Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Refugees and higher education, Part Two.

To continue from below, many refugees wish to go to school.

To do this one must first assess their educational level.

This can be surprisingly difficult. Refugees, virtually by definition, have had complicated and interesting lives marked by instability. Secondly, sometimes they lie a lot. (Shhh! Save the PC rebuttals. They will be ignored.) Sometimes refugees lie to ensure the safety of loved ones at home or protect themselves from persecution. Other times they lie for personal advantage. I won't go into the motivations here. Just please understand that often what is claimed as educational background is not necesarily what actually exists.

Therefore let's just sort of divide refugees into general eduational categories:

1) Never finished high school anywhere and admits it.
2) Never finished high school but claims they did but says the documents have been lost.
3) Finished high school and the documents have been lost.
4) Finished high school and has the diploma but no transcripts.
5) Finished high school and has the diploman and acceptable, proper transcripts.
6) Attended college but denies it due to an identity change.
7) Attended college and has the documents to prove it.

Although in theory it is possible to obtain an American-quality GED at some places abroad, this is only rarely done. (Curiously it can be done in Thailand and is sometimes done by citizens of Burma who arrive in Thailand to attend college but who have not finished Burmese high school. My understanding is that this is normally done by Burmese from the higher levels of society and not by refugees. Still, it is possible.) Therefore this article will assume that we are speaking of refugees who have not earned an American GED or finished attending an American high school.

I've ignored any issues involving forged educational documents. Probably it has happened but I haven't seen it. (Although in the '80s, a surprising number of the Americans I knew teaching English in Asia were using forged documents, I don't think it happens too much with the refugees I know.)

In my next installment, I will dicuss the implications of these categories and how to use the information to get these people into school and get their lives moving ahead the way people wish them to.

Who's who in Southeast Asia.

As stated elsewhere on this blog, Burma (Myanmar) is a very complex country. It has over a hundred languages and multiple ethnic groups.

Many of these ethnic groups overlap with those of bordering countries. Due to their obscurity, these groups often have multiple names. In fact, defining the ethnicity of some groups in this region is surprisingly complex and to many of the people who we outsiders with an interest in the region consider to be linked or similiar do not see one another as terribly connected. Karen nationalism, for instance, did not exist prior to contact with the Western world and probably grew largely out of this interaction.

However, it is indisputable that some of thse groups have representatives on both sides of the border between China and Burma.

Therefore here's a quick guide


Wa = Wa
Kachin = Jin Po
Shan = Dai
Chin = Yi (Lolo)
Karen = Zheng

Source: Personal communication from a Cornell Anthropology Graduate Student who, honestly, was speaking without consulting their books or sources.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Entrepeneurialism and Burmese refugees

