Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quick thoughts on Burma, crime, refugees, immigrants.


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

Burmese refugees, Christians, Church and religion

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 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 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

Domestic violence rates, culture and refugees.

It is very difficult sometimes to know how to respond to someone who believes that they are both knowledgeable and correct when one knows them to be wrong. And when they consider their point of view to be morally superior as well, then it is extremely awkward to know how to respond. For better or worse, my initial reaction is to just tell them to go away. There are, however, many problems with such a response and one of them though is that you can bet your booty that no matter how wrong they may be there are others somewhere out there who agree with them.

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,[14] and affects people across society, irrespective of economic status.[6] 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.[15][16] 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%).[17] Some surveys in specific places report figures as high as 50-70% of women surveyed who were ever physically assaulted by an intimate partner.[17] Others, including surveys in the Philippines and Paraguay, report figures as low as 10%.[17] 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).[18] 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.[19] In India, around 70% of women are victims of domestic violence.[20] 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.[21] Up to two-thirds of women in certain communities in Nigeria's Lagos State say they are victims to domestic violence.[22] 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.[23] The rate of intimate partner violence in the U.S. has declined since 1993.[24] 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".[16] 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. [25]

Domestic violence against women in lesbian relationships is about as common as domestic violence against women in heterosexual relationships.[26]"

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.

  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Bachman, Ronet and Linda E. Saltzman (August 1995) (PDFNCJ 154348). Violence against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  3. ^ a b c d References Examining Assaults By Women On Their Spouses Or Male Partners: An Annotated Bibliography
  4. ^ a b c "Ending Violence Against Women - Population Reports" (PDF). Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE). December 1999.
  5. ^ The Interrelationship Between Gender-based Violence and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. (PDF) Journal of International Women's Studies Vol. 6#1, November 2004.
  6. ^ Widespread violence against women in Africa documented. Source: UNFPA.
  7. ^ India tackles domestic violence. BBC News. October 26, 2006.
  8. ^ PAKISTAN: Domestic violence endemic, but awareness slowly rising. IRIN UN. March 11, 2008.
  9. ^ Half of Nigeria's women experience domestic violence. afrol News.
  10. ^ Domestic Violence in Australia—an Overview of the Issues. Parliamentary Library.
  11. ^ "Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. - Overview". Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ 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,


Peter Huston

Yet more on Serjanej and refugee programs

Oh my oh my oh my. Ever have one of those experiences where things suddenly seem to spiral out of control? If you'd like to know what it's like check the last few blogs posts, the ones on refugee issues and domestic violence. But do me a favor please, let's all remember that some refugees are domestic violence victims when we do. Let's remember that the important people in this discussion are not the young idealists or my thoughts on them. The important people are the refugees who are the ones who often need a little bit of special help and assistance when they arrive in this country.

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

Refugee images

Several posts below I included my thoughts on a local newspaper article about a refugee I knew, a young Karen man who came from Burma after several years in a refugee camp in Thailand.

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

Thoughts on refugee programs.

I have been accused of mis-representing and under-respecting something called "Legal Rights and Responsibilities in the United States" workshop which is documented to have been run at the refugee center in the summer of 2008.

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.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Refugees: What exactly is it that you do anyway to help refugees?

Sooner or later, someone is going to read this and say, "Now what exactly is it that this guy does to help refugees anyway?"

This is a valid question so I'll answer it with the project I completed this afternoon.

The story begins about two months ago. I was driving around Albany and spotted two Burmese refugees who used to be my English students sitting at the bus stop. I was in no hurry and had not seen them for a while so I stopped and said "hello." They were glad to see me, just as I was glad to see them so we chatted a bit. They had just come from the refugee center English class but had discovered that it had been canceled after they had arrived. So I gave them a ride to where they were going and we all played catch up. (Should anyone wonder, this conversation was in simple English, simple English being grammatically correct English with the vocabulary, idioms, cultural references and phrasal verbs being carefully chosen. It is distinctly different from broken English or pidgin English, which are said to be inappropriate to speak to foreign people save in the utmost emergency. Although I do not really speak Burmese, one reason these folks like me is because I can occasionally spit out mispronounced phrases in the language and, not only that, but I do so with an accent and frequent mistakes that allows them the chance to cheerfully correct my mistakes and manglings.)

