Monday, December 7, 2009
Hurrah! I just had a refugee pass his road test and get his license. He is now able to legally get behind the wheel of an automobile, cruise up and down the road and get to work, any school he wishes and other places all on his own!! And do so LEGALLY!! (I have mentioned in passing that it is a real problem among refugees that they often buy cars and drive them around without bothering to get a license. Why in the world NEw York State lets people buy and insure cars with just a learner's permit I do not know and I have indeed complained about it to the highest authorities that I can get to listen to me. Oh well, this one passed and waited to get his license! Hurrah! Hurrah!
My system seems to work. Here it is again,:
1) Assume they know nothing about road rules. They probably have not read the DMV book and don't consider it important.
2) Teach them what's in the road book and do it in language they can understand.
3) THEN teach them to drive. (REMEMBER! It is a good rule of teaching that you should not test people on things they do not know or that you have not taught them. The problem is judging what they do and do not know. Refugees have a completely different background than most people on the road and therefore must be taught starting at a completely different level of knowledge than someone raised in America and around cars and traffic.)
4) Emphasize to them that the most important thing at a road test is that they make the tester feel safe.
There are resources to help you do this. The Department of Motor Vehicles has some. I recommended a book in a different post. (USE THE LABELS AND GO FIND IT, PLEASE.) And, finally, AAA (the American Automobile Association) has many good driver instruction materials available to its members.
These include a book, a pamphlet and many other materials including a CD-ROM disk that you can play on your computer and that gives people tests aimed at observing conditions and traffic signals and understanding laws and such. You may have to push a little to get them from AAA as they don't publicize that they have this stuff terribly well. Therefore ask, tell them you've heard about it elsewhere and eventually they should put you in touch with someone who can help you. (At least that was the case with AAA Chapter. BTW, I like AAA, I even used to work for them, but to really get the most from AAA and not be disappointed, then you have to understand what the organization is and how it works and what it is that you, as a member, are paying for.)
Anyway, enough for now. Read the other posts and if you have questions please e-mail me at this blog.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Teenage pirates sentenced in Thai court
Published: Nov. 30, 2009 at 10:55 AM
BANGKOK, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- A Thai court has handed down 25-year sentences to three Burmese teenage pirates for murdering a British yachtsman off the coast last March.
Malcolm Robertson, 64, was beaten with a hammer during a struggle on board his 44-foot yacht "Mr. Bean," named after a string of coffee shops he owned near London in the United Kingdom.
His body was thrown overboard off the Andaman coast and the pirates then tied up his wife, Linda. The pirates, ages 19, 18 and 17, remained on board for nearly 10 hours before fleeing in a dingy with electronic goods.
Thai fishermen found Robertson's body 10 miles north of Satun's Lipeh Island, along the coast south from Phuket, a week later.
Both the Robertsons were qualified yacht masters who had sailed around the world, had been married for 25 years and had four children and seven grandchildren.
The sentence could have been up to 50 years each, according to local media reports, but it was reduced because they were remorseful and pleaded guilty.
Linda Robertson, 59, welcomed the sentence, according to a report on the BBC World Service news Web site. "I don't want to trivialize Malcolm's death but I don't think 25 years in a Thai prison is going to be pleasant for them. I do hope the time they spend in jail will help them reflect and realize the heinous crime they committed.
"I also believe they were victims themselves. I don't think they had any plan. The fact that they didn't kill me, which they could quite easily have done, shows some compassion from them."
A Western journalist at the trial reported that the three teenagers were not always referred to as pirates because of their circumstances. Defense lawyers said the Burmese boys, who had also spent time in Thai detention centers for illegal immigrants, had been sold to Thai fishing boat owners.
They reportedly jumped ship near the coast and swam to the small island off Koh Adang in the Tarutao National Marine Park, from where they attacked the Robertsons' boat, which had been moored close to land.
The fishermen in the southern area of Thailand have a history of cooperating with, but also engaging in acts of piracy against, illegal boat people, mostly from Vietnam during the 1980s.
Many of the boat people are taken to work on fishing boats that also act as transport for smuggling operations, according to reports by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. At the height of the boat-people exodus from Vietnam, around half of the occupants of Vietnamese boats were subject to rape and abduction attacks.
On the open seas Thai-registered large commercial fishing boats have also been subject to pirate attacks. Thai authorities are still looking for the Union 3 fishing boat and its crew that was attacked off the coast of Africa at the end of October.
Somali pirates on two small boats attacked and boarded the vessel north of the Seychelles and off the coast of Somalia, the EU Naval Force reported.
A patrol aircraft spotted the boat 230 miles north of the Seychelles and headed for the Somali coast.
Thai Union Frozen Products, the country's largest producer of canned and frozen seafood, said the Union 3 was one of its four vessels in the area. The company said it was most concerned for the 25 crew, none of whom were Thai nationals.
The Union 3 is the third fishing ship from Thailand seized in the area in the past year. The EU Naval Force estimates that Somali pirates are holding eight vessels somewhere along the African coast.
© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
For more details, see:
http://blogs.wsj.com/dispatch/2009/11/06/fort-hood-profiles-pfc-kham-xiong/ and http://www.onlineprnews.com/news/11061-1257805228-hmong-laos-scholar-author-hamiltonmerritts-remarks-honoring-kham-xiong.html
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
These were the key words on a recent google search that hit my site.
There are 12 mutually unintelligible dialects of Karen. The most common spoken among refugees in the USA is Sgaw Karen. Materials on learning the Sgaw Karen language are available from
I've seen Sgaw Karen also spelled Sqaw Karen. Pwo Karen is also commonly encountered in the USA and many Karen refugees know both
Although most Sgaw Karen are Christian, and these make up a large proportion of refugees, most Karen are actually Buddhist. (Should someone tell you of Muslim Karen, dig deeper. There's an interesting story there probably, but they may not wish to tell it to you. As an aside, most of the Burmese Muslims I've met have been pretty mellow, some actually cook at dinner's at the local Burmese Buddhist monastery simply because that's where many of their friends are, and Burmese Muslims are not necessarily Rohingya.)
There is a different ethnic group from Burma called the Karenni. They are not Karen, despite the similiar name.
The wikipedia entry on Karen is generally quite good although often changing.
If one is willing to do some heavy reading there is an excellent article Karen Nationalist Communities:
The 'Problem' of Diversity, by Ashley South that appeared in 'Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs', Vol. 29., No.1, April 2007
(Singapore on Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) that explains much about the history of Karen identity and language. It is published on Ashley Souths website at http://ashleysouth.co.uk/
Monday, October 26, 2009
Last night, I got two hits on this blog seeking information on "Bono assassination."
It turns out that approximately a year ago, a bizarre claim was made that Sonny Bono, the late pop-singer and congressman, did not die ten years ago from skiing into a tree and striking his head but instead was assassinated.
For instance, see:
Although there is nothing on this blog about Sonny Bono, there is information here on Bono, the lead singer of U2 and his work on Burmese human rights, as well as the threat of assassination that some Burmese dissidents live under. But nevertheless, fearing that someone was conspiring or threatening to assassinate Bono of U2, a public figure who works hard to improve the world, I google the terms myself and then took a moment to look over the results. I discovered that while no one is apparently plotting to assassinate Bono, the singer, instead there is a Sonny Bono Assassination Conspiracy Claim. (Actually, I thought the entire notion of Sonny Bono as a congressman was sufficiently bizarre in itself, and now we have a conspiracy about his death.)
Where did these ideas come from?
They came from Ted Gunderson. Who is Ted Gunderson? Ted Gunderson is a former FBI agent, now turned private investigator, who periodically appears in the media making statements that lie well outside the mainstream. These often involve giant conspiracies, the illuminatti, Satanism, and other increasingly bizarre things. For the record, I do not find these ideas believable. I first came across the name Ted Gunderson, a couple years ago while watching a DVD called Disinfo TV.
