From Burma to Brentwood: Refugees Create a Sense of Community in Pittsburgh

by Elizabeth Hoover    /  July 27, 2010  / 3 Comments

When Soe Naing’s youngest daughter Khin Mar Soe was born in 2001, he had “no dreams for her,” he recalled. She was born in a refugee camp in the Thailand-Burma border, one of an estimated 150,000 people living in nine camps after fleeing from the brutality of the Burmese government. The refugees inhabit a kind of political and economic no man’s land: they are unable to work, unable to move freely past the barbed wire fences that ring the camps, and—depending on the camp—unable to attend school.

Now, Soe Naing has another worry: saving enough for medical school tuition. That’s a long way off. Khin Mar Soe is only 6, but she dreams of being a doctor and is enjoying her new American school. She recently won a prize for reading the most books in her grade. She came to Pittsburgh with her parents and three older siblings two years ago as part of a resettlement program through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.) Her family is part of a community of about 400 refugees from Burma living in Pittsburgh, mostly concentrated in the Troy Hill neighborhood and in the Prospect Park housing development in the suburb of Brentwood.

On Monday nights, Grace Lutheran Church in Troy Hill hosts a Burmese community night where families gather to play games, get help translating mail, and collect donations from various organizations. Over the din of a raucous game of duck-duck-goose, Soe Naing explains that his children now want to be lawyers and engineers and that his 17-year-old son received a scholarship for college through The Pittsburgh Promise. When asked if he imagined his children would make it to college when they were still living in the camps, he could only laugh, eyes shining with pride.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Soe Naing secured a job in housekeeping at a Marriott hotel and has been learning English through the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. While his family seems to be thriving, refugees face innumerable challenges during resettlement, including navigating the language barrier, culture shock, and a lack of education. The majority of the refugees from Burma who have resettled in Pittsburgh are members of the Karen, a persecuted ethnic minority in Burma. The conflict between the Burmese government and the Karen is one of the world’s longest civil wars according to Jim Andrews of Irrawaddy magazine.

The BBC reports that the Burmese militaries are engaged in a campaign of terror against the Karen and regularly attack their villages, burning them down and scattering the inhabitants. Those who don’t escape are either killed or forced into hard labor. The Karen National Union, a political group that advocates for the Karen, accuses the Burmese government of genocide. The conflict has created a protracted refugee situation; some Karen will live their entire lives in a refugee camp with no work, no school, and no hope for the future.

Hler Paw, now 24, entered a refugee camp when he was 2. His father, a soldier who fought against the Burmese, was killed, and his mother is “somewhere in the border area.” He described life in the camp: “It’s like living in a human zoo.”

He applied for settlement in 2006 and landed in Pittsburgh in April 2007. Refugees arrive here with nothing—no passport, no money, very few belongings. One of two resettlement agencies—Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh or Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh—meet the refugees at the airport and provide them with a furnished apartment. These agencies also help the refugees apply for welfare, find English classes, look for work, and teach them some of the basics such as how to use the bus and shop at Walmart.

“My first year here, I felt like I was floating in the air,” said Hler Paw. “Everything was weird.” Because Hler Paw came from a camp with a missionary school, he already knew English and JFCS hired him to be a case manager working with his community. But his level of education is unusual for a refugee. “In Burma [the Karen] don’t have a chance to study. They just flee here and there and hide from the soldiers who burn down the village, burn down the church, burn down the school,” he said.

Life on the run means many of the refugees aren’t literate even in their own language. That can make learning English doubly hard. “The biggest challenge is the language barrier,” said Elizabeth Heidenreich, a case manager with Pittsburgh Refugee Center. While the adults struggle to learn English, their younger children pick up the new language more easily because of daily ESL classes at school. “This changes the dynamic of the family,” Heidenreich said. “It puts pressure on a child to suddenly have to deal with adult things like medical questions while the parents go from being adults in charge to being someone who can’t communicate.”

The children are forced to negotiate between school, where they are bullied for not being American enough, and home, where their parents are concerned about them losing their Karen or Burmese culture. “The kids are just trying to be kids,” Heidenreich added.

