenn's couch. Ara Hameh, the man who can spike the chinlone ball with his foot, is fully clothed and screaming. He has not reunited with his wife and kids, a slow and tricky process that requires coordination with the International Organization for Migration, to which refugees must also repay the cost of their flights to America. He lives with Nay Zar, seated to his right, whom he had not previously met. They have been sharing a single ration of food stamps. Nay Zar has no job after five months and says he can't contact his caseworker at Interfaith: "Whenever we call, they switch off the phone."

Ka Det, also from Interfaith, has been here more than a year and is pretty much on his own. He doesn't know how to take the bus and can't manage to renew his young daughter's Medicaid. A man in a gray tank top says he was forgotten after six months: "After six months, they need to teach us what to do. If they train us, we can teach our people. We know nothing."

(Interfaith and Alliance have the bulk of Burmese clients at Sun Blossom.)

Elsewhere and on different days, an Alliance client with one arm and a newborn child has not found a job since January and was refused disability. He borrows money from a neighbor. An older man named Then Htey from Interfaith quit his job in Amarillo when he couldn't move his fingers or afford two rents and is now at the back of the line. He and his family have little to eat. Thawng Zel and Mary Sui of Alliance arrived on July 23 at an apartment with no food and little furniture. Ahtoo and Emily Khin of Catholic Charities have a toddler whose head is many times too large, and coming to America saved his life. Their own Medicaid has run out, though, and they can't seem to get on the county plan — whenever someone comes to the complex to sign people up, they miss the day's 20-person limit.

Some people are helping to fill the gaps. At Glenn's apartment sits a confused single father of three who was recently spared eviction when Interfaith convinced the Sun Blossom manager to hire him in exchange for rent. The complex has several Burmese employees who send out notices in their native language.

Pastor Thong Kho Lun walks around Sun Blossom with an outstretched hand that all the children meet with high fives. His Burmese Christian Fellowship at Tallowood Baptist Church met once a month when it started four years ago. Then it was bimonthly. Now each Sunday more than 150 people attend. Thong provided Thawng Zel and Mary Sui with a rug and couches. He says he is 24 hours on call, explaining documents, driving to clinics and hospitals and translating over the phone. He tries to share with the agencies the problems he sees.

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