Still Seeking Refuge 

The East Bay's new Burmese immigrants left their homes in Thai refugee camps only to find themselves in an even tougher spot— inner-city Oakland amidst a punishing recession that threatens the assistance they depend upon.

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He lived in the jungle and at an ad hoc refugee settlement with other Karenni people for nearly a year before ending up in the refugee camp in Thailand. In those bleak camps, members of Burmese ethnic minorities lived in limbo. They became stateless and belonged to no country. Refugee camps are typically a short-term solution to wars and ethnic cleansing, and the camps were set up in the hope that one day the refugees could return safely to their home country. But returning home to life under the Burmese military junta was not an option for the refugees. Many eventually became "longstayers" who lingered in the camps for decades.

Ale Sho's neighbor Oo Meh and her family fled their village in the late 1970s. For decades — sometimes daily, sometimes a few times a month — Burmese soldiers would come to their village and force them to work. Her father was getting older, and one time they paid another person to work in place of their family. Oo Meh and her family were poor rice farmers and could not keep up with the military's demands. When they fled, they carried with them only rice, a knife and some clothes.

"I was extremely sad," said the petite, long-haired, 49-year-old in an interview from her Eastlake home through a translator from her native Karenni. "My heart hurt. Before we left, I couldn't sleep. I was afraid the Burmese military would come attack us. We brought some food with us, but not enough." During their escape from Burma, they each ate about half a bowl of rice a day for a month while they lived in a nearby jungle. Finally, they crossed over into a Thai refugee camp.

Then 22, Oo Meh met her husband, Groto Ni, a Karenni soldier in the guerilla army, in the refugee camp. They had both of their children while living in the refugee camps.

There were several camps in Thailand, and the quality of life in them varied. But the camps met only the most basic of human needs. Food was rationed, healthcare was scant, work was prohibited, and there was little quality education. There was no electricity and no paved roads, and families lived in woven bamboo shacks with thatch roofs. People rode bicycles and sometimes motorbikes, but there were no cars or buses. In the schools, camp residents learned Burmese and their ethnic language, and some also learned English, but did not practice it much. If residents left the camps, they would have been in Thailand illegally, and could have been caught and deported by the Thai authorities.

So beginning in the 1960s, refugees from Burma began trickling into the United States. Many of the first arrivals — whether refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants for other reasons — were ethnically Chinese or Indian. A democratic student demonstration in 1988 and a coup and ensuing crackdown led to more Burmese arriving in the United States, most of whom were well-educated. Burma is where Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democratic movement who was elected prime minister in 1990, has been under house arrest for more than a decade. The "Saffron Revolution" of 2007, led by Buddhist monks, and the military junta's crackdown displaced more people.

All in all, these conflicts created half a million refugees.

After the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent passage of the USA Patriot Act, the US government barred certain people from entering the country. The list of banned immigrants included anyone who had ever supported an armed antigovernment group, including people who provided weapons or food to such rebels. Because members of Burma's ethnic minorities have been embroiled in wars for years, this automatically enrolled most Burmese refugees into this prohibited category.

But people continued to flee Burma, and the humanitarian crisis in the camps was growing. Overcrowded conditions exacerbated the problem, as did the fact that many refugees lingered in camps for decades. In response to this crisis, and to international pressure from resettlement agencies and the United Nations, in 2006 the United States opened its doors to more Burmese refugees. Nearly 14,000 refugees of Burmese ancestry entered the United States in 2007, more than any other group.

When the United States welcomed the Burmese, refugees like Oo Meh and Groto Ni took the chance. "We planned for one year to come to the US." Oo Meh said. "We felt happy to leave."

But just months after arriving in the United States, many of these same refugees were expressing frustration and fear, combined with a loss of hope. "I don't feel well," Oo Meh said. "I want to go back to the camps. I can't speak the language. I don't have my friends, my people."

Oo Meh and Groto Ni take English classes through the Oakland adult schools, but they say they don't really understand much of what is taught in class. Meanwhile, robbery victim Ale Sho has been in the country for nine months and is taking English classes. He is receiving public assistance and only recently began looking for a job through Lao Family Community Development, because he couldn't get into the International Rescue Committee's employement program. Until recently, he didn't know where to get help or how to find a job.

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