Recently I crossed paths with some Burmese refugees I know. [For those who try to eep track of such things, they were ethnically Burmese Muslims, but from what I've seen pretty mellow Muslims and I've enjoyed my contact with them.] They were quite excited as they were in the process of opening a small grocery store, sort of a mom and pop urban corner grocery, but specializing in goods either imported from Thailand, where they had spent time in a refugee camp, or else the sort of products that Burmese refugees wish to buy for their cooking. (i.e. fish sauce, shallots, ginger root, the sorts of things one often needs to go to a specialty store to purchase at the best price and quality.)
Of course, I was curious and anxious to see this, but it took me a few weeks to get around to visiting the store, which was located on an obscure side street in Albany, and checking it out.
Sadly when I got there, the store had been closed down by the authorities. There were two "Cease and desist" notices on the door from the city authorities stating that the store had to be closed down because it had violated a city ordinance on "banner signs" and also construction had been taking place without a building permit. Inside, however, were all the goods awaiting sale.
I tried to find the owners and talk to them but I was not able to do so. I did find their apartment, but they were out. I have no idea what the plan at this point is but it should be interesting to see.
Alas! Although we like to see America as the land of freedom and opportunity, compared with much of Asia and the third world it is more difficult to start a business here without running afoul of the authorities. Our freedom, although important, manifests itself largely in areas directly stated in the constitution and perceived as being linked to keeping our democratic processes alive. For instance, and I say this with no judgement, our right to criticize the authorities, publish what we wish and own firearms, all of which are arguably linked towards the need to keep an eye on the authorities, are substantially greater than that of most nations. However, if you wish to start a business in the United States, particularly New York state, it is not a bad idea to consult with an attorney first to check which laws one might run afoul of.
It is very difficult for someone arriving from a less developed nation with a more open system of market economy to quite grasp what is expected here.
I have mentioned elsewhere that one problem within the Burmese refugee community is driving without drivers licenses. --and I say this as someone who has put life, car and time on the line to try to teach many of them to drive. Not terribly long ago, I had a driving student who was unable to pass the road test (he was not able to grasp certain concepts like choice of lane and used to freeze up and panic when faced with the road test. Being an educator, I consulted another educator on the best way to build up his confidence and reduce his panic and we agreed that the solution would involve comparing his past accomplishments with his desired goals, showing how if he could do the first set of things, he should be able to do the second. Alas! We ultimately learned that many of the accomplishments he claimed were actually lies that had never happened and that by stressing them we were eroding his self confidence. Oh well, and that's why telling the truth is ultimately important and not doing so is often it's own punishment.)
One day he asked me if he drove "only to work and back" without a license and the police stopped him would they punish him. I assured him they would. Nevertheless, he had soon purchased a van (much larger than anything he had driven before), and began driving it on the highway (where he was distinctly unqualified to drive) and charging his co-workers, Burmese refugees from another, less entrepenurial ethnic group, money for rides to work. Fortunately, no one was killed and last time I checked the van had died, perhaps because he never quite understood what all those fluids were that one was supposed to check and replace. (Of course, after I heard about this I not only dumped him as a driving student, chewed him out royally and then called the police on him, but, sadly, unlicensed driving, even with passengers, is not very high on the list of infractions that the police choose to focus on.)
One activity I do note is a frequent flurry of Burmese refugees from several ethnic groups roaming the streets on garbage night seeking cans for the five cent deposit. The energy and desire to work is there. An actual focus on how to efficiently channel this energy does not seem to be there. Perhaps it will come. Time will tell.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Refugees and Higher Education

Life flows along like a river. And after a year and a half of interacting with refugees, I'm beginning to see more and more of them settling in, adjusting to America and entering paths that look as if they are headed for a productive and fulfilling life where they will help not only themselves, but also their people, the members of their ethnic group, as well as our society and their new homeland.

It's not easy and, of course, there are many obstacles, but many refugees who come to the United States seek an education. In fact, some, when asked directly as to why they chose to leave the refugee camps in Thailand or elsewhere, say the primary reason they chose to come here was to seek an education.

Which begs the question, how does a refugee get into college?

Speaking in general terms, as persons with a United States refugee visa are legal residents of the United States, they are entitled to use the programs intended for legal residents of the United States, including those aimed at educational assistance. For you conservatives out there, lest you ask "What do we taxpayers get out of this?" if all works out well, then we will eventually get a productive, educated, skilled member of society who will pay taxes at a higher rate and be less prone to such expensive use of tax dollars as jail or public assistance. Therefore, in theory at least, educational assistance to refugees should be a "win-win" situation for all concerned.

In fact, when I've taken refugees to the local community college for assistance with admission, the big question has often been not about their citizenship or green card status but how long they have been residents of either New York State and/or the county which hosts the community college. Residents of a county, in other words people who have lived there for six months or longer, be they refugee or native born, pay at a lower rate.

For many purposes, refugees count sort of as half foreign and half American and interestingly, when it comes to education at some institutions, they often seem to get the best halves of each. In other words, many community colleges have an international student office that assists international students, and often this office will assist refugees as well. (International students can bring in surprising amounts of money to a college, including a community college.) On the other hand, if they meet residency requirements, refugees are often eligible for loans and other forms of aid as in-state residents. (And why not? They are residents. They do hold jobs, pay taxes or else receive public assistance.)

One obstacle to this is the basic requirement of a high school degree or equivalent (G.E.D.) and/or minimal requirements for English as well as basic study skills. I'll try to write more on this later.