My name is Roe Lay Si. I am a refugee from Myanmar (Burma) and I came to the United States 7 years ago and am currently a student at TC3 majoring in Human Services. Because of my major, I am required to complete an internship. I began to think that I wanted to get an internship at Catholic Charities because they are a non-profit organization. I first heard about them when I moved to Ithaca and some of my family members told me they helped refugees and people who were in need. I went to them to get help in applying to become a U.S. citizen.
Because I wanted to learn more about their programs I scheduled a meeting and offered to be a volunteer. They kindly said yes and I am now officially doing an internship with the Immigrant Services Program and volunteering with their Samaritan Center. Through this experience, I am hoping to learn more about other refugees and their backgrounds, as well as their experiences in the United States. And I am hoping to help bridge and connect people to the community who may be isolated.
One project I am working on is trying to take a headcount of all the refugees from Burma who live in this area. In Ithaca, the Karen refugees mainly are part of 2 large families – one family probably has 60 members and the other family has around maybe 30 or 40 members. I would like to then create two family trees for those who are related. The family tree I am part of is the smaller one. On paper 30 to 40 people might not look like a lot but if you were to see all of us on the street, it would be a lot of people. Because I’m Karen, I will have to do my research and figure out who the Burmese are but I think there are around 50 of them in the area.
When I first came to the U.S., I was in living in Kentucky where there were many other refugees from Burma. I learned a lot from what they were faced with and what I had to face myself. I told myself that I am still young and strong, I must continue studying because there are lot of opportunities that are waiting for me. I needed to take advantage of those opportunities before it was too late. Just like the older people say, “An early bird catches the worm.”
I have overcome many obstacles that other refugees face. Things like learning English and then feeling comfortable speaking with others in English was very difficult. Also, finding my way around town and learning directions was very hard. Now I have a cell phone with GPS, but I didn’t have that when I first came here as a new refugee. Since I have faced many of the same obstacles that newer refugees now face, I want to help those who are finding it difficult to build their new future. I started a new life in a new country and now I’d like to give back to others by helping them learn from my experiences.
One major factor that plays in to where refugees are sent in the US is whether there is a pre-existing population in an area. Longtime residents of Ithaca are probably aware of the sizable Burmese population that has been resettled in Ithaca since the 1990’s. Now that refugee admissions have resumed and the Rohingya crisis is gaining attention I thought it would be helpful to provide a little more information on two critical aspects of the resettlement process and how they affect Ithaca’s chances of welcoming Rohingya to its diverse community.
Preexisting populations, or local capacity, is crucial to successful resettlement. Arriving in a new city in a new country is made substantially easier if you can quickly link in with individuals you identify with. The large number of ethnic groups within Burma means that the ethnicity of a Burmese refugee could play a more important factor in resettlement than it would for, say, a Cuban refugee. The Burmese population in Ithaca is made up of primarily Burman and Karen ethnic groups, 2 of the roughly 168 ethnic groups living in Burma. These two group are substantially different from the Rohingya. Karen live primarily along the eastern edge of the country, speak Karen and Burmese, and practice Theravada Buddhism and Christianity. Their so-far-unsuccessful push for self-rule began in 1949 after Burma gained its independence and has resulted in large numbers of civilians fleeing to Thailand for refuge. The Burman population began fleeing the country after protests against the military regime in the late 80’s resulted in a widespread government crackdown on dissidents and their families.
The Rohingya have always been viewed as outsiders. They generally occupy the lowest rung of Burmese society and have faced continuous persecution from the government and other Burmese since the 1962 coup d’état. They have faced difficulties obtaining citizenship since Burma’s independence and have categorically been denied citizenship since 1982. The Rohingya practice Islam, primarily use an alphabet written with Arabic lettering, and generally do not speak Burmese. They live in the western state of Rahkine and flee to Bangladesh for refuge. Many recent reports from Burma show that there is a deeply rooted distrust of Rohingya throughout Burmese society.
This historical animosity between the Rohingya and other Burmese means that Rohingya would most likely not benefit from the pre-existing Burmese population as much as one might hope.
The refugee admissions process was resumed October 25th but the presidential determination set the admissions cap at 45,000. This is the lowest number since the program began and less than half of last year’s determination. This cap is segmented by region and East Asia, the region that includes Burma, has a cap of 5,000. Since 2007 Burmese resettlement has been at least 13,000 individuals per year (excluding 2017). Those numbers speak for themselves.