Disinfo TV showed its origins in the sort of "Southern California scary, transgressional fringe journalism" stuff of the '90s that Adam Parfrey and his associates did so well in works such as the book "Apocalypse Culture." However, it also showed the limitations of that genre quite well too. Although some portions of this brief series, self-described as "'60 Minutes' reaches for the meth pipe," are fascinating and mind blowing other parts simply seem to degenerate into displays of the mentally ill and random cruelty being shown for entertainment value. Ted Gunderson appears on two segments, one featuring Brice Taylor, and both segments involve sensationalistic and over-blown conspiracy claims. On the Brice Taylor segment the claims, claims confirmed by Ted Gunderson, were just bizarre. Even considering that I've heard related and very bizarre claims before these were the weirdest ones I'd ever heard.
Brice Taylor is one of those sad people who describes herself as a survivor of extreme forms of unlikely abuse, abuse she discovered through recovered memory therapy, and claims to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. (This entire realm of "recovered memories," "multiple personality disorder" and "Satanic ritual abuse claims" have been discredited repeatedly and all involve distortions of human memory, resulting in people coming to very strange conclusions about their own pasts.) The forms of abuse she describe includes being forced to suffer through being used as a sex slave by former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, George Bush (the father) as well as Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and others. She says that she was sold as a mind-control sex slave to celebrities at public auction. She also says she was forced to have sex with dolphins while Silvester Stallone filmed it and that he then later distributed the films to other celebrities. You may, if you'd like, see all of this on Episode One of Disinfo TV in the segment labeled Brice Taylor. Please be advised that these are only some of the very strange claims Brice Taylor makes about her life on this show.
Also, just for the record, one of the reasons I became burnt out on this sort of journalism is that it is very difficult to know how to deal with a person like this when one is the media. Do you present them as a reliable source? Portray them as an amusing eccentric and make fun of them in front of your audience? Attack them mercilessly so they will be discredited and the gullible will be spared their views? Or not cover them and their statements at all and then let your audience only see part of the picture? There are no easy answers. None are good options when dealing with someone this far off the deep end.
Regardless, on the segment one could also see Ted Gunderson, former FBI agent, presented as a reliable expert on the claims of Brice Taylor. And are the claims true? According to Ted Gunderson on Disinfo TV all the above has been confirmed multiple times including confirmed to him by people inside these giant, far-ranging conspiracies that involve celebrities, mind control slave auctions and dolphin pornography. I do not believe in these things. By his statements, Ted Gunderson says he does. Therefore when one considers the claims that Sonny Bono was assassinated consider the source. Also consider that the story was never, as near as I can tell, picked up by any non-tabloid reliable news sources.
In conclusion, if Ted Gunderson is the only one who claims that the late Congressman and pop-singer was assassinated, I for one, feel perfectly able to ignore the claims. Ted Gunderson is a name that comes up again and again in the media surrounding bizarre and often disprovable claims. In the absence of corroborating claims or evidence, I'll just skip this one for as long as I can.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
This experience got me directly involved with the folks at Equinox, the local organization that handles domestic violence issues in Albany. I am, by background and inclination, a rescuer. I have no problem, for instance, with grabbing a suicidal or mentally ill person and throwing them on the ground so that one may then restrain them and prevent them from further harming themself. In fact, I can think of twice when I have done so. Not to mention jumping into fights to pull people apart (hint, let them tire themselves a bit by pounding on each other first), but the fact is the "rescuer" approach does not work in these cases.
One thing I liked about Equinox is that their literature did not say "We save battered women." What it said, more or less, was "if you are ready to try to change your own life we will help you do so." This is the same approach they take with their drug addiction programs and actually there are a lot of parallels between being addicted to drugs and being in an unhealthy relationship.
There were many good things about Equinox that I saw. On the other hand, one weakness in the program is that they are not used to dealing with people from other cultures, and although they tried to do so, they weren't quite sure how to do so competently. (In part, because as a friend told me, the bulk of these "save the world" organizations are staffed in large part by young twenty-somethings who mean well but don't really have much life experience.) For instance, one person tried to start a conversation with a refugee on an extremely important matter by just talking without checking to see if anything was actually being understood. If you talk to most refugees, what they will do is nod their head and smile, whether they understand or not. And, no surprise, this is exactly what happened until I jumped in and said, "Hey, this isn't working. She understands nothing you say."
So if you deal with one of these organizations bring your own translator and expect to handle a lot of the details yourself.
But, switching gears, I read the other day on the skeptics list that domestic violence in Bangladesh, a South Asian Muslim country, ranks number two in frequency among all the nations of the world.
Therefore I started doing some cursory research on the subject. There is indeed a problem with domestic violence among South Asian immigrants.
First, we have this report from the BBC:
Apparently in the United Kingdom, an increasing number of complaints about domestic violence are coming from men of South Asian descent who are being abused by their wives. In a previous post, I noted that an academic journal reported that one distinctive feature among South Asian violence was a tendency for it to become a family affair with the abuser's siblings and other relatives joining in to heap further abuse upon the victimized party. That does indeed seem to be the case here.
And to think, not that long ago some of these Nepali-Burmese folks were suggesting to me that I marry their relatives in Thailand. (I'm sorry, I have a firm policy of no-marriage on the first date. It only leads to a lack of respect later in the relationship.) And I've received hits on this blog with google key words such as "Nepali Burmese wives" and so on --my advice, don't do it. Even if you wish a mail-order wife there are probably nicer places to find one.
Note the BBC article includes links to domestic violence assistance organizations for both men and women in the U.K.
Which brings me back to the issue of Bangladeshi domestic violence.
According to a 2004 report from the Guttmacher institute, see http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3019004.html domestic violence is, in fact, the norm in marriages in rural Bangladesh. (67% being a majority.) You may, if you'd like download the entire 10 page report for free by following the link.
The following is a summary from the organization's web site.
"CONTEXT: Although the pervasiveness of domestic violence against women in Bangladesh is well documented, specific risk factors, particularly those that can be affected by policies and programs, are not well understood.
METHODS: In 2001-2002, surveys, in-depth interviews and small group discussions were conducted with married women from six Bangladeshi villages to examine the types and severity of domestic violence, and to explore the pathways through which women's social and economic circumstances may influence their vulnerability to violence in marriage. Women's odds of experiencing domestic violence in the past year were assessed by logistic regression analysis.
RESULTS: Of about 1,200 women surveyed, 67% had ever experienced domestic violence, and 35% had done so in the past year. According to the qualitative findings, participants expected women with more education and income to be less vulnerable to domestic violence; they also believed (or hoped) that having a dowry or a registered marriage could strengthen a women's position in her marriage. Yet, of these potential factors, only education was associated with significantly reduced odds of violence; meanwhile, the odds were increased for women who had a dowry agreement or had personal earnings that contributed more than nominally to the marital household. Women strongly supported educating their daughters, but pressures remain to marry them early, in part to avoid high dowry costs.
CONCLUSIONS: In rural Bangladesh, women's social and economic circumstances may influence their risk of domestic violence in complex and contradictory ways. Findings also suggest a disconnect between women's emerging expectations and their current realities.
International Family Planning Perspectives, 2004, 30(4):190-199"
Friday, October 23, 2009
Oh my! It's been a long time since I've added to this blog. Why? I've been busy. Busy with school and other activities. Putting on my writer's hat, I moderated a pair of panels on publishing and the future of magazines at Albacon, the local science fiction book convention. As mentioned, I'm enrolled in a graduate program in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and this has kept me busy, at times with activities that directly affect refugees. Been doing other things here and there to assist refugees, some through the TESOL program, some on my own. (Although it has nothing to do with refugees, I even took a salsa dancing lesson, something that lay way outside my comfort zone!)