Anyway, turns out one of these people had an important place they wished to go and a transportation problem that made it difficult to get there.

It sounded correctable to me so I said nothing and filed the problem away and later looked into it a little bit.

I figured the worst thing to do was to offer assistance with this problem then screw up and not be able to actually do anything.

So I quietly did some google searches, made some calls, sent away for some information, consulted with some people familiar with this problem, including some bona fide experts as well as a friend who has a disability and cannot drive but still manages to get anywhere he wants to go and has cheerfully done so for almost 20 years with only minor incidents and mishaps. For my purposes, this was an expert.

(Of these minor public transportation related adventures of his, the most exciting, perhaps, was the time he jogged into a bus stop sign at full speed one afternoon and almost knocked himself out, but instead found himself lying on the ground stunned. Fortunately, perhaps, two seeming-to-be-but-perhaps-not-quite good Samaritans picked him up, dazed and banged up, and brought him back to their apartment and promised to nurse him back to good health and then send him on his way. Alas, however, it turned out they were devious sodomites and instead, as he lay on their couch trying to regain his wits, they popped some Gay porn into their VCR. When the images appeared on their living room television screen, he responded. "Hey guys!" he screamed, "This isn't what I'm into!" and with that he then jumped up off their couch and ran out their door and jogged back to the bus stop, this time managing to avoid hitting the bus stop sign pole as he did and soon making his way back onto the bus and eventually making his way home, unscathed and safe from the salacious fondlings of the twin devious sodomites who had attempted to besmirch his virtue in his hour of desperation and need. For clarification, this gentleman-expert is not a refugee. He's lived his whole life in the USA, but, interestingly, his great-uncle on his mother's side was, in fact, a refugee from Palestine, an area he's studied extensively. Note: I actually have a lot of Gay friends, but they are not devious sodomites. They are good hearted and benevolent sodomites.)

So, after several weeks of work I was now fully prepared to address this refugee's transportation problem. I had a plan, I had a back-up plan if that failed, I had a long range plan to prevent future outbreaks of the problem ever again, and I had exciting and truly neat information that was peripheral to these plans but should make the person happy. I also had a few phone numbers to call if these plans got stuck at any point. I paper clipped the pieces all together in appropriate ways and placed it in a big orange folder pocket that I had bought at Walmart for 59 cents.

In the meantime, I saw the refugees with the problem again, when I bumped into them at a Burmese event in Rensselaer as I was dropping off one of my driving students after a driving lesson. I discussed the transportation problem with a relative of the person and decided that there was indeed a problem there and it was fixable.

So, prepared and ready, I called up the refugee and asked if I could visit. They eagerly agreed. So my friend and I came together and hung out with a few members of the family.

They had a nice apartment in a run down neighborhood. It was nice and clean. This family had been here for over a year, so they had several appliances and such, including a nice looking computer. On the computer they were watching a Burmese film using skype.

When the time seemed right, we addressed the problem, only to find out that it had already been addressed by true professionals from somewhere in Albany (not the refugee center) and was on its way to being fixed already. Good news for them but a little embarrassing for me and my friend.

So we hung out for a couple hours and gave them the peripheral information that I'd uncovered, which I think they enjoyed and found interesting, and taught them such important things as the fact that there was an Alive at Five music series each Thursday in Albany during the summer with free concerts and that the Albany Institute of History and Art not only existed but that it had a pair of Egyptian mummies on exhibit included a mummified cat. These people are, after all, new in this country so it's important that someone give them such vital information. There are, after all, dozens of Burmese refugees who do not realize that they are living within just a few miles or less of a genuine millenia-old, mummified Egyptian cat. And they don't even know the channels to go through to find out this information!

(We opted not to tell them the story of the time my friend ran into the stop sign and was shown Gay porn because, well, because it's just plain a stupid story and it would be dumb to tell it. I do have some class, after all. Not much, but a little.)

In return for this vital information they gave us slices of fresh fruit and iced tea which was very nice.