Teachers unfamiliar with Karen and Burmese culture sometimes compound the problem, according to an after-school tutor. This tutor is an American who has spent time in Burma. She asked that her name not be used because she hopes to return to Burma and said the government searches for the names of visa applicants on the Internet. She said her students here complained that their teachers call them by the wrong names, but the teacher simply didn’t realize that Burmese don’t use first and last names. Another student remembered being humiliated on her first day of school. She came in wearing thanaka, a white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. The teacher told her it looked “like bird poo” and made her scrub it off.

Both adults and children live with the trauma of what they experienced in Burma. The after-school tutor said her students have heard horror stories of how the Burmese military would throw Karen babies into the air and use them as target practice. She says many of her students express a desire to return and fight the Burmese military.

The transition is just as hard for the adults. Unlike refugees who come from urban areas, most Karen were rice farmers, a life that Heidenreich described as “working really hard for two months and then waiting 10 months to work really hard for two months.” Or they have spent the past 10-15 years in a refugee camp, unable to work. They struggle with getting to their jobs on time and communicating with their bosses. Hler Paw agreed that the refugees have to adjust to the American work environment because Burma doesn’t have the same kind of industry. “Bosses love us when we start working,” he said. “We are really hard workers. Believe me.”

The language barrier limits their access to certain higher-paid jobs and so they mainly work in jobs that don’t require communicating with the general public. These include housekeeping, dry cleaning, maintenance, and meatpacking. “They are working harder than they have ever worked and barely making it,” said Heidenreich.

The language barrier can also have serious consequences for refugees who need medical attention. Wazo Myint, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, has been working with public health issues in the Burmese community here through JFCS and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a program to support young professionals working in public health. “I worry about the refugees,” he said. “They are very vulnerable.” Wazo Myint was born in Burma and came to the United Sates when he was 9 because his father got a job. He grew up in Hmawbi, a town close to where many of the refugees are from. “When my family came here, we struggled. But not to the same degree,” he explained. “It’s kind of a personal crusade for me to help the community.”

Wazo Myint travels with people to doctors’ offices to translate, tries to connect refugees with resources, and helps them make appointments. Once he and another volunteer spent the night in the hospital with a woman who had just experienced a stillbirth. “We can’t solve all their problems,” he said, “but we can try to connect with the clients and reassure them.”

While the resettlement agencies and other nonprofits try to provide resources to the Burmese community, there have been efforts within the community to create structures and organizations to become more self-sufficient. In Prospect Park, there are four community leaders who mediate disputes and help people solve problems before contacting the resettlement agency. They also have an emergency contact system for people who can’t use 911 because they don’t speak English. “Our community is very close,” Hler Paw said. “We help each other.”

Working together, the community has also been able to find ways to maintain cultural and religious practices. Burmese food is influenced by both Chinese and Indian cuisine, so many ingredients can be found at places like Lotus Food in the Strip District as well as local Indian grocery stores. Heidenreich remembered being offered a durian, a large exotic fruit with a strong odor, during a home visit. “I thought, where the heck do you get a durian in the middle of Pittsburgh, but they had it,” she said.

Heidenreich has also attended several parties where the families gather to share food, play Karen music videos, and wear traditional dress. The majority of Karens are Christian and they meet in each others’ homes for prayer and Bible study. Because they have relationships with missionaries in Burma, Grace Lutheran Church and Discovery Christian Church have been able to provide Karen-language Bibles and hymnals for the community. They also offer the occasional Karen-language service, which requires bringing in a pastor from out of town. The Buddhist families have also organized and have recently started a monastery. Now it is just an apartment in Prospect Park with two monks, but they hope to construct their own building and create a school.

Democracy is like a glass

Anu Oo can’t remember a time when his family wasn’t persecuted by the Burmese military. He described how the military would take over his village’s rice paddies, accusing the farmers of feeding Karen rebels. Instead, they barely survived on rations until the militia forced them to “relocate.” That meant living in the jungle.