One of these refugee related activities is that I still teach driving, a time consuming and at times frightening activity. Although, as written before teaching refugees to drive is surprisingly difficult, I do think that I may beginning to learn how to do it efficiently and properly (and it only took how many tries?).
Therefore consider this an initial proposal on how to go about it.
Refugees tend to drive badly because they do not have much experience with driving, automobiles or the basics of American rules of the road. They usually do not read their road book before starting to drive. (In a surprising number of instance, they don't bother to get their driver's license before starting to drive but that's another issue that I've written about elsewhere.)
Therefore the key to teaching them driving is that one must fill in this knowledge gap *BEFORE* you get them behind the steering wheel.
To do this you need materials they understand. One good resource for doing this is a book entitled "Studying for A Driver's License," by Dr. Frank C. Kenel and Beverly Vaillancourt, (-1994, The People's Publishing Group, Inc., Saddle Brook N.J. ISBN-1-56256-208-8). It's a wonderful book that teaches how to drive using simple English. Topics that tend to confuse refugee driving students such as right-of-way and choosing lanes are clearly explained and done so in a much better way than I ever could have. Then there are answer the questions worksheet pages where you can check your students progress *BEFORE* putting your life and financial future at risk by letting them drive your car with you in it!
This book is very good and can be read and understood much better than the NYS road book by an immigrant or refugee with limited English. Unfortunately the book is priced outrageously, being $25.00 (US) for a 100 page 8 1/2 by 11" paperback. What were the publishers thinking? Although there is a discount for buying in bulk, if one were an outlaw and willing to live life on the edge, one could easily photocopy the entire thing and save a great deal of money. I found the copy I read at the Schenectady County Public Library and suspect other libraries can find you a copy too, either from their own collection, through special purchase by request or by inter-library loan.
All in all, a wonderful book! I like it. My current driving student likes it too and since he often speaks of hoping to attend college when his English improves, learning to poke through a book and find answers is often a very good experience for him that has helped not just his driving but also his reading, his English and his academic skills.
I recommend it highly and wish I'd discovered it almost a year ago when I first began trying to teach refugees to drive.
Monday, October 5, 2009
As mentioned I am studying education now. Although I find the program (largely) dreadfully boring and the work tedious, the truth is that it is making me a better teacher. (The signal to noise to intense challenge ratio is not the same as Cornell.)
But, like I said, it is making me a better teacher.
And, as mentioned, I probably now know more about the ways refugees learn to drive than anyone I know. (Which does not make me an expert, by any means. It just puts me in a position where I've got to look to myself to judge how to proceed as there's no one around to ask.)
And, out of all I mentioned in a previous post, plus two more, just one passed her road test on the first try. Which means the rest failed on their first try. When a person fails their road test in New York they are given a print out from a machine that lists their errors. Of those I've seen, a handful, each and every one included the statement "showed poor judgement."
Which makes sense. And I've mentioned they only rarely study the road book.
Here's my current thought. Driving is not a single skill. It is a set of many, many skills. Many of these skills an American takes for granted. However, if one is to teach a third world refugee to drive, one must learn to divide those skills into their individual components and teach them one by one.
Now many of these folks are impatient to drive. Many have educational deficits. Many come from indigenous cultures where long term planning is largely a foreign concept. Many are insecure and lack confidence in their ability to learn. Many have high anxiety and often need this assuaged a bit before they begin to drive.
My current thought is that the best approach to all these things is to divide the skills one by one. Teach each one. Celebrate each small victory with them and make them feel good, and make yourself feel a sense of satisfaction (this is a time consuming, sometimes draining process), before moving on. Let them know they are part way there and did accomplish something before going on to the next part.
This Tuesday (today technically) I am scheduled to begin teaching my latest student, a student who just failed his road test. We will focus on learning "right of way techniques." Much of this will be done in the library using matchbox cars and such. We'll see how it goes.
Friday, October 2, 2009
From time to time, I intend to jot down my thoughts on teaching driving to refugees here.
Clearly it's a big project and not one that has been researched much as far as I know. Don't expect full essays or complete works here. Like so much, it's a work in progress. (Work with refugee sort of involves people from exotic places getting dumped in ones town with the result being people saying, "There are some people here who need help?" "What kind of people?" "Sqaw Karen people." "What? WHO? Huh? A what kind of people again?" It's a learn as you go situation.)
Here's the current thought. Ideal way to teach refugee driving would begin with a combination "English for driving" and "Rules of the Road" course of classes.
These would teach the concepts underlying driving, concepts that would probably not be otherwise known or even considered important by refugees. These would be divided into units and testing done before the student is allowed to proceed.
(Will I actually do this? I have no idea. The liability issues scare me, for starters. What I do intend to do is to teach the people I do teach driving to in a new manner from a new angle and a new perspective.)
Thursday, October 1, 2009
[Note. there's a fuzzy set of lines between stereotyping, generalizations about cultures and accurate assessment of intercultural differences. When working with refugees, however, you learn as you go and therefore as one needs to seek to accommodate cultural differences and overcome them before one really understands them it's often a feel your way along process of simultaneously working with and understanding a group of people from a different culture with a different background. I'm not completely comfortable with everything I have written here in terms of "cross-cultural sensitivity issues." On the other hand, this is the current state of my constantly changing thinking on the relevant issues as I struggle to achieve a goal of mine which is to see my driving students get their licenses and become safe drivers. With time, they will evolve.]
Over the past several years, I've taught various people to drive, either from beginning to finish or else just a few lessons to supplement someone else's driving.
This has been a learning experience for me and I am trying to assess and sort the results.
Here's the track record.
Two Chinese graduate students, one from beginning to end and she passed on the first try.
One Burmese Chin woman. Quit with valid excuse but obviously underestimated the time required to learn driving when she began. Thought one could learn to drive in just a few lessons.
One Nepali Burmese male. Learned reasonably well but had a great deal of difficulty grasping some basic concepts, such as choosing lanes. He also tended to put great pressure on himself, panic under pressure and feel great stress after making a mistake. This stress caused his mental functioning to go down and that meant, for instance, after making a mistake he would then confuse left and right. Finally he failed the road test twice, began canceling out on lessons at the last minutes using purposefully bad excuses and ultimately bought himself a van and began driving it without a license.
Nepali-Burmese female. Drove very badly, time management problems, asked for lessons like two weeks before the road test. Failed. Then I dropped her as a student after she began driving without a license and showed a bad attitude towards it after hitting a car in a parking lot. (Same person who asked "Can I drive myself to the road test?") The traffic violation case resulting from this was dropped due to a technicality (cop put the court date down for a holiday) and she passed on her second try.
Second Nepali-Burmese male. Had been driving in Thailand for years and bought himself a car and began driving it to work and elsewhere without a license. Asked for help with his parallel parking only. I decided that the best thing to do was to help him in the hopes that he would get a license and the situation become legal. He learned parallel parking easily but failed his road test twice. Last I heard was still driving without a license. (He also mistreats his girlfriend badly. I think people might be beginning to get a picture of why I don't deal with the eight local Nepali-Burmese I know anymore. On the other hand, one thing I'll give the Nepali-Burmese credit for is that the bulk of them don't hesitate to ask others for assistance, sometimes whether they need it or not.)
African male refugee. Wanted parallel parking lessons. Said he had been driving for years in Africa but no one in Africa ever parallel parks. I gave him the lessons. He failed his first road test, reportedly for being over-cautious at an intersection where he had the the right of way (probably makes sense in Africa to drive that way) but passed on the second try.
Nepali-Burmese female. Taught one day only. Quit because her life was in chaos and her boyfriend was mistreating her badly. (Lovely people, the Nepali-Burmese.)