Then we decided to go our separate ways but before we left, they sprung something on us. "Hey, while you're here, what is this thing anyway?" and handed us a slip of paper. Turned out it was a three month old prescription for medication. Since they hadn't understood what it was, they'd never bothered to do anything with it, but had just placed it in a drawer suspecting it might be important someday. I got on their computer, discovered the medication could be quite important indeed, and then told them that it was a prescription, using my Burmese dictionary to explain the point.

We told them that they should discuss the situation with the doctor very soon and in the future take all prescriptions to the pharmacy. If the pharmacy refused to fill the prescription, then they should ask the pharmacy why and take the matter seriously.

We made sure they understood these procedures, gave clarifying examples and then as they thanked us said good bye and went on our way.

This is a typical thing that happens when one tries to help refugees. You show up for one problem, discover things are not as you thought they were, have some pleasant times hanging out, everything looks cool and then you stumble across something else that just seems completely to come out of nowhere and has some potentially catastrophic problems somewhere down the line.

So that's the result of my latest project to help refugees. Not glamorous perhaps, but that's the sort of thing I try to do when I can.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Refugees, Rambo and the Funniest Domestic Violence films of all time.

Author's note: I'm starting to over-post and go in to competition with myself. If you haven't read it yet, please read two posts below as it contains much more vital and basic information on dealing with refugees and domestic violence that is difficult to obtain. This post is about half silly and half serious but contains very little useful information on domestic violence and refugees.

Good news! I got a call today and things are moving along much better in the domestic violence case that was eating me up. The worst behaviors are gone and the people are in place to straighten things out. Life is good. So I can stop acting like a crazy person.

(Hint: How to know Pete's upset. First, he overeats, then he smokes, then he pukes and coughs because he has no tolerance for cigarettes, then he lights up another one wondering why he is doing this because he really doesn't like cigarettes and they make him sick, and then he gets this hacking cough and pukes up his lunch because he coughed so much and then feels tired all the time because cigarettes also leave him drained. Yes, it's a subtle bunch of clues, but if you watch carefully you might note them during these rare periods.) So that's a good thing, a very good thing. If nothing else, I can stop puking, coughing and buying Marlboros at the incredible price of $8.00 a pack. (Actually I stopped doing this a week ago, but there was a period during this time when I did it.)

Which means that now it's time to sit back and relax a bit. And, sometimes, I relax by writing.

I mentioned earlier that in societies where arranged marriages and such are common, then often there is enough of a community and family structure that should domestic violence occur members of the community often intervene. As mentioned previously, I am an intellectual with a great deal of education and cross cultural knowledge. My depth and expertise in the intricacies of Asian cultures is superb.

And how did I get this vast knowledge? Well, in no small part by watching fine films like this one: "Shaolin Challenges Ninja" or "Heroes of the East." (should you click this link make sure you watch the last quarter of this lengthy film trailer. Its integral for understanding and getting the feel for what comes next.)

Although some say that Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the funniest domestic violence film ever made, my vote goes to this film. Should you wish more details check here or here. (As an aside, I have been told that it is possible for Burmese refugees sitting in refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand to receive enough international media to actually keep up on the gossip about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. And some do. Scary isn't it?

What movies do refugees watch? Sometimes they watch these terrible Korean movies with the dialogue in Korean and the subtitles in Burmese. In another apartment I know, right smack dab in the midst of Albany's scariest neighborhood, live a Karen family and every time I visit the TV has on these Karen language, nationalist patriotic films. But if there's one movie that Burmese refugees seem to love it's Rambo 4, the latest installment in the Rambo series, this is the one where Rambo goes in to Burma and assists the Karen people and rescues an attractive missionary, destroying large elements of the Burmese army in the process. (In fact, the film set a record of sorts for sheer quantity of cinematic mayhem and has the most on-screen killing of people by the Rambo character of any film in this bloody series yet. And to make it even better, there's even a scene where our hero, John Rambo, taunts some Burmese soldiers in Burmese. Multiple refugees have told me it's great and I must see it. So far, I've avoided this social obligation, but I'm not sure how long I can hold out. Refugees have also told me that it is a criminal offense punishable by several years imprisonment to watch Rambo 4 in Burma (Myanmar.) (Some of them are also trying to find me a wife too. I resist this as well, as they often seem to wish to skip the getting-to-know-one-another-before-making-a-commitment part of the romance that us silly, crazy, sexually immoral Westerners find so important. I'm sorry, call me wacky, but I just don't believe in commitment before the first date. Actually, I'm not sure which is scarier --watching "Rambo 4" or getting married to a woman I barely know. Depends if she's cute, I guess.)