When he was 11, he and his family made their way to a refugee camp, where he lived until being resettled in Pittsburgh in 2006. He immediately fell in love with Pittsburgh because the hills reminded him of the landscape in Burma. “Our country is ruled by dictators, unlike America, which is ruled by democracy,” he said through a translator. “In Burma, people are prisoners by their own government. I was excited to come to America.”

Once in America, Anu Oo encountered many aspects of the American political landscape: capitalism, labor disputes, labor rights, and the freedoms of expression and association, among others. While working for a local steel fabrication plant, he had his first experience with the American labor movement when the Three Rivers Coalition for Justice helped workers organize a strike there. In May of this year his name and the organization’s actions captured the attention of the Post-Gazette, who also quoted the plant president’s reaction to the strike.

In an interview with Sampsonia Way, Anu Oo described how he has since participated in labor protests and traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of the secretary of labor about the situation of refugees. He also talked about his meeting with representatives from Sen. Bob Casey’s office and the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Based on his experience of two extremes of the political spectrum—democracy in the United States and dictatorship in Burma—Anu Oo has defined democracy: “Democracy is like a glass. You can see through it—unlike in a dictatorship—but it is also easy to break.”

Another refugee, who asked that his name not be used because he still has family in Burma, tried to break through the opacity of the Burmese dictatorship by clandestinely copying and distributing unsanctioned newspapers and publications. He came to Pittsburgh in 2007 as a political refugee after spending 20 months in a Malaysian prison. He was forced to flee Burma in 2002 after military intelligence officers found a political newspaper in his car.

He said there are nine different ethnic groups from Burma in Pittsburgh and that the community is remarkably close-knit, setting aside the tensions that pitted ethnic groups against one another back in Burma.

Unlike many of the refugees, he is college-educated, fluent in English, and from a city. He also owns his own home in Troy Hill, which he bought with the help of a personal loan from his employer, David Thomas, the owner of Breadworks, a bakery on the Northside.

When Catholic Charities approached this refugee about working as a translator, he told them he was happy to help in any way, but wanted to make it volunteer. He is a presence at the community nights, acting as a translator, and collects donations for new families. “I want to help my people,” he said.  “I don’t want to think, who is the Karen, who is the Burmese. No, we are all refugees. I am a refugee. They are refugees too.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Hoover earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she received a Project on African Expressive Traditions grant and the Won-Joon Yon Scholarship for Racial Tolerance. She has written for American Heritage, Life, and Poets and Writers. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has published poetry in The Adirondack Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Atlanta Review. Recently, New Letters nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. Hoover is a former associate editor at Sampsonia Way.

View all articles by Elizabeth Hoover

3 Comments on "From Burma to Brentwood: Refugees Create a Sense of Community in Pittsburgh"

  1. Khin July 29, 2010 at 9:31 pm ·

    It is a very informative and extensive coverage for those who are not familiar with Burma, its ethnics and the oppression of the military regime. Thank you Ms Hoover for posting this on the net. Hope you can publish more stories about these new settlers.

  2. Angel August 14, 2010 at 4:52 pm ·

    Great article.

  3. Tracy Polanco June 28, 2011 at 11:04 pm ·

    This article caught my attention. I came to this website because I was looking for information on Soandry, but when I saw the article and that it said from Burma to Brentwood, it reminded me of the refugees we service at Refugee Services of Texas Fort Worth. We actually resettle many refugees on a street called Brentwood. These issues that you bring to everyone’s attention are so important and I am so glad this story is being told somewhere. The situation in Burma/Myanmar, has continued to bring more and more refugees into the US while those from other countries are becoming less. I hope that people who read this will find organizations like ours and Catholic Charities, Church World Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, World Relief and many other smaller organizations that resettle refugees and get involved. ESL is very important. Some refugees were doing great jobs as social laison’s with the United Nations while in the Refugee Camp in Thailand and now, they will be lucky if they can work in a hotel doing room service, because of their english level. We work as hard as we can to get them tutors, volunteers, and give them training, but there is still a need for so much more. Thanks, for the article. Keep it up!

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