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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Other refugee groups typically arrive in the United States with better language skills. For instance, many Iraqi refugees are professionals who speak English, and even most Bhutanese refugees have English skills. But for the Karen and Karenni refugees, English isn't their second or even third language. They speak their native tongue, Burmese, and often some Thai.

"For new communities in general, access to the English language is one of the key ingredients for incorporation success," says Khatharya Um, associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, whose work focuses on Southeast Asian refugees. For instance, Um said, an English-speaking refugee with no more than a third-grade education is in a better position to navigate the system and find a job than a high-school graduate who cannot speak English.

That principal was on display one brisk November morning when Oo Meh and Groto Ni's sons, Bo Reh and April Ni, went cold-calling for jobs. Because both young men had been in the International Rescue Committee's employment program for three months and had no luck finding a job, staff members there decided it was time to go door-to-door. And because April Ni washed dishes in one of the Thai refugee camp's kitchens and both young men knew some Thai from their life there, the men focused their job search on Thai restaurants.

At around 11 a.m., they hopped on an AC Transit bus and headed toward Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with Aurora Almendral, the International Rescue Committee volunteer who had picked them up at the airport when they first arrived in the United States. After three hours, they had hit up fifteen Thai restaurants.

"We talked to workers and owners to see if they were hiring, and we brought their résumés," Almendral said. But the young men were hesitant about their English skills, and Almendral did most of the talking. Only four restaurants took their résumés. Many managers said they were not hiring, and a few even said they planned on closing soon.

"They just seemed overwhelmed and nervous about all the people that they talked to," Almendral said of her young companions. "About twelve or thirteen of the places didn't say anything hopeful."

April Ni, 19, was born in the refugee camp and had never had a job before. He was taking English classes in the morning and waiting for work, like his brother. "If I get any kind of job, I'm ready to go to work," he said through a translator. "If they call, we'll go. But if they don't, we can't."

Bo Reh, 21, shared the same stark assessment as his mother. "The camp is our village," he said through a translator. "The place is ours. We can play, we can go to school. It is better than here. If I had any opportunity to go back to camp, I would go."

Still, as a result of their job search, Bo Reh eventually began working in landscaping after the husband of one of the restaurant managers hired him on an on-call basis. And April Ni found a job washing dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland. He now works there part-time in the evenings, but admits he is sometimes afraid to ride the bus back after his late-night shift.

The two brothers are fortunate. More than 40 percent of the refugees in the International Rescue Committee employment program are unable to find a job within six months.

The International Rescue Committee handles the bulk of Burmese refugee cases in the Bay Area, and is one of ten nongovernmental organizations with which the US State Department contracts to resettle refugees. The committee's Oakland office is a stone's throw from the Tribune Tower, in the heart of the hustle and bustle of downtown. At any given time you'll see people from all over the world waiting in the organization's lobby. Committee case managers handle all sorts of issues — from picking them up at the airport and helping refugees find a place to live to translating between parents and their children's schools to finding work for the new arrivals.

The committee has typically located many recent refugees in Oakland because of its relatively low cost of living, access to public transportation, and — at one time — manufacturing jobs. Just two years ago, when Karen refugees started arriving in larger groups, the International Rescue Committee placed 78 percent of refugees in jobs within the first six months of moving here. But that number is now down to 58 percent, and the staff expects it to dip still more in the coming months.

"People are hopeless," said interpreter Nwe Oo, a refugee who arrived in 2005. "They come to the US, but they cannot find a job."

Many refugees have to wait months before finding work, sometimes years. About half of the refugees that the International Rescue Committee works with join its employment program upon arrival. But in Oakland, the unofficial unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent, and jobs are no guarantee.

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