Karen male. Taught for months. Frequent problems with basic concepts, failed his road test badly on first try.
CONCLUSIONS (PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENTS ONLY):
Refugees are a funny bunch of people. Let's look at some of the things that often mark them as different from mainstream Americans.
1. History of trauma. This effects anxiety levels and thinking and decision making.
2. Low education in many cases. This effects the ability to learn as ability to learn is a learned skill. Also affects the ability to set, assess, plan and achieve goals involved with acquiring a new skill or set of skills. Tendency to gloss over underlying weaknesses in driving in order to get to the new stuff.
3. Often speak poor English. Affects communication. At least two of my refugee driving students have confused verbal instructions to go left and right while driving. This often affects their initial knowledge of the rules of the road and expectations of a driver in the USA. (Most Burmese speakers do not read the DMV road book. Instead they just download lists of questions and answers in Burmese with English translations of the answer and focus on getting enough questions to pass the test and get the learner's permit. This has serious ramifications. Another admitted she sat through the five hour class but did not understand any of it as her English was quite poor.)
4. Poverty and low exposure to technology. These people did not grow up sitting in their mommy and daddy's car while mom shuttled them around to soccer practice. They did not spend their childhood looking out the window's of the family car trying to read the signs and asking occasional questions about driving.
5. Often come from non-legalistic, often pre-industrial, often even indigenous cultures. This has a thousand little ramifications in mental behaviors including attitudes towards road rules, expectations and even lane changing. In some cases, the cultural background also affects the ability to plan for and achieve long-term goals. Right-of-way laws are often a completely foreign concept to people from a non-legalistic culture. (Don't believe me? Check out the traffic in Taiwan some day.)
CONCLUSIONS (PRELIMINARY CONCLUSIONS, NOTHING MORE.)
Teaching refugees to drive is not an easy thing to do and one who does it should expect to put in a great deal of time on each refugee one teaches. One needs to make expectations clear up front, including the possibility that they might drive without a license and that you will take this quite seriously. (As noted three of the folks I taught. all Nepali-Burmese, do this or did this. I spoke to some folks at the Rensselaer Open Bible Church and although we are theologically miles apart, they know refugees and how they think and act and agree completely that it is extremely important that if one assist refugees with car related issues one either ensure that they have a driver's license already or else tell them of the consequences, including consequences with your relationship with them, if they drive without a license.)
My experience with Burmese refugees is that they are tough, hard working people but that they somehow aren't good at setting goals and following through to achieve them. A plan that involves incremental steps over a long period of time and frequent set backs (failed road tests) along the way does not come easily to them.
Driving is not a single skill. It is instead a set of different skills many of which we as Americans take for granted. (i.e. knowing road signs or knowing when to choose lanes.) Therefore driving should be taught to refugees as a set of skills with frequent assessments and it made clear that if they do not have a certain skill one will not move ahead in the lessons until one guarantees they know that skill. Assess constantly and use those assessments to stop and reteach missing skills. You do not want to find out that your student does not understand a "Left turn only" sign at a red light after he drives into the intersection assuming it means he can ignore the light if he wishes to go left (true story.)
Assess constantly, set low incremental expectations, do not assume they have the background knowledge an American would,
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I am a fan of Thao Nguyen and her band, Get Down, Stay Down. I really love their song "Swimming pool." Curiously, for those of us who are trying to make sense of what's going on with media distribution and the music and publishing industry, their newest album is being released in two formats. One is the standard CD but the second is a vinyl LP which comes with a free download of all songs straight to your computer.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Which brings us to an idea I've been toying with for a while. People give a lot of furniture to refugees but no one really focuses on getting it back when they don't want it anymore. And if this were done, then it would provide a lot of people with a lot of things that they could use.
Yes, it sounds funny, and like most such things it's much easier to speak about but due in practice.
Here's the situation. The State Department mandates that refugee placement agencies must give all refugees a certain amount of furniture of certain kinds. In addition to this refugees also receive extra furniture and such of whatever kind happens to be sitting in the donation storage room that someone thinks they might be able to use and no one wishes to store anymore (i.e. I've given several coffee makers to refugees. Do refugees need coffee makers? No, but people donate them and then the best thing to do is to give them to the refugees. It's that sort of thing.)
However, some items on the list are not really needed by the refugees. For instance, the State Department mandates that each refugee be given a bed and this bed should consist of a mattress, box spring and a bed frame. In practice, however, a surprising number of refugees see no need for the bed frame and instead just place the box spring on the floor and put the mattress on top of it. It's just the way they like to do things. Therefore, a large quantity of these cheap metal bed frames wind up tossed in hallways and backyards where they get wasted. If the refugee center were to find a way to collect these things, then they could be redistributed and perhaps even given to someone who might actually use them.
Secondly, refugees often live unstable lives. They move a lot, particularly during their first year in the USA and this is also the year during which they have the most contact with the refugee placement agency. When they move they often leave things behind, particularly large bulky items like couches. If the refugee center were to find a way to keep an eye out for these moves or encourage the refugees to think of redonating the items they do not need then it could prove to be a valuable source of donations for the center.
They also occasionally get rid of old furniture when they, through one means or another, get better furniture. Since few refugees have a van or a pick up truck, the old stuff often gets tossed out instead of redistributed.
Getting furniture back from the refugees when they don't want it? It's an idea worth exploring.
Monday, September 7, 2009
To provide some mature balance, here's a quote I received from a friend the other day urging me to retain perspective.:
"Clearly you did not spend your 30s hanging out with do-gooders in their twenties. This is completely what I would expect from an organization like the refugee center. The only problem for me is when someone evil insinuates themselves into the chaos and robs and thieves while no one is looking."
Yup. Alas, perhaps the entire thing is just a sense of unrealistic expectations on my part. Then again, I do think there's something wrong when an NGO whose CEO makes approximately $200,000 a year puts someone in charge of a programming affecting the lives of hundreds of people and continues to do so long after it becomes obvious that problems are developing due to mismanagement. Then again, I'm often known for being unrealistic, which perhaps explains why I was working there in the first place.
But back to the furniture, here's a very important tip.
When accepting furniture for donation make sure you have the supplies you need to keep the parts together. This means masking tape and zip lock bags. When you get, for instance, a bed that is put together with bolts and fasterners and has a disassembleable frame, then take it apart, put all the small pieces in zip lock bags and masking tape the bags to the larger pieces. Then take the large pieces and wrap them around a few times with the masking tape several times. Make sure that it's strong enough to last.
The difference between usable furniture and clutter-junk is that with the first one all the pieces are in a place where you can find them.
When I started at the refugee center, our bed collection looked like a pile of tinker toys scattered all over a corner of the floor. Not only was it difficult to figure out which pieces of beds went with one another, but even after you did, you often found yourself unable to find the nuts, bolts, wheels and other fasteners that held them together. In many cases they did not even exist, having been lost long ago, and thus you had to make frequent runs to the hardware store often while trying to guess what sort of bolts one actually needed.
