Last week, I posted a request on my blog asking you to suggest sources for a story on San Diego’s new community of Burmese refugees. I got lots of great tips — thanks for them.

But one of the first things I learned when I sat down with Jen Cordaro, who works for one of San Diego’s resettlement agencies, was that I had already made a mistake — sort of.

By calling the whole community Burmese, I was technically excluding many of the people I was referring to. As I noted in my story Wednesday, members of the Karen (pronounced kuh-RIN) minority ethnic group, which makes up the largest percentage of refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma), do not identify as Burmese. That term refers to Myanmar’s ethnic and governing majority. The Karen have long fought against them for autonomy.

But referring to them as refugees from Burma is OK, because Burma was the name of their country before the military junta took power, began oppressing them and changed the country’s name to Myanmar.

It was the first of many of the nuances within the community that I’ve learned about as I’ve started getting to know it. I made note of others in my story. General misunderstanding of these, Cordaro told me, is one of the greatest challenges for service providers trying to ease the transition for refugees from Burma.

“A lot of the concepts are just different,” she said.

One I didn’t include in the story was birthdays. They are not a generally recognized concept in much of Myanmar.

So as many as 70 percent of the people Cordaro works with, she said, have Jan. 1 birthdays, assigned to them when they are first processed for admission as refugees.

“When we help them sign up for food stamps,” she said, “it confuses people when you have a whole family born on Jan. 1,” she said.

William Lo, the pastor who founded the Myanmar Community Church, estimates he’s about 52.

“When I asked my mother when I was born, she said Christmas was very near, and we did not complete the harvest yet,” Lo said.

The rice harvest is in November and December.

“So I chose Dec. 4,” he said.


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