Which brings me back to "Shaolin Challenges Ninja" or "Heroes of the East."

The plot of this fine film begins with a Chinese man, a man who later turns out to be a kung fu master, hiding in bed. He is fearful because his father has arranged a marriage for him, today is his wedding day, the bride has arrived from Japan and he is fearful she could be quite ugly. Fortunately his friend scouts things out and tells him that the Japanese bride-to-be is actually quite beautiful so he stops faking illness and opts to attend his own wedding ceremony.

Married life works out for our hero, at least up until the rumors begin to fly that he is beating his wife. "But I never beat my wife!" he proclaims. But his father has come to visit, to lecture him on the evils of beating his wife, because it is said, everyone has heard him beating his wife. "But I don't," he says. "I really don't."

Turns out his wife has been practicing Japanese karate in the backyard and doing so rather loudly, making great yelling, crashing and screaming sounds in the backyard when our hero is not around. She also likes to karate chop the heads off of the stone statues in the backyard, each time screaming loudly as she does it.

"Stop it," he cries. "When you do this Japanese karate people think I beat you. You must do Chinese kung fu instead." And he demonstrates the flowing silent Chinese martial arts. "Japanese Karate is not lady-like and besides the Chinese martial arts really are superior to the Japanese ones anyway."

Ooops! Bad thing to say. Next thing you know she's trying to force him to prove it and chasing him all around the house trying to punch and kick him to prove her nation's karate can beat his nation's kung fun.

Well, he shows her, naturally, but then they have to decide which nation's sword arts are superior so they chase each other with swords. Then come the Chinese versus Japanese spear arts, all up and down the stairways with the lovely young newlyweds chasing each other, shouting, taunting and poking and swinging with their spears.

Then come bows and arrows,darts, other martial arts weapons and finally, still trying to one-up him in this contest, she booby traps the entire house to prove the superiority of Japanese ninjutsu over the Chinese martial arts. Well when our hero sets off a boobytrap in his own house and the spears on wires fly across the room, forcing him to narrowly dodge this deadly attack, while, his wife, dressed in a ninja suit, jumps out and giggles about how this is Japanese ninjutsu, he gets a mite upset and tells her, "We Chinese have a name for this too! We call it murder and we think it's dishonorable."

"Why I never," she cries. "You called me dishonorable! I'm going home to mother!" and she storms out of the house and goes back to Japan.

Of course, true love can overcome an obstacle like this. So our hero pines and mopes and tells all his friends how much he misses her. "What do I do?" he says. "I miss her. How do I get her back?"

"Well," they say "write her a letter. And in it tell her that Japanese martial arts are just cheap copies of the much older Chinese martial arts."

"Good idea," he cries, and starts writing.

Ooops! Plan backfires, wife shows up but also along for the ride are a group of Japanese martial arts masters intent on punishing him for this insult. As they say in the writing business, "complications ensue." Ultimately however, both true love and Chinese martial arts triumph over all obstacles.

It's really a great movie, and, as I stated, one of the funniest domestic violence films ever made. Probably even better than Rambo 4.

Refugees, domestic violence, young activists and controversy.

Author's note: I'm starting to over-post and go in to competition with myself. If you haven't read it yet, please read the post below as it contains much more vital and basic information on dealing with refugees and domestic violence that is difficult to obtain. This post basically criticizes past refugee center policies.

As I've mentioned on this blog, one problem with the local refugee center is that many vital positions (and others) are staffed by young college interns who leave their position about the time they become competent at their position. Another implication of this problem is that most Americans and other persons from the developed world do not really understand refugees and who they are and how they think and what they want until they've been around them for a while, which is about the time they leave their position. Not to mention the fact that although people at this point in life are full of energy, idealism and enthusiastic, they often don't quite understand the world or older people, much less older people from a different culture.