Avoid this problem. When you get a piece of furniture, handle it once. Handle it right. Put all the pieces, big and small, together into one unit with masking tape and zip-lock bags.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Just some quick thoughts. First, Burma is a mess. Of course, it has been for a long time and probably will continue to be so for an even longer time. But to get some idea of how the country is structured this map is useful.:
The map comes from p. 98, "In Search of Southeast Asia --A Modern History,":Edited by David Joel Steinberg, co. 1971, 1985, 1987, University of Hawaii Press. Essentially what it shows is the limits of civilization and governmental influence in the eighteenth century in Southeast Asia. The darker areas on the map are the areas where civilization and governmental control were the strongest in the eighteenth century in Southeast Asia. The further one got from the government, the more their control and cultural influence faded away until ultimately yet gradually one found oneself in the midsts of mountains or jungle where tribal peoples who neither spoke the language of or even cared about the central government lived exclusively. I wrote about this a bit long ago on this blog. Essentially what you will see for Burma is an area that was controlled by the central government. This is where the Burmese and the Mong primarily live. Then you will see an area around the edge of the country where most of the other peoples, the Karen, Chin, Kashin, Shan, Kareni, Wa, etc., live. This area was not under the control of the central government. (The other ethnic groups, the South Asians and the Chinese, came later, arriving after the country was under British control.) It is these outer areas where much of the current fighting and ethnic persecution is taking place and it is from these areas that many of the more obscure ethnic groups who make up the refugees from Burma come from.
This week there was much fighting in the region and it was widely reported in the press. Here's a BBC map of the area where the new fighting is taking place as well as the area of bordering China, Yunnan province, where people from Burma are fleeing as refugees.:
Yunnan is one of the most interesting (and by Chinese standards backwards) places in China and is full of many interesting ethnic groups who often straddle the national borders of the region.
The Shan are an ethnic group from Burma. I only know one Shan in the Albany area, but undoubtedly there are a few more hidden away somewhere. I was very surprised to learn that there were Wa and Karenni here as well. The Shan, incidentally, for years popped up in international discussions on the drug trade as their region was controlled by a half Chinese, half Shan opium warlord named Khun Sa (sometimes spelled Khun Sha) who had his own private army and made a fortune off of selling narcotics while making claims that he was actually working for the liberation of the Shan people. It was quite exotic and exciting sounding, as well as an actual global problem, and appeared in almost any book from the early '90s that discussed the issue of Chinese transnational crime networks, a hot topic at the time and one that I wrote a book about in 1995 ("Tongs, Gangs and Triads," the book has strengths and weaknesses, but it has received some praise from people in important positions who, like me, felt it filled a niche.) Khun Sa essentially retired, surrendering in 1996, then relocating to Rangoon (Yangon) where the government refused to extradite him, despite frequent requests from abroad and from where he was often still reported to be running an extensive opium smuggling network. Khun Sa died in October of 2007, reportedly of natural causes.
Undoubtedly the region is still an opium source country and part of the so-called "Golden Triangle," of Laos, Thailand and Burma, a region that, along with Afghanistan, is one of the world's primary sources for opium and narcotics.
Which, as near as I can tell, has nothing much to do with refugees, but for reasons related to recent responses on this blog, I've been giving some thought to the issue of crime, immigration and refugees. Clearly, some people are anxious to avoid facing the issue of crime and immigrants and refugees. Not only is this common among young idealists such as those who volunteer as interns at refugee centers, but it is also common among some academics. And through doing so, the people who get hurt by it, in my opinion, are usually the immigrants and refugees who are crime victims of crimes committed by other refugees and immigrants, often of the same ethnic group.
For instance, I recently read an article entitled "Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence: Common Experiences in Different Countries," by Cecilia Menjivar and Olivia Salcido, which appeared in "Gender and Society," Vol. 16, No. 6 (Dec. 2002), pp. 898-920. Although it's an article well worth reading, and contains much information, it also spends a great of deal time discussing just how little is known about the scope of the problem.
As mentioned in previous posts, the article stresses the way immigrant men tend to use linguistic and cultural isolation, cutting off from resources and financial control, including seizing money from one's spouse or girlfriend, in order to control their spouse or girlfriend when they commit domestic violence. (Although the article does acknowledge same-sex and female-on-male domestic violence, like most such things, it focuses on male-on-female domestic violence. But it covers a lot. It's well worth reading.)
A great deal of crime, violence and domestic violence among refugees and immigrants is of the sort that involves members of the same ethnic group preying on each other. This has been the clear pattern with Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant crime groups. It is also the case among many crimes commited by Hmong gangs, For instance, one can read, this article,
"The Violence of Hmong Gangs and the Crime of Rape," by Richard Straka, which appears in the February 2003, Volume 72, No. 2, issue of the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Bulletin about halfway down the page. Like most such things, it's unpleasant reading (which explains in part why when I went to graduate school I focused on the history of science in China instead of Chinese criminology, an area where I already had some background.)
In conclusion, Burma's a mess. Refugees from Burma are now pouring out into four different countries (at least), these being Thailand, Malaysia, India and China.
Refugees and immigrants are not always nice to each other. They are people. Like people everywhere, they sometimes commit crimes on one another. The exact rates of this are unknown and under-reported. However, the issue is much politicized. However, those who deny that these problems exist are facilitating the rape, extortion and victimization through domestic violence of the refugees and immigrants who become or are likely to become crime victims.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Kept a long time promise to a Karen friend today and went to church with him. The church was a fundamentalist Christian church and very popular among Karen and other refugees from Burma. Karen formal dress worn at formal occasions consists of a hand woven vest or dress.
To illustrate, I've stolen a few pictures from http://www.stolaf.edu/people/leming/film.htm These pictures are of Karen people in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand but in Rensselaer many dress up like this for special occasions including Sunday morning church services. If you'd like to see some pictures I took of local Karen women dressed in traditional dress during the water festival you may look here. According to "The Karen Revolution in Burma: Diverse Voices, Uncertain Ends," by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, 2008. East West Center, Washington D.C., although most Karen are Buddhist, most S'gaw Karen are Christian and most (but not all) Karen refugees who come to the United States are S'Gaw Karen. This is, in part, because the S'gaw Karen have a long history of conflict and friction with the Burmese. This friction was excaberated as the British made a practice of using Karen Christian militias to attack the Burmese when conflict broke out between the Burmese and the British. In fact, many Karen during world war two were under the impression that once the Japanese were ousted from their region they would be given their own new, independent homeland. Sadly, I think, this did not come to pass.
One of my Karen friends speaks of wishing to join the U.S. Army (A surprising number of young refugees consider enlisting in the military. I say surprising because so many of them are war survivors. Usually the ASVAB, military aptitude tests, give them trouble.) He once told me proudly that his grandfather had been a solider in the British army and fought against the Burmese.
Interestingly the Karen dress was worn not only by the Karen themselves but also by a couple of the Americans present. If the Karen like a person they will sometimes give him such a piece of clothing and it is a valuable thing indeed as each takes hours to weave. (The time I was offered one it was too small for me and although I was promised a larger one, it still has not come. I once considered a project to import and sell them but even at Thai refugee camp labor rates the cost would have been quite high for each piece of clothing and the resale have to be done carefully. It's not impossible, but few people would buy one on impulse at a consignment store, for instance.)
I am normally not a church goer and this church was quite fundamentalist.
About two thirds into the service, the congregation broke up quickly and did so by language. Upstairs there were two groups, the Burmese language group and the (S'gaw) Karen language group. Both groups were intended to offer Bible readings and lessons on salvation with questions and answers from the attendees. There was supposed to also be a Karenni language group (the Karenni are another Burmese ethnic group who are distinctly different from the Karen) but, it was explained, "the devil had dealt them a hand" and the Karenni-English interpreter could not come that week so they had substituted a Karenni-Burmese interpreter instead and put the Karenni with the Burmese language group. (Incidentally the Burmese language interpreter was a very intelligent, hard working Karen, not Burmese, man who had lived in Rangoon (Yangon).)
The theme of the service was salvation through Christ and the lessons were Bible based. Verses were read and explained. Should one wish, I took notes. We were encouraged to do so and to mark up our Bibles if we had brought them. Interestingly the church used the King James version of the Bible with its old style language, something I wondered about in the context that a large portion of the attendees spoke English as a second language and that to varying degrees.
