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.


  1. This is Una Hardester, commenting as a private individual and not on behalf of USCRI Albany.

    (Such a disclaimer is a good idea for liability purposes, Peter. I know you do not believe I am commenting on behalf of USCRI.)

    - Many Burmese and Karen refugees attended the Rights and Responsibilities workshops. Erika and I ensured that the project was well documented every step of the way, and reported to the program officer at the head office in Virginia; this included taking attendance at each and every workshop. I will not name the participants here, because, unlike you, I understand the responsibility of even former employees to exercise discretion.

    - Most of the discrimination complaints did not come from the Burmese and Karen communities, though at least one I can remember did.

    - You are right about one thing --it is a rare refugee who will go to her or his case manager and say, "I am being discriminated against." Instead, she or he will simply explain her or his predicament matter-of-factly. In doing so, she or he will often detail an instance of discrimination without using the word itself. I should note, however, that several refugees were quite aware of the discrimination they faced and were pro-active about seeking information on avenues of recourse.

    One example: there was a landlord who consistently lied to refugees from a particular national group when they inquired about apartments for rent. The landlord would tell these refugees that the apartments were already rented when, in fact, they were not yet rented. This is a pernicious and sadly common tactic that affects the ability of not only refugees and immigrants to obtain housing, but non-white Americans, GLBT persons, person with disabilities, and the poor.

    In another instance, a landlord increased the security deposit she requested from a refugee when she learned that the prospective tenant was Muslim --and this landlord was foolish enough to give her religious prejudice as the rationale for the higher requested deposit.

    In yet another example, a landlord rationalized his failure to fix a serious infrastructure problem in a home rented by a family of refugees by telling me that, even though he was obligated to fix the problem, his tenants were surely enjoying conditions superior to those they experienced in their home country or in the refugee camp where they spent several years.

    - Every complaint was investigated and the relevant details compared to the letter of state and federal law, with the advice of legal experts when necessary. This was an objective process, and USCRI staff sought to educate refugees about the difference between ordinary misfortune and illegal discrimination.

    And, as I commented before, you would be wise to get more details from the person running the follow-up to the Rights and Responsibilities project, Erika Hague.

  2. Thank you. It is wonderful that you are so dedicated to your programs and working towards improving the condition of so many people. Should I ever try to disseminate detailed, authoritative information on this program (or any other for that matter) I will do my best to do more research and contact the appropriate persons, such as, in this case Erika Hague. (Although I can't help but wonder how she would respond to such a request for information from me. Actually my opinion on Erika is pretty good although I never actually interacted with her much during my time with the center as our positions didn't really interact in any way. She never, for instance, lost the keys I needed, put me in impossible situations or made commitments to me that weren't kept.)

    As for the issue of confidentiality, as I said, first I keep it right up to the point where people start being hurt or endangered and that line has been crossed by several Nepali-Burmese in this area. Furthermore, I have dealt with those people as a private citizen and not as an official volunteer. If I were an official volunteer, then I would have other tools to try and restrain the dangerous, anti-social acts of this small group of eight people. Perhaps when I am satisfied that they do not beat their wives, drive badly without licenses or walk up to women at the bus station and tell them how large their penis is, then I may go back and remove references to them. (Yes, it is petty. But they are committing seriously bad acts, both to the general public and to each other, and this measly blog is one of the few tools I have to try and get attention on the matter. Actually I considered removing some of the comments I made about you, but then your counter comments would be without context so I guess I have to just look stupid for eternity. Fortunately, I've looked that way before.)

    In the meantime, should a South Asian looking man sexually harass you at the bus stop, well, and he prove to be Nepali-Burmese, remember I tried to put a stop to it in what small way I could. (Actually this is unlikely as he seems to be scared of White people and only does this to other refugees. Ask refugee women. They might be able to point him out to you.)

    By the way, I try to keep all people's names out of this blog for several reasons. That includes both refugee workers as well as refugees, even those I have positive views on. As you of all people know, the internet is a powerful tool in which one can access much more information on individuals than is really comfortable or should probably be the case. In some ways this is a shame as I think it would be much more interesting if I could write in more detail about the refugees I know and what their lives are like and let the general public know them a little bit better but that would undoubtedly be a true violation of privacy.

    Peter Huston