New refugee admission requirements will also make it more difficult for Rohingya to come to the United States. Previously, an applicant had to submit phone numbers, addresses, and other information on themselves going back five years. This has now been extended to every member of a refugee’s family tree (including those living abroad) and will go back 10 years. This would be a challenge for many US citizens to do and could be impossible for those who have lived under duress for decades. The follow to join program has also been temporarily suspended. While only 2000 such family members came through this program last year, Ithaca has already been the recipient of one such case. The suspension of that part of the admissions program makes it even less likely that Ithaca will continue to see Burmese arrivals in 2018.
Case Manager, Immigrant Services Program
This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Bailtal, who recently naturalized as a US citizen. Bailtal, a former refugee from Burma, came to ISP for citizenship services along with five other family members. All of them were successful in having their citizenship applications approved. We also featured Bailtal and his mother in this post. Congratulations to all of them!
ISP: Why did you come to US?
Because I wanted to get my own freedom. When I was little I moved to the refugee camp in Thailand and I didn’t have any outside knowledge and all I did was go to school in the camp, studied basic English, come home, eat & play. We couldn’t go outside; here you can go almost everywhere in the US.
ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?
I had a friend and she told us this would be a good place for you.
ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?
I was surprised of the people who worked for the refugees. They showed their love and worked very close with us.
ISP: What is your favorite American food?
Hamburgers, fast food.
ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?
Wegmans – they have a lot of food that we eat. My favorite would also be Asian Chinese store.
ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?
The biggest difference is the weather – here it’s crazy. I love the summer. Wow, in the winter it was really crazy. And the culture – the way people communicate, the way they socialize is all different. Back there when you go to school you talk to your friend, you can touch each other – here it’s completely different.
In 2010, after 12 years of living in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border, the Soe family came to the US through refugee resettlement and made Ithaca their new home. Only 6 years later, each and every member of the Soe family is now a US citizen. The combination of a strong desire to be successful and tackle the English and other requirements needed to get on the path to citizenship, as well as accessing a lot of support from the community, made this all possible.
This joint effort included the parents getting English instruction from BOCES ESL program and citizenship prep tutoring from Tompkins Learning Partners. Once they were eligible to apply for citizenship (there is a minimum 5 year wait) and had acquired enough English to demonstrate they were proficient in English, we played our part by preparing and filing the parents’ citizenship applications and eventually individual applications for each son to receive his own citizenship certificate. Did I mention there were 5 of them?! Family and friends also pitched in by accompanying them to scheduled appointments at Catholic Charities and with the immigration office in Syracuse, as well as cheering them on at their swearing-in ceremony.
The picture above of this beautiful family reflects the culmination of these combined efforts and reflects the strong desire refugees have to be successful in integrating their lives into the United States. I just want to congratulation and acknowledge the Soes and say how gratifying it was to play a part in their entire family becoming US citizens.
As an intern working at Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Immigrant Services Program during its attempt to gain recognition as an official Refugee Resettlement Program, I have been charged with interviewing the refugees of Ithaca. Through speaking with Burmese and Iraqi refugees in the city, a narrative around what it means to be a refugee in Ithaca can be shared with the community and those in Washington. Stories of war torn homes, language barriers, and the struggles and successes of acculturation that appear in the accounts of the refugees in Ithaca are hardly confined to upstate New York, as these themes are relevant to all newcomers moved by extreme circumstances to the US. Making a home in a new country is never an easy process, even when well organized agencies and dedicated sponsors like those in Ithaca lend a hand in the transition.
Commonly shared amongst the interviewees is the desire to live in a peaceful setting. Ithaca, a quiet and welcoming place, offers this for those seeking refuge here. Listed as ways to a post- conflict, prosperous lifestyle by the refugees were a free grade school education, English language classes, reliable sponsors and agencies, low rates of crimes, and economic opportunity. Presenting difficulties to taking full advantage of these services is the language barrier between many of Ithaca’s refugees and its services. But with the help of BOCES, an adult ESL program, many newcomers to the English language are getting an education that will galvanize their acculturation process and encourage economic growth. This is not to say that the path to success is laid clear for all refugees in Ithaca, but it does show that there is an accommodating infrastructure in place for a dignified and complete resettlement process.
Described as home to a warm hearted community, committed networks of support, and educational and economic opportunities, Ithaca does well in welcoming the citizens of the world and assisting in their journey to make a life in a foreign land. By doing this the city and its residents have already gained an extremely brave, grateful, and diverse group of citizens, all of whom are proud to call Ithaca their new home.
