Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Refugee news: Albany, Times Union

From yesterday's Times Union.

It's not a bad piece, although I know the guy featured, he's a friend of mine, and wish it had shown a little more of his grinning, joking, usual self. I mean, everything here is true (except oddly enough he doesn't speak Vietnamese, although he does speak two dialects of Karen --not sure how that happened) but I thought it would be more balanced to show his tough side too. They also omitted that he has a year of college, earned in Thailand, which somehow didn't get mentioned, and was active in student groups in both college and high school, probably because it wasn't shared. I also think it's important to remember that culture shock works in such a way so that this is the point in the process where he's going to be feeling down.

I do think it's important to remember that the refugees who get here are a very small percentage of refugees. They are the lucky ones compared to many of their peers who are still in Asia or stuck in camps or war zones around the globe.

But, anyone who has read much of this blog knows I can sometimes get unnecessarily negative. Perhaps I'm doing it again.


A long way from streets paved with gold
Burmese immigrant finds life far from family and culture has its problems

By SHARON HONG, Staff writer
Click byline for more stories by writer.
First published: Tuesday, April 14, 2009
ALBANY The Burmese young man sat at the small kitchen table in his apartment on Delaware Avenue and stared at an e-mail from his old teacher.

"My dear friend in America," began the letter that wove an account of ramshackle shelters and hungry children. The correspondence arrived unexpectedly from his teacher at the Umpium refugee camp in Thailand.

X the name he uses is a member of the Karen tribe that has long been persecuted by the Burmese government. When X was 13, his parents paid a Karen soldier to let their son accompany him to the Thai border. X lived at the camp for seven years. He came to America in August.

Despite the uncertainty of life there, the camp meant rations, shelter, education and the comfort of being with his own people. The e-mail found X dejected and disappointed. He felt powerless to help the people whose plight he knows well.

"They think here I have two, three jobs and lots of money," X said. "They don't know it's hard to live in the U.S."

After losing one job, he is employed again. Yet in the land of plenty, he wonders if he'd be better off going back to the camp.

While permission to come to this country as a refugee means a chance to start over again, for some life in America has been harder than they expected.

Already at a disadvantage because of language barriers, the newcomers now face a rising tide of laid-off workers looking for jobs in a staggering economy.

"I'm worried about rent, electric bill, phone bill," X said back in January after he'd just been told he was no longer needed at a factory in East Greenbush.

For two months, X went to grocery stores, restaurants and hotels asking if they had any openings. He cut his hair. He'd learned some basic English at the camp and took a few classes locally, but his accent is thick and he suspects it kept him unemployed.

"I tell them I work hard, I am strong," X said, frustrated that lack of fluency masked his ability and intelligence.

Even though he'd never been to school in Burma, he completed his high school equivalency in Umpium, one of nine camps on the border that have sheltered families fleeing Burma and the fighting between its military junta and ethnic minority armies.

At the camp, he also picked up three other East Asian languages Thai, Hmong and Vietnamese on top of his native Karen and Burmese.

Unlike other immigrants, refugees, who have been designated unable to return home for fear of persecution or death, require no special visa for employment or length of stay.

When they are resettled in a community, they receive six months of support for housing and services through a nongovernmental agency like the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants or Catholic Charities. Last year, New York became home to 3,632 refugees of some 60,000 admitted nationwide.

Most of the 224 in and around Albany came from Burma, now called Myanmar.

At Emmaus Methodist Church in Albany, interns from local colleges assist refugees with day-to-day needs and skills training, and volunteers teach English, but competition for work is intense.

"The network is under great strain because when everyone and their cousin is looking for jobs, the supply of good jobs is just gone," the Rev. Denise Stringer said, noting that the most recent arrivals are hit the hardest.

Emmaus' project manager, Francis Sengabo, who checks on refugee families daily, said they are often first on companies' chopping block.

Himself a refugee from Rwanda who has been in Albany since 2007, Sengabo knows of 10 families here for a year who have yet to find and keep a job.

Pushpa Adhikari, head of one of four Bhutanese families in the Capital Region, was prepared to struggle in America. A former social studies teacher and graduate of North Bengal University, Adhikari lived for 18 years in a refugee camp.

"I spent almost all my youth there," said Adhikari, a slim man with large brown eyes. When he opted for resettlement with his wife, grandmother and 4-year-old daughter, he knew he wouldn't get a job teaching right away, so he was ready to face a line of less-than-dream jobs.

Adhikari was hired as a sales associate at Walmart after several visits to the office asking to see the manager.

"The hardest part is showing what potential refugees have that employers don't know," he said. "Simply applying online is not showing that. Face to face, you can talk to me and see how I am."

X now works at the Sealy factory in Rennselaer, where a number of Burmese refugees have found work sewing mattress covers.

The walls of his windowless bedroom are covered with photos from Umpium.

Like most young people his age, X likes hip-hop music, movies and sports, especially soccer. But he doesn't have much free time and it hurts to remember he is here alone.

Some days he is upset and wonders if he'll ever be more than just a worker in a factory. At times, he agrees with the older Burmese couple he has been helping with paperwork that life might be happier back in Thailand less free, but familiar.

Sharon Hong can be reached at 454-5414 or by e-mail at

'Refugees as a Valuable Workforce'

What: Albany Job Service Employer Committee forum

Who: Discussion with Sister Marianne Comfort, refugee services coordinator for Catholic Charities, and Zoeann Murphy, Albany field director, and Bakary Janneh, and Noah Kucij, job developers, for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

When: Wednesday , 8 a.m. registration and breakfast; 8:30-10 a.m. program

Where: Albany Pump Station, 19 Quackenbush Square

Cost: $25. To register, call Cathy Bucci at 462-7600 Ext. 153.

Volunteers wanted

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is looking for translators and volunteers to teach English, mentor refugee families, help set up apartments, and teach skills.

Contact Jen Barkan at 459-1790 or got to the USCRI Web site at

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