A friend of mine let me look at his Bible, a Bible that was entirely in the Karen script, a script which as explained in an earlier post is a variant of the Burmese script. I've been reviewing the script again and was able to find the book of Luke and pick out the chapters by number. (Of course, it helped that I knew where to look.)
Verses cited were Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 10:9-13, and Romans 6:23, as well as John 3:16, Revelation 20:10 and Acts 2:41 and, interestingly, the Old Testament verse Isaiah 59:2. Like most fundamentalist Christian churches these verses heavily emphasize the teachings of Paul and his doctrine of accepting Christ as a personal savior in order to wash away the pre-existing sin in all of us that blocks are union with God and admission to Heaven. For those who wish to see the verses themselves, I've found http://www.biblegateway.com to be a very good site for Bible study.
The Pastor of the church is an American man who I genuinely believe cares very much about the well-being of his congregation and its members. (We bumped into each once when I was delivering some couches to some refugees who had slipped through the cracks and never received them from the refugee center. This was after I stopped working at the center. Curiously, of all the pieces of furniture to acquire, couches are often the easiest to find but the most difficult to move and deliver. This is not coincidence. Getting couches is easy if one knows where to ask and one has a vehicle and manpower to move them. We discussed working together to, of all things, move a couch once, but the refugee who owned the couch decided to simply abandon it when he moved and apparently it got left for the next tenants.)
Songs came from something called "The All American Church Hymnal" and we sang a song entitled "He Lives" from 1933 and another called "Stepping in the Light" from 1917. They sounded evocative of the years they were written.
The only part of the service I really wondered about was the time spent promoting a private Christian school that cost $100 a month for tuition plus registration fees. This, like everything else in the service, was also done in Karen and Burmese. Of course, to some extent, this hints at a larger issue. Should one include newly arrived refugees in the group (whatever group one is referring to) when presenting options that one personally does not think they should choose due to their financial status and lack of experience in this country? Or should you exclude them, thereby making the decision for them? Personally I think it would be a mistake for a newly arrived refugee to spend a large portion of his or her income to send children to a private school when there is an equally good, perhaps even better, public school available for free. But do I have the right to not offer them the choice were I to offer it to others or should I just decide what is right for them using my own judgment? There's no easy answer to this question.
Let me say, just for the record, I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, nor do I believe in an after life or Heaven as it was described. I do not see Jesus as a mystical deity who brings salvation, but instead I see Jesus mostly as a troublemaker, a man who pointed out hypocrisy within the doctrinal institutions of his time, so much that finally the authorities decided he had to be done away with and nailed him up on a cross, but whose message lived on long after he did. And, of course, I mean that in a good way. (I try to resist labels, and prefer not to knock the means by which others find meaning so long as they aren't harming others, but if forced to I would fall in the category of cynical agnostic.) Yet as I become older, I become more tolerant of fundamentalist Christianity as it does give some people what they need and, quite frankly, there's nothing I can do about it anyway should I object.
The refugees who come here from Burma are a mixed bunch in terms of religion. They include many Christians as well as Muslims, Hindus and, of course, Buddhists. As Burma today engages in great religious persecution the religious affiliations of the refugees are not anywhere near the same proportions as the greater Burmese population still in Asia. Some day I will try to write about the others.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Therefore a disagreement has arisen on these pages about whether or not culture effects the rate and form of domestic violence among people and refugees in particular.
As stated I am not an expert on domestic violence but have studied many forms of violence including child abuse. There is a recognized correlation between rates of violence of many kinds and poverty. This is sad but easily confirmed. (In fact, when I was in graduate school one of the campus publications came under fire for publishing an article arguing that African-Americans committed crimes at a higher rate than Whites. A sociology professor of mine took one look at it and said, "Their entire argument could be reframed by removing the racial statistics and just correlating the violence with the poverty rates among the two populations. If done that way their facts would remain the same but the racial discrepancy would probably largely disappear.")
So, sadly, an assumption could be made that since refugees tend to live in poverty at a higher rate than the dominant population of the United States, they are likely to have a higher rate of violence of all kinds, including domestic vioelnce. Again, this is an assumption, a theory, and nothing more but I suspect further research would bear it out. If found such a correlation would be independent of culture and merely reflect the stresses of living under worse conditions and in neighborhoods with higher rates of crime and violence.
And yes, of course, domestic violence affects all populations but the issue is at what rate? I would suggest and believe it to be documented that such factors as economic independence, availability of marriage counselors, availability of good babysitters, access to economic opportunities, even access to automobiles and transportation to flee a bad situation and ability to afford a hotel room after one flees all affect the likelihood of domestic violence either taking place or continuing.
But let's set aside economics and look at the effect of culture. Defining culture is difficult. Defining domestic violence is difficult. But we can get a quick image of whether or not domestic violence rates vary from culture to culture by comparing their rates in different nations, although we must also express that caveat that culture and nation are not synonymous. And of course one should dig deeper to find out how these rates were determined before accepting them. But if we can prove that domestic violence rates vary from nation to nation then it seems logical to assume that they vary within the United States among people from different nations although, for several reasons, the actual statistics would probably vary somewhat. (For instance, should we find a nation where domestic violence is accepted and there exists no legal mechanism to stop it, we could assume that this hypothetical ethnic group would have a high rate of domestic violence in the United States when compared to other ethnic groups although we would have to also assume that since these actions are illegal and our nation does have legal mechanisms to prevent them, then the rate would lower here than in the hypothetical home nation as some of these legal mechanisms should have lowered the rate once this hypothetical ethnic group is within our borders.
To begin casual research, one place one can go is "Wikipedia." With all its flaws, Wikipedia is often still useful, especially when carefully footnoted and in the initial stages of doing research.:
Therefore from the Wikipedia article on Domestic violence accessed at 9:51pm Eastern Standard Time on August 19, 2009 we find the following large paragraph reproduced here in its entirety.:
Domestic violence occurs across the world, in various cultures, and affects people across society, irrespective of economic status. In the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics women are about six times as likely as men to experience intimate partner violence. Percent of women surveyed (national surveys) who were ever physically assaulted by an intimate partner: Barbados (30%), Canada (29%), Egypt (34%), New Zealand (35%), Switzerland (21%), United States (22%). Some surveys in specific places report figures as high as 50-70% of women surveyed who were ever physically assaulted by an intimate partner. Others, including surveys in the Philippines and Paraguay, report figures as low as 10%. South Africa is said to have the highest statistics of gender-based violence in the world and this includes rape and domestic violence (Foster 1999; The Integrated Regional Network [IRIN], Johannesburg, South Africa, 25 May 2002). 80% of women surveyed in rural Egypt said that beatings were common and often justified, particularly if the woman refused to have sex with her husband. In India, around 70% of women are victims of domestic violence. The Human Rights Watch found that up to 90% of women in Pakistan were subject to verbal, sexual, emotional or physical abuse, within their own homes. Up to two-thirds of women in certain communities in Nigeria's Lagos State say they are victims to domestic violence. Statistics published in 2004, show that the rate of domestic violence victimisation for Indigenous women in Australia may be 40 times the rate for non-Indigenous women. The rate of intimate partner violence in the U.S. has declined since 1993. Results will vary, depending on specific wording of survey questions, how the survey is conducted, the definition of abuse or domestic violence used, the willingness or unwillingness of victims to admit that they have been abused and other factors.
Martin S. Fiebert examined 219 studies on intimate partner violence and concluded that "women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners". However, studies have shown that the nature and consequences of spousal violence are much more serious for women than for men; the severity of the abuse inflicted on women is worse. A Canadian study showed that 7% of women and 6% of men end up abused by their current or former partners, but female victims of spousal violence were more than twice as likely to be injured as male victims. Women were also three times more likely to fear for their life, and twice as likely to be the targets of more than 10 violent episodes. Overall, female victims were twice as likely as male victims to be stalked by a previous spouse. 