What the refugees came to the US for is the opportunity to start over and in doing so, make for themselves and their families a dignified existence. Because of this, they represent what their naysayers refuse to believe: that the experiences of the refugees who come to the US are lived in accordance with the very principles that found our national ethos. They’ve immigrated to the US believing in the potential of a government made for the people and by the people, the liberties and responsibilities afforded by American citizenship, advancement through education, and the Constitutional promise of equality. In witnessing the courage and vision of the refugees who have already settled in Ithaca, I’m convinced that our community and country will continue to benefit from welcoming newcomers.
For the past few months, Paw Wah has been dropping by the ONA Center with other ESL students from the TST BOCES Adult ESL class to learn the vocabulary needed to pass the driver’s permit test. Even though he didn’t pass the test on his last attempt, he only missed it by 1 point so is eager to take it again. It’s a good thing because he just accepted a job and commited to an hour commute (one way) because it is located near the NY/PA border. Surely, at some point, he will have to drive. For now, his cousin, who was also hired by the same company, has taken on the sole responsibility of getting the two of them back and forth to their new job.
Although Paw Wah is relatively new to the Ithaca area – he’s only been here since August – he’s been in the US since 2006. At the age of 10, he and his family left Burma after his father died and moved to be with his sister who was living in a refugee camp near the Thai/Burmese border. They would then spend the next 3 years there before leaving to resettle as refugees in New Jersey. Upon arrival in the US, he enrolled in public school which was his first introduction to formal education. Prior to coming to the US, Paw Wah never had the opportunity to go to school. In Burma, attending school wasn’t free and his parents couldn’t afford the cost and when he moved to the refugee camp, he was expected to work.
Getting an education wasn’t easy for Paw Wah though; he particularly struggled to learn English. He left school at the age of 18 and decided to find work instead. His initial entry into the US workforce was with a company that installs ceiling and blinds where he was hired to hang dry wall and drop ceilings. Even though he enjoyed his job, Paw Wah described how the dust exacerbated some existing health problems he had, leaving him feeling debilitated and sick at the end of the work day. “I was sick all of the time. My legs, my chest, everything hurt. The dust made me always feel sick so it was hard to work there.”
This past August, he and his family relocated to Ithaca where they had family members. Once here, he pursued several opportunities that were all geared towards improving his English. He began attending adult ESL classes at BOCES and citizenship prep classes offered through Tompkins Learning Partners. He also started the driver’s permit classes mentioned above held at Catholic Charities. He recently decided it was time to start working again so he returned to Catholic Charities to get help with job development and brought his cousin with him. Both were interested in working at the CVS distribution Center in Chemung, NY so we provided them with help applying for positions as “Case Pickers.” After applying, they were prepped for the their interviews which were scheduled 2 weeks later. In the end, the job hunt was successful and both young men were hired.
So in the middle of winter, Paw Wah and his cousin are now taking on the hour commute to get to their new jobs at the rather large distribution center that is pictured above. They have great attitudes despite the long commute and are eager and appreciative for the opportunity to work there. Many of the employers we develop jobs through often express how impressed they are with workers who moved to the US from Burma. We’ve been told by more than one employer how Burmese crews are dependable, rarely call-in, and can get the job done. One hiring manager recently told us how their company was making efforts to diversify their staff and he immediately thought of hiring refugees from Burma because they had proven to be some of his best employees at a facility he worked at in the past. Another local employer once commented on how she wished she could… “hire a whole staff of Burmese refugees. They are fast, they work until the job is finished and they sing while they’re working. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to have a happy productive team.”
When asked about his new job, Paw Wah expressed how excited, yet a bit nervous, he was to be working there. “When you start a new job, it can make you nervous because you aren’t exactly sure if you will be able to do it or not. But at the same time you feel so good because you have this job.” As a case picker, he will be responsible for filling and preparing orders for shipping. When asked to describe his new worksite he said… “It’s big – really big. I don’t think I have ever seen a warehouse that big.” During his job interview he was given a tour of the plant where he saw numerous workers but noted he “didn’t see any Asian people.” He also recalled how the interviewer asked him if he was scared of heights. Fortunately, the answer was “no.”
At this time, Paw Wah doesn’t seem to have any concerns about the long commute. Laughing, he said…. “My cousin will be doing the driving.” But he does have worries about the snow. “I’m scared because snow can make the road slippery” then quickly added “but my cousin is a very good driver.” For now, he’s happy to ride along and hopes he’ll pass the driver’s permit test so he, too, can get his license, buy a car, and help out with the driving. In the meantime, several of their friends (also from Burma) have come in to Catholic Charities to get help applying for similar jobs at the distribution center. Paw Wah is probably encouraging them because according to him, “it would be good to have 3-5 people working there so they can help pay for the gas.”
