Friday, April 17, 2009

Discovering Refugees in Dallas

Just over a year ago, I was suddenly immersed in the world of refugees.


First I watched the movie God Grew Tired of Us.

Then I discovered a massive community of Burmese refugees living about 15 minutes away from me.

Then I contacted World Relief and became a sponsor for a newly-arrive refugee family. That family has pretty much become independant (yayyy) and doesn't need me any more, and World Relief's families are mostly in Fort Worth.

So this week I went to an orientation for an organization called the International Rescue Commission. They do aid work overseas and they resettle refugees in the US.


It was pretty awesome. I will write all about it. But first, this is what I wrote over a year ago when I first began to discover the huge refugee community here in Dallas:
So… last week I mentioned the 30 refugee families that a guy from my work
discovered. Yesterday we met to talk about it. It’s really…unbelievable. 15
minutes away from me, a half-block from the local Sams Club, are 30 refugee
families who are Karen, which is an ethnic minority in Burma/Myanmar. You
can see a wikipedia article on them here.
Because these people were persecuted in Burma, they fled to Thailand and have
been in refugee camps….. for years. The benefit of the camps is that they are
not in danger and their basic physical needs and provided for. The down side is
that there is no work, no future, no life. Just waiting.

Umpiem Mai refugee camp, Thailand
- Above is one of the massive Karen refugee camps in Thailand-
Eventually, if they agree, the UN approves them, and the US agrees, they end up here, via a number of relief organizations who are all understaffed and underpaid and stretched to the limit. Turns out the apartment complex where they live is huge and is almost entirely filled with refugees around the world. These Karen families are some of the newer ones. Out of 30 families, FOUR PEOPLE speak English. Four. That blows me away. How can you resettle a whole family in an apartment in a country where they don’t speak the language?? Some are illiterate, even in Karen. Not only that, but there is a family of whom both parents and half the kids are deaf.
Here’s one story from the email the guy sent out.

“I'm just going to tell you the story of one of the families for the sake of time, but all of their stories are quite heartrending. This family of seven has been here since September. They lived in the refugee camp for 15 years. He was a farmer and lived in a village in his home state. The soldiers came into his village and forced the men to be porters for the army. Meanwhile his family was starving back home without him being able to provide for them. So he escaped from the army camp and went back to his village. When the soldiers came back to his village, they captured him and put him in a prison compound. He escaped from there also and took his family and (then) three children and fled over the border into Thailand.
They arrived as refugees here in September of '07. Of his 6 children, 5 (ages 11-18) are here with them. They live on the husband's minimum wage salary of $7.50 per hour. He is 52 years old and works at a factory job which involves lifting heavy things for 10 hours per day 6 days a week. He is about 5' 3" tall and weigh all of 115 lbs. He was sick for two weeks in Feb. and therefore couldn't work; therefore they didn't have enough money to pay their rent this month. Since they have a two bedroom apartment, their rent and utilities come to around $850/mo. The refugee group working with them only pays their rent for four months. I went with them to the rental office to see what was the last day they could pay the rent without a penalty. They were going to call the refugee organization to see if they could possibly help them for half of the rent.
Of course the father needs to learn English so he can get a better job but since the only ESL classes available to him meet from 9-11 AM during the week, it is impossible to go since he leaves for his job every day at 3 PM and doesn't return home until 2 AM. They left a 23 year old daughter, son-in-law and baby granddaughter in the refugee camp in Thailand. Since the son-in-law doesn't have any papers documenting his birth, etc. it is likely he won't qualify for immigration and they may never see any of them again."


It blows me away.

The situation is so complex. The kids are placed in school when they arrive,
which they love, but they are placed by age. So the kids are apparently failing
because they can’t speak English. They bring home their report cards but their
parents can read them, so they don’t know what’s going on.
Shopping is an issue. An American grocery store is filled with strange products that they don’t buy because they don’t know how to use them. For instance – give them a box of cereal, what would they do with it? They don’t have boxed cereal over there, and they can’t read the writing. The food is strange and different, even at
restaurants. They are used to rice, which is sold in these tiny little bags at
places like Kroger. When you eat rice three meals a day, that bag barely even
lasts a day.

The children are the hope of the Karen, really. They will learn English, they’ll adjust to the culture, and that’s been the beauty of American immigration since the beginning. But for the parents, oh, I grieve for them. One guy is 44 years old, and he’s spent 22 years in a camp. Half his life. All of his adult life. The man doesn’t know how to work every day. He’s never had to make wages. He’s never had to plan for the future. He’s only lived a life in which tomorrow is the exact same as today – passing the time. And above all, the adults LOVE their country. They long for Myanmar, they hope to return. Assuming that the miraculous doesn’t happen (which would be the fall of the Myanmar military junta AND a new acceptance of the Karen minority), they will never go home.

I ACHE for them. I know what it is to long for home, to long for the heat and chickens and jungle and the community of your home culture. I know what it is to feel stranded in a strange and very fast-moving world in a totally new culture. And I spoke the language.

Burmese refugee family

Some other posts on refugees:
Refugees after a year and a half in the US
Wealth and Poverty
Refugees rack up and $1800 Phone Bill
IRC in Dallas - Refugee Fundraiser
The Refugees have a Baby!
A 23-year Old Supports 9 people on $1,000 a month


Kate said...

Wow, I cannot fathom this.....a few min away from you is a refugee camp here in the US!!!! I don't even think I have the words to respond to that. I've never heard of that organization you joined but it sounds incredible.

I found you through Rachel's blog? Can't remember her blog name. But now that I'm here I'm intrigued by your blog name. My husband and I were missionaries with New Tribes Mission in Madang, PNG....the other side from where you grew up! Were you an MK? My sister in law and her husband have been working in Papua in the Dao tribe with New Tribes for a few years now. So I'm wondering if by chance we might have some mutual connections??

The blogsphere makes the world a smaller place eh?

God bless....look forward to chatting when you have time!! Have a great weekend!! :) Kari

Stephanie said...

Wow! I live in Lewisville so not far from me either. Can we help them someway? I will at the least pray for them. Great blog!