Domestic violence against women in lesbian relationships is about as common as domestic violence against women in heterosexual relationships."
Please note that during the cut and paste process the numbering system became distorted. Footnote "14" became "1" and "15" became "2." Should you wish to check a footnote then please add thirteen to the number shown below.
- ^ Watts C, Zimmerman C (April 2002). "Violence against women: global scope and magnitude". Lancet 359 (9313): 1232–7. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)08221-1. PMID 11955557.
- ^ Bachman, Ronet and Linda E. Saltzman (August 1995) (PDFNCJ 154348). Violence against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/femvied.pdf.
- ^ a b c d References Examining Assaults By Women On Their Spouses Or Male Partners: An Annotated Bibliography
- ^ a b c "Ending Violence Against Women - Population Reports" (PDF). Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). December 1999. http://www.infoforhealth.org/pr/l11/violence.pdf.
- ^ The Interrelationship Between Gender-based Violence and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. (PDF) Journal of International Women's Studies Vol. 6#1, November 2004.
- ^ Widespread violence against women in Africa documented. Source: UNFPA.
- ^ India tackles domestic violence. BBC News. October 26, 2006.
- ^ PAKISTAN: Domestic violence endemic, but awareness slowly rising. IRIN UN. March 11, 2008.
- ^ Half of Nigeria's women experience domestic violence. afrol News.
- ^ Domestic Violence in Australia—an Overview of the Issues. Parliamentary Library.
- ^ "Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. - Overview". Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/intimate/overview.htm. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
- ^ 
- ^ Fact Sheet: Lesbian Partner Violence
Should you wish further information you may consult a good library or the internet. You may also try google or google scholar
Should this not convince you that rates of domestic violence vary among cultures, well . . ., I'll go back to "Plan A" and just say "Please go away and argue with someone else. I just don't have the time or interest, especially if you have a moral or political agenda, when you can go to the library instead."
As an aside, (always an aside) I recently skimmed through the high recommended work, "The Little Black Book of Violence --What every young man needs to know about fighting," by Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder, 2009. YMAA Publication Center, Wolfeboro N.H. On pages 93-99 the work contains a nice but brief discussion of men as domestic violence victims, a subject that I feel is often much ignored.
All the best,
Some people don't get that. They think this blog is about them. They think their programs are more important than refugees. (Heck, let's be honest here. If this blog is about anyone it's "me!" Yeah, that's right. Me, me, me, self-absorbed me. Although I wish it wasn't so as there are more interesting subjects out there.)
So, first please take a moment to read this, a post that I consider my best researched one on domestic violence and refugees.
Then . . . you can check out these if you wish to dig deeper into this controversy.
First, the newspaper article that causes all the controversy is being presented in PDF format by Serjanej's law firm. Apparently the law firm and Serjanej are quite proud of it.
Should you not like PDF format you can see it in a different format here.
Finally, should you wish, you may find an article on Serjanej and his background, taken from his college alumni magazine, here.
Again, I have never met Serjanej and know little about him save for what I have read on-line. This controversy began when I liked his quotes in the article and used them in a blog piece I wrote on domestic violence and refugees. Like me, Serjanej feels that the prevalence and form of domestic violence can be shaped and affected by culture. Controversy arose, well . . . read the blogs and comments if you wish if you want to know that crazy story. I'm just presenting the documents to provide more background should anyone wish to dig deeper.
Monday, August 17, 2009
He helped me at the furniture van and he's a very likable guy and these days I am teaching him to drive. This means I see him almost once a week or so. A few weeks ago, a group of people I know went out for "Art night," a once a month art festival where local arts of all kinds are displayed and shown off in an interactive manner. This gentleman was among us. With us also were some Chinese graduate students from the local University at Albany, including one who is an enthusiastic amateur photographer.
Here's the Times Union, local news image of a refugee, seemingly sad, unhappy, lost, in need of help. And that's what the article describes and the slant that the reporter put on it.
By contrast, here's the photo of the same person from the Chinese graduate student, someone who had never been told that this man had spent time in a refugee camp and just knew him as a cheerful recent immigrant from Thailand who was accompanying him on an interesting outing. (It's not at all uncommon for refugees to have difficulty identifying what country the come from in simple terms as they usually fled one to another and then came here. Therefore many Burmese refugees, including many Karen, will tell you they are from Thailand if you ask them what country they come from.)
Quite a contrast. Personally, I think the second one is a lot more like the guy I know. Then again, the Burmese refugees I know are all sort of like this. Very friendly, cheerful people who are a lot of fun to meet and joke with but when you poke under the surface and get to know them will tell you stories of deep and terrible tragedies and great losses which have marked their lives. It's an odd mixture that takes a bit of time to get used to.
[Note: I do take issues of confidence seriously. Then again, I also know that X, the gentleman in this picture, loves to see his picture displayed and was very pleased with The Times Union article and having his story told. He's thrilled whenever anyone acknowledges having seen it. I can't imagine this will upset him. ]
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Truth is, I don't know anything about the workshop. No refugee I know has ever attended it or at least spoken to me of it if they did. During the (relatively brief) time I worked at the refugee center I was not aware of the program ever being run. When I saw refugees I knew in a program at the center, I'd later ask them what the program had been and none ever mentioned this one.
I only mentioned it because I was and am concerned about domestic violence among refugees (and other people, too, of course) and, like Artan Serjanej, the former program volunteer and 43 year old former refugee who became an attorney, believe that in some cases the prevalence and forms taken by domestic violence are related to culture and therefore need to be addressed in a manner that takes these cultural differences into account. This is a view that fits in well with my discussions on life, romance, marriage and problems therein with refugees as well as my multi-cultural background.
If the refugees have a real problem with housing discrimination, they haven't told me, but then again the bulk of the refugees I know personally have not lived in one residence and settled down yet long enough to have their own real housing or, if they have, they seem perfectly content to live there and have no problem with their landlord or else own their own place. They've usually been here less than a year and therefore are still occasionally shifting residences as they try to find their niche and their ideal roommates, etc. Although there are many problems with refugee's housing in the USA these tend to be of a much more "logistical" or "mechanical" nature. (i.e. the refugee has more rent than they can comfortably afford or they have some problem because they don't know how to do something involving their house and no one has ever told them how to do it. For instance, when speaking to a landlord a couple months ago, once we established a rapport, he asked me to also check and see if the refugee tenants were using the drain covers in their kitchen sinks. They tended not to use these and then kitchen waste would wash down the drain in unnecessarily large quantities, a situation that will eventually lead to a clogged drain.)
However, there is a nice blog piece on a similar-looking program here. I suggest you look it over. You can check it out if you'd like. You will also note that according to the article the materials for the program had not been translated into Burmese, Karen or Nepali, and these are the three groups that I have been spending the most time around during the last few months.
Should someone wish details on the program, Una was good enough to list the names of contact people who should know if the program is still running so if one really wishes to ask. Also USCRI-Albany does have a facebook page where one can be "friends" with them if one wishes and I'm sure it's an interesting source for sanitized news on the organization. (oddly enough, finding USCRI in the telephone book can be tricky. This was a pet-peeve of mine as my job was, in part,. to get people to call us up and give us things, but then again because the answering end of our phone system had serious problems too, it really didn't make sense to encourage people to call us until after we found an efficient way to answer and process those telephone calls that we were allegedly trying to get people to make.)
(Facebook's computer has suggested more than once that I consider becoming "friends" on facebook with USCRI-Albany (basically by setting up a link on their system). This is a funny idea that I shared with several people I know. To which a relative replied, "You already once tried being friends with USCRI-Albany. It didn't work out." and we all laughed.)
