Myanmar Refugees Flock To East Oakland

OAKLAND (KCBS) – Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – has been at civil war for 60 years, but it’s only been in recent years that the U.S. instituted a policy of accepting its refugees. 400 hundred such refugees now live in east Oakland.

Kyaw Oo, 52, who fought for the Burmese Rebellion Group explained though a translator to KCBS that health issues forced him to flee to a refugee camp on the Thailand border before coming to California.

“He was one of the soldiers who fought for democracy in the civil war,” said translator Kwee Say. “He said, ‘I didn’t finish my work, and that’s the thing killing me on the inside.'”

Oo admits to a heavy heart and a racing mind.

“He got separated from his parents when he was 13, and he never got to see his parents again, so he always misses his parents,” said Say.

While a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to his homeland offered hope for the release of political prisoners, he said that he does not trust the Myanmar government. Oo now lives with a friend, but did find himself homeless for a while.

“Here, compared to a refugee camp, you have enough food to eat, and also it is kind of safe compared to a refugee camp,” said Say. “But over here the problem must be our language barrier. He said, ‘I can’t speak, I can’t write, so that is a big problem for me.'”

That language barrier has kept him from getting a job, and it’s also been tough to navigate the health care system. One communality class that Oo found that teaches English to adults has 70 students, and a 90 person wait list.

KCBS’ Margie Shafer Report:

A staggering 63 percent of all Burmese refugees remain jobless. Among them is Hei Ku, a father of eight who is part of the of the Karen ethnic minority. He and his family spent years living in the jungle after his village was burned by the military regime. He’s happy to now be in the United States, but said that he is stressed about bills.

“For the kids, he wants them to get an advanced education so that one day they can get a good job,” said Say. “And also for himself, he said that if he can get a job he’s going to work.”

Data collected by researchers at San Francisco State and the Burma Refugee Family Network finds refugees who have fled Myanmar are at risk of becoming a permanent poverty-stricken underclass.

Professor Russell Jueng said that America has a paradoxical political asylum policy.

“We receive any refugee irregardless of their religion or their ethnicity or educational status, so in that way we’re very welcoming,” said Jueng. “But the irony is that once we do receive them we don’t live up to our social responsibility to help them adjust.”

Jeung said that this wave of southeast Asian refugees faces unique obstacles, including an anti-immigrant sentiment following 9/11, and compassion fatigue. Solutions need to be found soon though because Myanmar refugees came to the U.S. in the second-highest numbers last year, behind only those from Iraq.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

More from Margie Shafer
  • Joan

    Just a correction: Kwee Say is on staff with Asian Health Services, a community health clinic in Oakland; she is not an employee of San Francisco State

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