Therefore they have a tendency to offer refugees things that they think are important and that they think a refugee should want and not necessarily the things that a refugee actually wants. i.e. poetry lessons being the ultimate example, when offered to people who need jobs, driver's licenses, a basic understanding of American society and bureaucracy, as well as a functional level of English language ability. (For the record, in my experience, the refugees really don't mind these programs. They see them as a chance to do something interesting and practice their English with a friendly American, but that does not mean that these classes are the best use of their time or that they are what they really need.)

Now Americans tend to be very ethnocentric, idealistic people and therefore the way they deal with people who tell them things they don't wish to hear, particularly if these things don't fit their ethnocentric ideals is often interesting. At times, they will go so far as to argue with people about things they know nothing about if these people have experiences that don't meet their idealistic view of the world.

For instance, when I was in my early 20's I went through my Quaker, peace-activist, save-the-world-from-war, all-people-want-peace, USA-is-the-source-of-all-evil-and-I-am-so-ashamed-because-of-it phase. For better or worse, however, at that point I went off to Taiwan and soon found myself in situations and meeting people whose thinking just didn't fit my preconceived notions of how the world should work. These were not just the Asians who were quite eager to go to war and bomb each other (i.e. this was back in the day when some Taiwanese would still lobby for retaking the mainland, and, of course, the Koreans were often perfectly willing to go at it again) but it didn't help either that at the time Taiwan was being used as a training center for persons engaged in combating or preparing to combat the Sandinistas and were therefore directly on the side of the people who I had thought were the "bad guys" in this conflict in which the United States was very much involved. And they were thanking me as a US citizen for providing them with the very assistance that I had protested against just a few months before.

Which meant that I was forced to undergo some painful growth. Alas! Painful growth sucks, it really does, its painful, disillusioning and unpleasant, but, to quote from Richard Ryan, the self defense author, "if you don't acknowledge reality than reality will work against you." So, like so many times in life, you get knocked down, spiritually in this case, and then pick yourself up and trudge ahead once again only with a slightly different perspective.

Which brings us back to this silly issue:

Artan Serjanej was a 43 year old former refugee who put himself through law school and then volunteered at the local refugee center to teach refugees about their rights in the USA as well as the importance of not beating one's wife or dog.

He made some comments to the local newspaper to the effect that some refugee men came from places like he came from (the Muslim country of Albania), where it was acceptable to beat one's wife or children and that therefore he was doing his best to tell them it wasn't acceptable here and keep them out of trouble.

Sadly, the Daily Gazette in Schenectady now has a paid-only reading policy but if you'd like you can read the comments he was quoted as making here at Refugee Resettlement Watch: HERE! Now, Refugee Resettlement Watch is an interesting blog that contains much useful information but they clearly have an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda.* Therefore this article is also mixed in with the bloggist's interesting but not necessarily very nice comments.

Here's some quotes:

“I’m trying to change their idea of what it means to be a man,” he said. “These people are coming from a very patriarchal [read: Islamic] society. The man of the house is the man of the house.”

Serjanej said he understands these attitudes and why the men have them.

“Albania is a very patriarchal [Islamic] society,” he said. “When I was growing up, once in a while my dad would get physically violent with me. We didn’t have a Department of Social Services. Women had no way to complain [about abuse], and it was socially unacceptable for them to do so.”

He said one of the things he tells the men who attend his workshops is that even if their wives do not complain to the police, other people might.

“Even if the wife is silent, outsiders can call the police,” he said.

“I tell them that if you get upset, you cannot use your hands,” Serjanej continued. “I tell them that you can only talk and that you should talk in a quiet voice. A real man doesn’t have to get physical. I try to convey that they can use their mouth and voice and be respected in this country by all."


It does look like although Serjanej's comments are undoubtedly the truth as he sees it, and I'm quite inclined to accept his opinion in this matter as he undoubtedly knows more about Albanian culture than I do, they could have been better chosen.

In response to these comments, Una Hardester, 22 year old idealist activist, and her companions, insisted that since Serjanej's comments should not have been voiced as they were not consistent with the view of the world or the view of refugees that they wished to promote. Therefore they did not invite him back to participate in any more programs. Their programs were now sanitized and politically correct. The cultural gap between some refugees and the young American activist community was again preserved! Oooooh Rah! Mission accomplished!