The following post was written by May, a former Burmese refugee, who has helped ISP out over the years in many ways. She is someone we have turned to when we have questions about Burmese culture or need help with interpreting. May spent a good part of her childhood on the run as she and her family made their way to the Thai/Burmese border to escape Burma’s brutal military regime and register to become refugees. We asked May to write about some of those childhood memories, starting out with the night she left her home. Here’s what she wrote:
Being a refugee is something I will remember for the rest of my life. When I was 7 years old, my family had to flee Burma in order to be safe. On August 8, 1988, thousands of people were killed in Burma and many were put under house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi. My father and other students were being targeted by the military and fled to the Thai/Burma borders. At first, my mother, 4 brothers and I stayed behind in our village and were constantly forced by the military government officials to keep them informed about our whereabouts and what we knew about my father. Eventually, we left our village in order to be with him.
Most of my childhood memories are associated with being a refugee. In 1989, during the full moon festival, my mother took us to visit our grandfather. That night, she left with my youngest brother, leaving my other brother and me behind. My grandfather spent the evening telling us fable stories about Buddha. After sleeping a bit, he woke us up and said, “Go with this person and your mom will be waiting for you.” We had never met the man he was sending us with before. This stranger then took us on a bicycle until we arrived at a hut. We rested a bit and then continued on foot. He carried my brother while holding my hand as we followed yet another route. I remember having to walk a very long time; I was very sleepy but had to keep walking. It was dark and I remember we didn’t have a flashlight; instead the moon’s light guided us. We were eventually reunited with our mom at another stranger’s house. At that point, I had no idea why we were traveling at night. I also had no idea that that would be the last time I would see my grandfather.
After sleeping a short time, we were once again woken up during the night and this time we were taken to a fisherman’s motor boat. I still remember that boat and how its engine stopped running in the middle of the sea. There were other fishermen around us trying to catch hundreds of white jelly fish floating on the surface of the sea while our motor boat just floated around. The stranger tried to wave down help and finally we were moved to a new motor boat. We headed to a different village and reached there at night time and that’s when I finally heard my father’s voice as he talked to my mom in a separate hut from us as I woke up. I remember how relieved I felt to hear my father’s voice and how my younger brothers and I all giggled because this made us so happy.
As a child, I didn’t think of leaving our home as hardship; I thought of it as an adventure for my family. As an adult, I now realize how terrifying and frightening it actually was. But to a small girl, it was an adventure. I attribute this to our family staying intact through this whole ordeal and the ability of my parents to shield us from the danger we were in. As our journey continued, we spent time in the jungle as we moved from village to village. I have memories of riding elephants through the jungle near the Thai/Burma border. I also have memories of spending two nights in the deep jungle near the river bank and hearing tigers and other wild animals nearby. During that time we had to catch fish for food and try to catch rides from jeeps or trucks that were passing by. Finally, we arrived at one of the student camps – a camp filled with pro-democracy freedom fighters, like my father.
At the camp, many people were getting sick with malaria and other viral infections. There was not much food; we had to live on rice soup with a little salt and sometimes fish, or wild animals we managed to catch. We also planted a lot of vegetables by a river bank. We got help from an NGO and they provided us with basic medicine and clothes. We would eventually leave this camp and spend 3 years moving from village to village and during that time I remember families losing their loved ones through malaria. Also, since the villages were under attack, many people suffered from gun shots or accidents. My mother gave birth to my youngest brother during one of these attacks – I can still remember hearing bombing nearby. I also remember there was a full moon again.
By the time I was 10 years old we had made our way to Thailand. We tried to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to be recognized as refugees which was located in its capital. At that time, we lived in a Thai village and this is where I began to learn about Thai culture and how to speak its language. My family then moved so we could live in a missionary house – it was there I began to learn English and the practice of yoga.
Many years went by between the time I left my grandfather’s house until my family and I would be officially recognized as refugees. But in 1996, we were successful in having the UNHCR register us to live in Maneloi Refugee Camp which began the process of us resettling to the United States. Prior to moving there though, were still weren’t completely safe; our house in Thailand was raided by the police while my mother was out shopping for vegetables. There were a few other refugees at our house and I remember we were questioned for many hours. We even had to show the police a library card given to us by the refugee camp as identification. We finally moved to the Maneloi Camp though signifying the end of the journey I had to take between my home in Burma and ending in Thailand where I would become a refugee from Burma. This is also where my next journey would begin as I would be headed to the US a year later.
Please note that this is Part 1 of May’s story; Part 2 will be posted later this summer.