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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The long-term impacts of such crimes can be significant, if hard to measure. Maha See, a Burmese-speaking case manager who works at Asian Community Mental Health Services, recently counseled three Burmese refugees who were victims of street robberies.

Almost by definition, most refugees have already experienced trauma, sometimes many times over. A rare study of Karenni refugees published in 2001 by the Centers for Disease Control found that 41 percent experienced depression and 42 percent felt anxiety, along with 4.6 percent who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

Even among those who did not already suffer from depression because of their forcible relocation or loss of homes, property, or loved ones, depression is an understandable response to a jarring relocation to the United States, See said. He and another Burmese-speaking staff member recently began providing mental health counseling on a part time basis. "Since we come from cultures where there's no such thing as counseling or therapy, they are very unaware with how they can ask for psychological or emotional needs," he said. See believes there needs to be more outreach to new refugees.

But besides Asian Community Mental Health Services and the International Rescue Committee, few places offer solace and services for these refugees. Because many Karen and Karenni refugees are Christian, some refugees receive assistance from the Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church. Volunteers from Refugee Transitions tutor refugees and their children, and the nonprofit group employs a staff member who speaks Burmese. Staff members of Lao Family Community Development also speak Burmese and can help place refugees in jobs, and there is a Burmese-speaking worker at the Eastmont Wellness Center.

In recent years, the Oakland Unified School District hired a refugee specialist after being awarded a refugee school-impact grant from the US Office of Refugee and Resettlement. Each month at Catholic Charities, groups who work with refugees meet to talk about the different populations as part of the East Bay Refugee Forum.

Still, there is no organization that focuses solely on Burmese refugees in the East Bay. Although there is an existing Burmese community in the East Bay, earlier immigrants were mostly Chinese, Indian, or Burman, not Karen, Karenni, Chin, or Kachin. And there are language, economic, and cultural gaps between all groups.

"That sense of pan-ethnic identity is certainly emerging, but it takes time," said Um, who noted that the same thing happened to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees after the war in Vietnam. Uniting this fractured group might be difficult but necessary.

Sometimes, new arrivals just need help translating their mail. The International Rescue Committee does much of the work, but sometimes refugees need to be told things many times before they remember, said Zar Ni Maung, a family advocate at Refugee Transitions. There is simply too much information being thrown at them at once.

Other needs are not as easily filled. People need healthcare interpreters, for example, when they go to the hospital. And new arrivals typically don't understand how to navigate systems such as banking or public transportation. Maung tells a story about how one single mother on welfare accidentally opened a savings account instead of a checking account, and overdrafted eight times; now she owes $400 in fees even though she had originally deposited only $175 and taken out $120 from the ATM.

Maung, translator Nwe Oo, and several others are in the process of forming a nonprofit tentatively called the Burmese Refugee Family Network. They have not filed for nonprofit status yet, but have been planning for more than a year. The goal is to fill in the gaps of these other organizations, and assist the organizations since many of the Burmese-speaking social workers are already overloaded. They feel like some of the basic needs of new families are not met. They envision that much of the work will be training volunteers to help translate and advocate on behalf of refugee families.

Still, while the current outlook is bleak, refugee resettlement officials hope the situation is temporary.

"Is it a good idea to come here during this time?" asked Climent. "I think the answer is still yes. ... Their lives in refugee camps was dismal. Even though it is hard for them here, it is a step up. They will have access to education, they will have access to jobs. There is a future there for them here."

Nwe Oo, a mother of three, ultimately believes a community group focused on families' voices and their basic needs is necessary to improve the lives of Burmese refugees.

"There are a lot of Burmese refugees coming here, and they face many issues," Oo said. "The IRC and other organizations are trying to help, but they have limitations. We are trying to help our community, especially with basic needs. ... They can learn English, and later on, they can get a better job. Their family life will change little by little. People who came last year, their English skills have improved. So that's what we hope. Change little by little."

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