* Oh those wacky Muslims. What will one ever do with them? It's so dog gone easy to just view Islam as one of many of the world's great religions and treat it as such, acknowledging that its believers include both good and bad. And, in fact, that's why the week of September 11, 2001 I suggested to the WRPI radio community, of which I was a member and a non-commerical DJ that we do something as a radio station to try to reduce the possibility of an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence or hatred. (This was after I made six calls to see if I could go down to NYC and help. There were so many people from around here who wanted to go down to NYC and help that week that we were being turned away in droves. In fact, many people I knew who went to help found the site so overloaded that all they could do was stand around and look respectful and take their hats off when another body was pulled out of the rubble. But as for me, I was on the radio invited by members of the RPI Muslim Student group to discuss the event in the context of local Muslims. I was helpful, I was good, I asked the tough questions that others were scared to ask. (i.e. Q: "Okay, so you say the Koran forbids acts such as this one, but clearly someone believed that he was doing this for the Koran and Islam, How would you respond?" Them. A: "Anyone who crashes an airplane into a building full of innocent men, women and children and thinks he's doing it for God has moire serious problems than his religion." -excellent answer. Alas, however, it was soon after that they blew most of their good will with me when they began sending me idiotic e-mails blaming the September 11, 2001 tragedly on an Israeli conspiracy. F-ing morons. They just couldn't grasp the fact that although I think it's stupid for their sister to wish to walk to class at engineering school dressed in an outfit that looks like a black gunny sack, as an American, I will support her right to do so in safety.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yet more on domestic violence, South Asians and refugees.

First, let me say right now I do not consider myself an expert on refugees and domestic violence. No way! I admit to occasional arrogance but not in this case. (Nothing quite as scary as doing a google search on a subject you know nothing about and discovering your own blog post among the top dozen entries. Ouch!)

As stated, domestic violence is a tricky issue. And when it involves refugees (or other immigrant groups) it becomes even more complex.

Fortunately, refugees unlike many other immigrant women do not need to worry about their legal status or the need for sponsorship from a spouse in order to stay in this country. (Refugees receive an I-95 visa, which allows them to stay in this country and ultimately receive a green card and apply for citizenship. Therefore, their status in this country is generally not dependent on remaining with their spouse, an issue that complicates some domestic violence issues.)

However, the issue is still not simple. There are language and cultural barriers. Many people have no idea of how to communicate with refugees. They throw around terms in front of them like "order of protection" when the refugee has no idea what the concept even refers to. They begin speaking without establishing communication or rapport first. Even if an interpreter is not available, then there are some ways that are better than others to communicate. i.e. keep things simple, assume no common culture unless it's established that there is one, use vocabulary that the person knows, avoid technical terms, idioms or phrasal verbs (a phrasal verb is a two word compound word with a special meaning like "going out" or finding out" or "looking up"), repeat things back to them, have them repeat things back to you.

As for prevalence of the problem, this is probably quite difficult to say. Definitions of domestic violence vary widely and often people who are in a domestic violence situation don't realize it. Therefore defining and recognizing the problem, a first step before any quantitative measurement can take place, is quite difficult.

And specifically measuring the problem among refugees is extra difficult. They tend to sort of live on the margins of society and often don't communicate or interact well with the rest of us. When they do, they often aren't quite sure what we wish to hear and furthermore are not terribly likely to just blurt out family problems unless really, really desperate. Even when documented cases take place, like this one a sample of one is statistically insignificant. It means nothing. (Rumor is he thought his wife had an affair. Is this in any way significantly linked to the fact that they are Burmese? Not in any way I know.)

And among the mainstream culture, the people who spend the most time around refugees are often fearful of making them look bad because there are always some people out there who are anti-immigrant or racist or fearful of their jobs or what have you and one does not wish to fuel those fires.

For instance, a couple posts down I wrote an op-ed piece about the problems refugees have learning to drive and how some of them drive without licenses. I did my best to group Chinese graduate students in there in order not to make local refugees look bad. (At this point, however, I'm sick of it. As mentioned of the eight Nepali-Burmese I know, three have driven without drivers licenses and two continue to do so regularly. And did I mention that two of them owe their former roommates sums of money of a hundred dollars or more and are making no effort to pay it? These people are a public health threat.)

