The Burmese Come to Houston

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

"Sometimes they perceive intrusion into their business," he says. "I have to take a risk to tell them what's going on. Sometimes the agencies are not happy when I call. Sometimes they deny. Sometimes they fear that we exaggerate."

Poteet, who lives at Sun Blossom, sways on a stool in a classroom there and sings along with Steve Perry as the lights go down in the city. It is already dark. In February, Poteet began teaching nightly English classes on his own time. For a new adult class in mid-July, more than 50 people showed up. Veteran students teach new kids how to behave at school in the room next door.

Poteet's evening lessons focus on practical things like counting and directions, and comprehension for his small advanced class, which sings along with him, filling in the words for "lonely," "heart" and "too" on their pieces of paper as they do.

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.

The Sun Blossom security guard finds another toddler roaming the busy parking lot. Two of them, actually, side by side. The guard runs over like a frantic mother and, after taking a picture of the children with his phone, hurries them to a nearby apartment.

"Father!" the Spanish-speaking guard, who knows very little English, shouts at the Burmese man in the doorway, who knows none. "Baby! Why?!"

The guard snaps another picture, of the apartment number, to include in a report or perhaps to keep handy in case he runs across the children again. This is how he spends much of his time.

The camps in Thailand contain a paradox. Residents know each other well. Doors don't lock. Parents, trusting of neighbors and free from the worry of passing cars, let their children wander. In this sense people have peace of mind.

But the refugees also live in constant fear. As one man puts it, "Wherever the Karenni people are, the army will destroy it." The Burmese military might attack camps from a nearby jungle. Or a soldier might sneak inside, like a fox in a henhouse.

The occasional fox shows up here as well. At another complex, which has since been evacuated of refugees, a Burmese man cashed his paycheck at the same time and place every week. He was robbed at gunpoint and shot multiple times, and now watches chinlone at Sun Blossom with a patch over the hole in his neck. At another, the Burmese departed en masse once again after several were threatened with knives by other residents.

Sometimes, though, the line can blur inside the vacuum left by the shrinking support system. Ko Ko Naing, for instance, until last week charged $350 to teach refugees to drive on nights and weekends. He let them use his car and guided them through the written and driving tests. Alliance has a free government-funded service, but it is held during the day and requires a trip to the agency. The agency halted Naing's service after learning of it from the Press.

The YMCA two years ago fired a Burmese woman named Thu Thu Aung. Sun Blossom residents allege she now charges to take care of things such as Medicaid and food stamps. One person who friends said was a client of Aung's sat for an interview with the Press, but became nervous and left.

Sayid Alam is a soft-spoken and thoughtful man. He emigrated from Burma 20 years ago, he says, and received a bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in civil engineering from West Virginia University. He says he worked as an engineer with the Pentagon, then came to Houston in 2001 as a FEMA employee and decided to stay. He now lives at Sun Blossom among the refugees. A WVU spokeswoman says Alam enrolled in the civil engineering school but did not receive a degree.

Alam says he volunteered for the resettlement agencies and learned how the system works, and also where it falls short — namely, in finding refugees jobs and making sure they get to them. Few own cars. Shift times, sheer distances and a general ignorance of public transportation can keep them from finding or keeping employment. Catholic Charities and YMCA each have a van with a full-time driver; the other agencies do not.

Noticing that many refugees had not become self-sufficient after their six months were up, Alam decided to address the problem on his own.

"I realized that after they release a refugee family, still they cannot stand up on their own feet," he says. "There must be some organization and some people here to fill in the blank."

Alam places Burmese refugees at a pair of rag companies in northeast Houston — Action Rags, whose owner and two managers were recently convicted of harboring illegal aliens following an immigration raid last June, and American National Rags. The job involves sorting massive piles of clothing scraps and pays $7 an hour.

After placement, Alam provides daily transportation to and from work, for which he charges $150 a month. He says his organization, Jupiter Corps, is nonprofit, and that the transportation fees only cover his costs. Alam says he currently has about 40 refugees at the rag companies and has placed about 100 in all. Alam says he also relocates needy Burmese to Houston, and has a second apartment at Sun Blossom and a house in north Houston where they stay rent-free until they are ready to move out.

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