“Without rice,” said Mu Naw, “we cannot live.”
But on Tuesday, that now-constant worry was salved, for the time being. A 25-pound sack rested at the hem of Naw’s bright purple sarong as she stood beside friends outside the worn City Heights apartment building whose units have, in the last two years, slowly been occupied by refugees from Burma.
She squatted down as the others curiously inspected containers of baby spinach and tomato sauce delivered by workers from the Episcopal Refugee Network, a local nonprofit. She reached into the sack of rice and took a palm full, letting it run through her fingers. Her neighbors crowded in for a closer look, some reaching down to test the quality of the grain they would divide among themselves.
“Yes, it’s good! Very good!” they all agreed as they stepped back.
Naw’s neighbor sang as she plunged into a box of oranges, and filled her plastic bag. “Very good.”
Since 2006, roughly 200 families have arrived in San Diego from the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly Burma. They came by way of the teeming refugee camps in neighboring Thailand and Malaysia, where some lived for as many as three decades, fleeing repression from the Burmese government’s crackdown on the country’s seven ethnic minority groups.
They are San Diego’s second-fastest growing community of refugees, after the Iraqis. The transformation of residential corners like this one is adding yet another layer of diversity to City Heights, where influxes of immigrants often indicate where the latest international conflicts are happening.
A majority of the refugees are from Burma’s Karen ethnic group, whose national liberation army has been engaged in a long fight for autonomy with the country’s ruling military government. Families started arriving in San Diego in 2006, when the United States government cleared the way for refugees to enter the country.
And like the six families who divided the haul delivered to their apartments on Tuesday, most of the 200 families who have settled in City Heights and El Cajon are living threadbare existences. They are depending, in most cases, on the assistance of welfare, food stamps, and the city’s four refugee resettlement agencies, which can provide cash assistance for only the first eight months of resettlement.
Amid the recession, the few refugees who’ve found jobs have found mostly part-time positions, cutting fish at local markets or working in packing plants, said William Lo, a refugee from Burma and pastor of the Myanmar Community Church, which he established not long after he arrived two years ago. Once their federal refugee cash assistance expired, many others have battled depression amid joblessness.
“Some of them tell me, if there was not an ocean between the United States and Thailand, they would walk back on foot,” Lo said.
Their arrival has presented particular challenges for resettlement and social service providers in City Heights. Before 2006, San Diego’s social service network wasn’t equipped to handle the refugees from Burma. When they arrived, organizations had to scramble to learn about the new population and its nuances of culture, language and politics.
“They’ve lived in camps for years. What kind of skill levels have they developed?” asked John McLevie, president of the board of directors for the Episcopal Refugee Network, one of the only local organizations that helps the Burmese community when resettlement agencies can no longer. “They don’t know who to ask, what to ask, or where to ask.”
A successful request for Karen interpreters, for example, first requires that the language not be confused with Korean, a common assumption made by social service providers unfamiliar with the new population.
Jen Cordaro works with refugees from Burma as a community organizer with the Alliance for African Assistance, one of San Diego’s four resettlement agencies. (It doesn’t solely work with African refugees.)
“The basic language makes it difficult for service providers to find them help,” Cordaro said. “Things that should take five seconds take five hours.”
Identity politics within the community have also presented challenges. Karen and members of the other ethnic minority groups resent being called Burmese, a term that refers to Myanmar’s powerful ethnic majority. Being called a refugee from Burma is acceptable, however, because Burma was the name of the country during its years of relative prosperity, before the military junta changed the name to Myanmar and began its brutal oppression.
These sorts of nuances have contributed to a general misunderstanding of San Diego’s newest refugee community even among those eager to help them, Cordaro said, and also threatened to hamper efforts at recognizing their growing presence here through tools like this year’s national census.
Movements to encourage immigrants and refugees from Burma to identify themselves as Burmese on the census have faltered because of what the term “Burmese” means to the country’s ethnic minorities.
“It makes sense to want to have Burmese represented on the census,” Cordaro said. “But they also have a right to present and preserve their cultural and linguistic legacies.”
That desire, though, has also gotten some of the new refugees into trouble.
Cordaro has received confused requests for help from refugees ticketed for hunting squirrels with slingshots in Balboa Park, a common activity from their previous lives. They need the food, she said, and see the rodents and plants on the sides of roads as logical, untapped resources.
Even Lo, the pastor who also works as an outreach worker for the Alliance for African Assistance, said his hands instinctively reach for an invisible slingshot each time he spots one of the rodents. He doesn’t carry a real one, for fear of being cited.
But the need to supplement their meager incomes is forcing many refugees to find other ways of making money. After learning about recycling programs, Lo said, some now rise before the crack of dawn and push shopping carts through their neighborhoods, collecting cans. It’s not what many of them expected when they arrived, he said.
But he expects improvements as the refugees learn English through classes required to qualify for welfare assistance. With the help of job placement programs and adjustment workshops run by the resettlement agencies and other social service providers, he said, the refugee community is becoming more comfortable in City Heights. Slowly.