But anyway, I was writing about domestic violence, a subject I admitted that I knew very little about.

When one knows very little, research is always a good thing. With that in mind, I read the following article. "Domestic Violence in South Asian Communities in America: Advocacy and Intervention," by Amita Bhandari Preisser. It was pulbished in the academic journal "Violence Against Women," 1999: 5: 684-699, which I access through the University at Albany's databases.

It's an interesting article and describes the formation of an organization called ASHA, the Asian Women's Self-Help Association, which is based in the Washington DC Area. It describes the formation of this organization and its work on domestic violence issues among South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali and members of the South Asian diaspora) people. I do not have any first hand information on this organization and have never had any contact with it. Therefore I am merely repeating what the article says, and at times with my own interpretation. Of course, those with a strong interest in the subject would do well to read the article itself.

First, an aside. (Always an aside.) As stated, not all cultures are the same. Nor are they inherently equal. And sense of guilt and shame are often culturally based. If you read your old testament there is at times a sense that a person commits sin even if they did not willingly choose to commit the act. The same is true in traditional Chinese culture. In other words, the act itself is bad and shameful even if the person had no choice in whether or not it was committed or was forced into doing it. For instance, in traditional Confucian cultures, such as China and Korea, the response to rape was often suicide by the victim. This is because being raped is shameful in these cultures. In our culture, we believe that the shame should not lie with the victim, but, as stated not all cultures see things the same way.

As an aside, when I write about other cultures I tend to use China-oriented examples to make points. Although Chinese are not terribly common among refugees, they are a very different culture that I have great familiarity with so I find them useful for making examples to sort of give people the perspective I wish them to have.

As I understand it, in South Asian cultures the family is important. Of course, this could largely be a sham, one of those lies cultures tell to outsiders so often that they come to believe it themselves, but that's the assertion. (I mean in Taiwan, family is said to be important and what that really means is that the wife is not supposed to complain when her husband hangs out in brothels or that the children are supposed to question when their parents say stupid things. But if one is willing to put up with all this there will always be a network of people who will take you in and assist you. Go family! Remember a strong family is not necessarily a good thing. Yet they still insist their family structure is superior to ours because most American women would get a divorce if their husband hung out in brothels. Does this make their family structure stronger or just show lower standards? You decide.)

It also needs to be said that in Chinese, and presumably South Asian, cultures admitting a problem can be a shameful thing. Therefore few do it. And the people who do, and thus bring shame on their group, are often ostracized because of it.

Which is why, for instance, you can still get situations like when a Chinese graduate student, PhD candidate studying in Albany told me that there was no domestic violence in China. (This is bullsh*t. There's lots of domestic violence in Chinese culture.) Instead of acknowledging a problem, the initial reaction is to hide it and therefore save face and keep up public appearances.

By contrast, here in America we have a tendency to actually seek out problems, publicize them and then see this as an important first step towards fixing them. American society is full of activist types. And these types just love to tell you about the problems they have discovered, particularly if they think they can get you to help them fix them. In fact, a friend of mine is a college professor and states that one of the things he really enjoys about being on a campus is constant exposure to nineteen year olds who have just learned the world is not fair, and wish to tell everyone they know about it and try to correct this lack of fairness. No matter what the cause is, there is someone in America who wishes to publicize it. It's part of our society and it's part of what makes this country great.

(And, yes, perhaps I was mean to Una Hardester. Then again, she did mis-state at least one set of facts in her post, something I think she'd want to be careful about. But the world needs young, self-important activist types determined to fix things even if they do take themselves much too seriously sometimes. When I was her age, I was busy trying to save the world from nuclear war and keep the US out of Central America, and I took these causes and myself much too seriously too. Hey Una, remember the Contras? Does the name Eden Pastora ring any bells? The acronym MAD? And if so what about Biafra? No matter. The problem with such types is, of course, when they live in a fantasy world and expect the rest of us to live there too. If that happens nothing ever gets fixed. Personally I avoid causes these days. Want to make the world a better place? Just find a refugee who needs help buying a cell-phone and take him to the mall and help him figure out the contract. When you do, you might even get to hear some bizarre story about cooking curried bear meat over a campfire in the woods of SE Asia. It's much simpler than attending meetings and listening to jargon and watching frustrated politicians and young activist types compete with one another to see who can be taken the most seriously. And if it makes her critics pause and think, well although I think I've only seen Una Hardester in person a few times, she's always looked noticeably unhappy when I've seen her.)

