The Burmese Come to Houston

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

Inside the urban jungle of southwest Houston there is an apartment complex like any other. Laundry dries from identical balconies stacked three at a time. The units are modest and slightly damp, and some have cockroaches. There is a pool.

Beyond the thick iron gate that surrounds the complex, strange things are afoot. Men wear dresses. Women, with tan swirls of makeup on their cheeks, squat along the sidewalk, or near a drain in the grass, sifting ants from a mound of white rice. Bright parasols dot the parking lot on hot afternoons. One resident calls Sun Blossom Mountain, on Ranchester Drive, his first glimpse of home since fleeing from Burma 16 years ago.

The refugees have even built a court for chinlone, their favorite sport. In a shady corner between two trees they strung a net, as if for badminton, but players use their feet to volley a small ball of woven palms carried over from a camp in Thailand. A chiseled man wearing only underwear jumps at the net and, with his heel, spikes the ball across and into the dirt.

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 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 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.
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.
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.

More than 100 Burmese families now live at Sun Blossom Mountain and its sister complex across the street. A new family seems to appear every week.

They are entering what refugee workers describe as a "perfect storm" in the U.S. resettlement program. It is outdated and drastically underfunded, and the economy that for so long propped it up has sunk into a recession. At the same time, refugees are arriving in ever greater numbers — especially in Houston.

Following its success with the thousands of Vietnamese who fled here after the fall of Saigon, the city has been a magnet for the masses of refugees the United States resettles every year, which is approaching 75,000 this year. It has an abundance of jobs and affordable housing, along with a reputation as a welcoming international city. Since the turn of the century, nearly 1,600 have arrived annually at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, bleary and unsure if someone from one of the local resettlement agencies will pick them up as promised. There are Iraqis and Afghans, Somalis and Cubans, Burundians from Rwanda and Bhutanese scattered across the city for another chance at life.

The bulk of new faces are Burmese, part of America's new focus on what it considers especially vulnerable groups. In late 2006, it began taking in large numbers of the between one and two million people who have escaped from the frightening military dictatorship in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and into Thai refugee camps or Malaysian cities. Roughly 2,200 have come to Houston over the last three years.

Phe Bu Reh arrived with his wife and three sons on June 2. It was their first time inside a city. Phe Bu, like most incoming Burmese, is not from the educated class forced out as political dissidents in the past. He grew up in the hills of Kaya, one of several ethnic states against which the Burmese military wages perpetual war. He was caught sending food to starving rebels and escaped into the jungle, where he joined a party furtively making its way to the border. Three women gave birth during the slow and nervous trip. For the next eight years, Phe Bu lived in a patchwork bamboo hut inside a Thai refugee camp. He met his wife there.

Phe Bu can have little contact with his old home. His father, overwhelmed by constant interrogation, has become a monk. To resettle in America, a refugee must show that he cannot return to his home country or stay in his current one. Even his camp, which Phe Bu was not allowed to leave, came under attack by Burmese troops. Now he is safe. But he must quickly adjust to life in America and get on his feet.

Refugees once received 36 months of financial support as they learned the language and culture and searched for work. That fell to 22, 18, 12 and finally eight. The funds that cover the first month — including rent and utilities, food, furniture and case management — are at $900, half of what experts recommend. Rent assistance in Houston lasts four to six months, depending on what agencies can afford.

Refugees receive food stamps and eight months of Medicaid and modest cash assistance from the government. They must take health tests and vaccines and learn to speak English, ride the bus, shop and throw out the trash. Their children enroll at school. They must get social security numbers, identification and work permits — and then, most importantly, find jobs and become self-sufficient before it's time to pay the rent. To navigate this complex process, they depend on one of four major resettlement agencies in Houston to which refugees are assigned (the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, Catholic Charities, Interfaith Ministries and YMCA International).

For years, agencies across the country have used private funds, unpaid overtime and volunteers to patch together a system that before the recession was typically able to find jobs for more than 80 percent of refugees after six months. Those numbers are plummeting — to as low as 20 percent at one national agency, the International Rescue Committee, which Bob Carey, its vice president of resettlement and migration policy, expects is more or less the situation at most. In some states, refugees are becoming homeless.

"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."

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.

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.

"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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

_____________________

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.

Until July, Alam made the trip to work with a hollowed-out van, cramming as many as 25 people inside. He calls this unfortunate but necessary while his service got off the ground. He has since added another van and driver.

"Inside, it's horrible," says one woman, who works at American National Rags, of the 25-person ordeal, adding that if she complained, she would be fired. Another employee, Jaw Thung, whose family Alam relocated from Orlando, says he believed he was not allowed to arrange his own transportation to work.

Alam says these are baseless rumors that he has heard before. In July, Glenn wrote a letter to an Action Rags manager on behalf of 15 employees asking whether they could carpool on their own. They were told it made no difference. Alam now transports about 15 people using his two vans.

Twenty-one-year-old Janime says that on the morning of July 24, Alam brought her to one of the companies and offered her a job — but said it would cost $300. She refused. Alam calls this a misunderstanding. That morning he had called an employment agency from the phone book and inquired about its price (he does not remember the name of the agency), and he relayed that information to Janime when there were no rag jobs to be had.

Alam has approached all four agencies about working with them directly. Both Catholic Charities and Alliance say they're not interested. YMCA caseworkers have referred clients to Alam. Tate and the job developer at Interfaith have agreed to send clients Alam's way and subsidize $100 of the transportation.

_____________________

Early on a Sunday morning in August, the sprawling streets and strip malls are empty in southwest Houston, almost eerily so.

About 100 Burmese in bright red and blue are already gathered on the Sun Blossom lawn. This is the day for Karen unity, their biggest of the year. Poteet sits at the middle of the table of honor, looking uncertain in his ethnic garb. A Karen flag hangs nearby. Its colors are red for bravery, white for innocence and blue for peace.

As the priest goes through his sermon, people watch from lawn chairs and balconies, a couple of camcorders roll and kitchens buzz with the preparation of food.

The ceremony started 3,000 years ago to unite the Karen people spread around the mountains in their part of Burma. Now, says 20-year-old Thami Aung, "A lot of our people, they wander the world."

Most of the ritual's seven elements are very specific. There must be sugar cane and banana, sticky and regular rice, and red and white string. But any type of leaves will do. These came from the shrubs near the pool.

Seven pairs of parents and seven pairs of children gather around the table and cup the food and leaves in their hands. Then the priest calls upon the ancestors for another year of good luck. String is tied around outstretched wrists, and people seem reasonably sure the ancestors are coming, even here.

mike.giglio@houstonpress.com

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...