So, if one wishes, you can ask USCRI-Albany about the things they do and they will tell you that they are doing many good things and doing them all quite well. This, however, does not fit in with my experiences with the organization, and one of my criticisms of them is that during my time there the director was often much more concerned with looking good to the general public than doing things well or even assessing whether or not things were being done halfway competently.
If you want an honest, neutral, unsolicited opinion on the refugee center, find someone from Burma who has been in this area for more than five years and ask *THEM* about the performance of the refugee center. They will have had contact with the center. They will have some idea of how they get things done and the manner in which they operate. *DON'T* listen to me. *DON'T* listen to the interns. Just find people from Burma who have been in the area for five years or more and ask them what they *REALLY* think about the refugee center, should you wish to know how it *REALLY* functions.
Therefore, personally, I suggest that people not ask them about programs they may or may not be running if they are merely curious. You will distract them from doing the things they should be doing and that, quite frankly, I know are not always getting done. Furthermore, what I found during my time there that the director was overly concerned with addressing questions from the general public and put these at a higher priority than addressing questions from staff or refugees. So, if you wish to ask, ask, but when you do be aware that you are taking time away from helping people who need it, and that the answers may be slanted towards making the organization look good.
But, let me take some time and discuss both this blog and my personal thoughts on this progam and refugees.
I like to write. I enjoy other cultures. I also have one of those "type-A" hands-on personalities and when I see a problem I consider fixing it and when I can I try to do so. I am an ex-employee and former volunteer at the local refugee center and through this experience came to know many refugees. I am aware of many problems with the center (as stated during my time there I felt it was the worst run place I have ever worked in my life). I know how to do the job I had well (furniture donations director) well and know most people don't have any idea of how this job would work at all. I also know more than many people about what the lives of some refugees are like and some of the things they need. And I am learning what I can about Burmese culture and history and such when I have the time. (Which means that with my background, I literally have several hundred books on China around here, but only about a dozen on Burma. --but this is a dozen more than most people in the USA have read.)
So sometimes I try to share these things here. This is not a dissertation. This is not a book. It's not a journalism piece or even an op-ed piece. This is a blog. It's a rambling, off-the-cuff, disjointed collection of writings on disconnected topics written as much for myself as anyone else that hopefully some people find useful and that, when combined with other sources, will hopefully give them a more complete picture of how refugees live and how refugee resettlement works. (In fact, I probably should work less on this blog and spend more time working on the book I am working on which is actually a popular history of the Peking Man digs.)
My original intent was to focus more on detailed information on how to run a furniture donation and distribution program. In fact, I've got a list of topics around here on the subject that I still haven't gotten around to, but I find that those are not the posts that people read the most often so these days I tend to write about what ever strikes me mood, be it lightbulbs or sneaky, wife-abusing Nepali-Burmese or what have you.
As for the refugees I know, I do not spend time with all refugees everywhere who have come from the Capital District.
Refugees can be very broadly divided into two rough categories. The people who had a fairly well developed standard of living and then lost it, and those who never had a fairly well developed standard of living at any point in their life and thus many things here are new to them.
So, lets say for instance that you have two refugees. I'll base these on real people muddle up all the details.:
Refugee A is a 50 year old woman from Afghanistan who used to teach high school mathematics but lost her position when the Taliban came to power and forbade women to teach. She studied some English in college but doesn't speak it comfortably. As things got even worse she had to flee the country and wound up with her family in the Ukraine for several years before being allowed to come to the United States as a refugee.
Clearly this is an educated person and chances are back in Afghanistan she lived in a house with electricity, a refrigerator and running water and several books and appliances including a radio and television. She probably knows how to use a library and knows where to go to get assistance with problems and has some idea of what legal rights and responsibilities are or should be under most governments.
Refugee B, by contrast, is a 20 year old young Karen man who is from the area of the Thai-Burmese border. When he was 14 his parents paid a couple soldiers of the Karen National Union to take him to Thailand and hand him over to an uncle who was in the refugee camps. There were several motivations for this including fear of him becoming further entangled in the war and the chance to study in Karen language schools in the refugee camp instead of the Burmese language schools in Burma. He probably does not have as much experience with refrigerators and has never owned a television prior to coming to the USA. He does not have anywhere near the familiarity with rights and responsibilities as refugee A nor does he have anywhere near the idea of how to go about recognizing or addressing a discrimination issue or even if such issues an be addressed at all or if instead, like so many things, they must just be accepted and forgotten. He is also much more likely to fall between the cracks of an organization like USCRI-Albany. This is especially the case if he works a job with daytime hours and cannot visit the center during its business hours. (And most of the young Karen refugees I know prefer to work long hours. In fact, I yell at them and remind them that they need to set aside some time to attend English class and plan for their future instead of just trying to earn money all the time or they won't be successful in five years. Part of it I suspect is that they like earning the money, but I also suspect they find working and keeping busy to be a good way to deal with stress. Also, I suspect that as newly arrived outsiders, they prefer environments where they are sure they understand the expectations and work settings tend to be such a place.) Having never had much in the way of fancy housing, emotionally he's perfectly content to live in a small room in someone else's apartment or house or even, in some cases, a bed in a room he shares with others.
Now the second group is the sort of refugee I personally tend to spend more time around. As stated this is the kind of refugee who is not likely to attend a rights and responsibility workshop particularly if he can be working and earning money instead. He is not likely to have housing anyway and instead is renting a single room or even just a bed in the residence of some other Burmese-refugee who has been here longer than he has and is a bit more settled in.
Also such refugees tend to be more optimistic. Chances really are that they will have a much better life here than they would have had at home although no doubt about it things will be difficult here too. And, if they find a ratty old chair on the sidewalk, as some do, and take it home, they will use it and feel happy that they have a chair. By contrast refugee A is remembering that when she was 30 in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over, she had a much nicer house with many nicer chairs than anything that is likely to be found on the sidewalks of Albany. Same for televisions and appliances. Refugee A remembers having better ones and does so with a sense of loss. Refugee B is overjoyed to have them at all, especially since it is his first time owning one.
So, therefore, although I think I have talked to about a dozen or slightly more different refugee individuals in the past week, they were not a carefully-selected, representative cross section.
And the refugees with jobs are usually busy during the day time, the time when the refugee center holds it's programs. And the ones who are more motivated tend to think before attending programs that might or might not be useful.
Additionally, I question many of the statements that have been made about the program in this comments page. It should probably be stated that in my opinion, few refugees will actually come to refugee center and say, "I am being discriminated against." They are much more likely to come to the refugee center, and say, "I need a new place to live. The landlord wants to throw me out."
As for discrimination against refugees, in the past year I only know one refugee who claimed to be discriminated against. He applied for a union job and when he never heard anything said "They must not want Asians." I flipped out, as I don't like people who play the race card and feel sorry for themselves when the fault is their own, and said "No, it's probably that you don't have a high school degree, have limited job experience and don't know anyone in the union or who knows anyone in the union, and if you want the job you should get working on those things." I'd actually spent a lot of time working with him trying to help him address each and every one of these problems and thereby make himself more employable but he rarely followed up on the suggestions I made and instead hoped I could just magically do things somehow for him. The issue was also unnecessarily complicated as I suspect he was lying to me about various actions and accomplishments in his past which meant my suggestions were based on misinformation and thus my advice not very good. And, why yes, he actually was Nepali-Burmese should anyone ask and his last attempt to get ahead in America was based on charging other refugees for car rides while driving them around without a driver's license. (Yeah, I take confidentiality issues seriously, right up to the point where it looks like people are going to get hurt or killed.)
On the other hand, I do think that there is one road test examiner in Albany County who either does not like foreign people or who just plain doesn't like people of any kind. Since I've only heard two reports of his behavior and they both came from South Asian descended refugees, I really can't say what his problem is.