Which brings me back to the article on South Asian Domestic Violence.

Here's some excerpts of significant portions, with my thoughts in parentheses.:

1) sense of shame in admitting the problem. (Undoubtedly there's a culture aspect here but one also wonders if anyone has tried to tie domestic violence issues in with Stockholm syndrome? And there's that bizarre mentality of "I am truly a superior human being because I am martyring myself so much for this relationship and marriage" which is occasionally seen, too.)

2) Examples of husbands seizing the wife's assets and not letting her use them because "he knows how to manage the money better."

3) Pressure from other women within the community to remain in the relationship "for the sake of the children." (Is it really in the children's best interest to live in an environment where their mother gets victimized?)

4) maintaining silence. Shame in taking action such as having the abusive spouse removed from the house.

5) Husband using finances to control the wife.

6) Fear of authorities, partially because of the cultural gap.

7) Counseling and intervention strategies need to be culturally appropriate.

8) Quote: "Providing competent services requires clarification of issues and the use of a much more comprehensive definition of domestic violence in the South Asian context. Domestic violence against South Asian women is embedded in the contxt of cultural, historical and economic relationships. The force of class, caste, intrafamily structures, religion, immigrant status, and economic status all have elements of control, which could be directed at women." (from page 692 of the article.)

9) Quote: "In the South Asian community, domestic violence occurs not simply between a woman and her spouse but between a woman, her spouse, in-laws, and the community at large. One reason for this may be that certain practices and traditions have legitimized the subordination of women to elders in South Asian cultures. A woman may subscribe to this value system and not consider it negative in the normal course of life. But when abused, issues such as obedience to family elders, upholding of family honor, fear of losing children and dictates of religious practices may influence her to suffer in silence rather than seek help. The experience of violence of a South Asian woman includes coercion, exploitation, ostracism, and discrimination within her family and the community." (also from page 692 of the article.)

10) Perpetrators include such persons as sister-in-law, mother-in-law and brother-in-laws.

11) abuse includes not just physical but also economic abuse. Also common is emotional abuse centered around control. Article lists isolation, coercion, threats, intimidation, belittling and insulting in public as well as using children to manipulate

Also not stated in the article, is that in some communities where institutions such as arranged marriages occur, often the strong sense of community and extended family and fear of reputational harm can actually curb incidents of domestic violence. When it occurs someone steps in, someone respected, and often says that the behavior is not acceptable and should stop and be discussed. However in America, among refugees and other immigrant, at times, this sense of community breaks down. What goes on behind closed doors remains hidden.(Actually this is mentioned on page 694, although I had missed it when I read the article the first time.)

The article also includes a list of 18 social service strategies as well as 15 legal intervention strategies.

For a full lists, see the article. Here's some excerpts.:

Social Service Intervention Strategies.
a) recognize the multidimensional nature of the problem
b) understand her natal family is often back home and she is seeking help because she has run out of resources
c) understand emphasis of kinship issues
d) understand communication patterns are different
e) understand roots of fear, reluctance or seeming lack of trust in formal institutions
f) issues of identity, privacy, marriage, dowry, caste, religion, child rearing, collective sense of identity, role and structure of family life all need to be taken into account
g) identify for her your roles as service provider, explain the extent to whcih you can assist her and your limitations

Legal intervention strategies
a) understand the familial authority relationships, gender and generational, and their role in the abuse
b) provide both criminal and civil remedies
c)provide all elgal options and consequences and an understanding of hte US legal system
d) monitor court cases and the role of the police
e) develop a kinship relationship with the woman to enhance communication. Do not mistake her silence for passivity. It takes a long time to build trust.

In conclusion, in my opinion, the article is well worth reading.