Burmese Refugees in Oakland Living in Extreme Poverty

Burmese Refugees in Oakland Living in Extreme Poverty

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Photo: SF State researcher Kwee Say (right) interviews Karen refugees from Burma Tha Mee (center) and Mu Doe (left) at a health fair. Photo courtesy of Johnny Hu.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Maung Bwar, a 60-year-old refugee from Myanmar, and his wife, Ma Aung, 57, have just finished a wellness class at the Asian Health Services located near downtown Oakland.

The subject on this day is depression, and it resonates well with Bwar and fellow refugees in attendance.

“That’s what I have,” he said in his native Karen, speaking through an interpreter with his hand placed on his heart.

Bwar is convinced that what caused it was his having to leave behind in the Thai refugee camp that had sheltered him and his family for nearly a decade three of his five children, 10 grandchildren and a slew of other relatives and friends. Only two of his younger children were permitted to come to the United States with him and his wife as refugees two years ago.

“I think of them a lot, I miss the family structure I once enjoyed,” Bwar said, adding, “I only came to this country to give my children a better life.”

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her historic visit to the Southeast Asian country, hoping the resource-rich nation will throw off 50 years of military dictatorship as its leaders have indicated might happen, hundreds of refugees like Bwar, who once witnessed brutal oppression from the junta back in their homeland, are living in social isolation in the United States, facing language barriers and health issues while trying to make ends meet.

A report released earlier this week by researchers at San Francisco State University and the Burma Refugee Family Network, found that nearly 60 percent of Oakland’s refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) are living in extreme poverty. Since 2007, thousands of them have been resettled in the United States, some 400 of them in Oakland.

“These refugees from Burma are facing dire circumstances,” observed Russell Jeung, associate professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, who pulled in his students to survey 194 refugees from that country to assess the community’s needs.

“The recession and government cuts in adult English classes mean that even though they want to work, these refugees have no opportunity to learn English or workplace skills in order to adapt to life in the U.S.,” Jeung said.

Many of the refugees here are from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups that originated from some of the poorest and least developed states in Myanmar. The two groups were also targeted by the junta, in a bid to suppress their demand for limited autonomy.

While he was growing up, Bwar said schools in the communities of Karen and Karenni were destroyed by Myanmar’s military leaders, leaving him and his fellow villagers unable to access education.

Many of the children in other communities could not attend school because of the turmoil around them.

“We lived in constant fear of the junta and spent our days fleeing from them,” said Muang, 59, another Oakland-based refugee who, like many from his native land, goes by only one name.

Muang learned to read and write Burmese and a smattering of Karen in the few years he attended grade school and later, with the help of some caring Buddhist monks. But trying to learn English here in Oakland has been a challenge, he acknowledged.

“It’s not easy to learn English,” he said in Burmese.

“Once (English as a second language) class is over, I forget what I learned,” said 22-year-old Muang Aung, Maung’s son, who’s also a refugee and the father of a 5-year-old son.

Lack of English language skills has prevented many of the refugees from landing jobs and even seeking health care, said 29-year-old Kwee Say, who interprets for both the Burmese and Karen-speaking refugees at the Asian Health Services.

She herself arrived in Oakland as a refugee back in 2004, armed with English skills and a determination to earn a degree from a U.S. university.

“Knowing English was a big help,” Say said. “It helped me earn a degree” in biochemistry and science from U.C. Davis.

The needs assessment report found that 38 percent of Oakland’s refugees from Myanmar speak no English at all, while 28 percent of them spoke English poorly.

It also found that 63 percent of them are unemployed, and those who are employed, are in low-paying jobs.

The majority of them said lack of English-language skills is their biggest barrier to assessing health care, according to the report.

Most of the refugees from Myanmar are on the Alameda Alliance health plan, which however does not cover dental and vision care. But refugees get those needs met at the Asian Health Services on 8th Street, which has two interpreters fluent in Burmese and Karen.

However, if AHS refers their refugee patients to specialists, many of them just don’t go because of language barriers, Bwar said.

“We cannot communicate with them, and we cannot find interpreters to take with us,” Muang said.

Even if interpreters are available, the long wait for them at clinics or hospitals discourages many refugees from seeking medical care.

“Sometimes I have to wait all day,” said Moe Reh.

Their hardships notwithstanding, Muang said he wouldn’t dream of going back to Myanmar on the strength of promises currently being made by its military leaders.

“But if (opposition leader) Aung San Suu Kyi comes to power and establishes a democratic government, I’ll go back,” Maung said, his face lighting up at the prospect.