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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Even for those refugees who do get jobs, the numbers are bleak. As recently as 2006, the average wage for refugees placed in part-time jobs by the regional International Rescue Committee office was $14.73. In 2009, it plummeted to $8.56.

Meanwhile, the quality of jobs has changed. Four years ago, International Rescue Committee employment specialist Igor Radulovic rarely considered service sector jobs for the refugees he worked with because those are usually part time and often don't include benefits. But today, restaurant and hotel jobs are the only ones he can find for new refugees, he said. Higher-paying factory or production jobs are extremely scarce. Most of the jobs now are part-time.

Transportation also is a huge issue, since most of them rely on public transit. Some find a job only to resign once they discover that they simply can't afford to commute to Fremont or San Francisco by BART and then bus.

Refugees who can't locate or keep jobs are thrown into the welfare system. In California, they can receive public assistance: CalWorks for families with children, or Refugee Cash Assistance for single people. Families of four receive about $800 a month from CalWorks, with a lifetime cap of five years of assistance. A single person receives about $345 a month from Refugee Cash Assistance, which lasts eight months. After that, they may be able to tap into the General Assistance welfare pool, which provides even less than Refugee Cash Assistance.

But with a two-bedroom apartment in the Eastlake district of Oakland running about $1,000 a month, families who rely on public assistance typically have almost no money after rent.

Consequently, Climent notes, this year the committee has had to reject many Burmese refugees who hoped to flee the camps for the United States. For example, it won't accept families with five or more kids with unemployable parents. A couple with five children would receive $1,162 a month from CalWorks, but since, by law, the International Rescue Committee has to find a three-bedroom for larger families, CalWorks funds wouldn't even cover the rent. At a time when welfare benefits have been cut and the unemployment rate is so high, to welcome such families to the United States would just be setting them up for failure.

Climent said refugees' needs have changed. When he started working at the International Rescue Committee in 1979, it was resettling primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees. But today, refugees come from all over the world, necessitating more staffing and more nuanced support. And yet welfare and other public assistance have been cut back drastically. The Refugee Cash Assistance once lasted five years; now it's just eight months. CalWorks was recently reduced by 4 percent. Consequently, he and representatives of other US refugee resettlement agencies are urging the federal government to change its policies in supporting new refugees.

"For high-need populations, three or six months is not enough to transition to full self-sufficiency," agreed Um, the Berkeley professor. "Once they're no longer eligible for refugee programs, they may still have challenges, so they have to access the general programs that are there to assist families in need. They just become a part of America's poor and vulnerable."

Um believes the government should invest in language skills, training, and job development for refugees. "It is important that we as a society invest in our human resources, including new refugees, and not just focus on the short-term filling of needs of the economy, without any kind of real investment in our population," she said. "Our human resources are the backbone of America."

Karenni men typically wear a bright red, sleeveless poncho-like shirt, but April Ni and his 22-year-old neighbor Maw Reh have not worn theirs since arriving in the United States. During a recent interview at their apartment complex, they explained why.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, they were told not to wear their traditional clothing. "They don't like the color red," April Ni said vaguely. When pressed, he acknowledged hearing at the Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church that the color red is affiliated with gangs. Consequently, all of the Karenni refugees interviewed for this story wear Western clothing, although many Karen refugees still wear traditional clothing, or at least a woven sling bag.

Traditional clothing may make refugees an easy target for crime, but just being Asian may be a factor. In the months prior to the robbery that Ale Sho narrowly avoided outside his apartment, a number of other Burmese refugees were robbed while walking down the street, according to Climent and others interviewed.

And just within the last few months, there has been a spike in street robberies specifically targeting Asians in the Eastlake district, according to Alan Yu, Asian liaison officer for the Oakland Police Department. While the actual numbers of robberies in Oakland's Area 2 — the area just east of Lake Merritt to High Street — was not unusual in October and November, almost half of the robbery victims during those months were Asian and many of those robberies were concentrated in the Eastlake area. Language barriers, the notion that Asians keep a lot of cash on hand, and underreporting in Asian communities are some of the biggest factors in these crimes. Like many immigrant communities, Asians are less likely to report crimes to police when they occur, making them more vulnerable to criminals who think they can get away with their crimes.

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