Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Volunteers help refugees from Burma create community

She thought she made a mistake. Takwae Htoo was in her 20s, a single mother in an unfamiliar place after her home country had been ravaged by civil unrest. “We had nothing,” she said. “It was just me and my baby alone. I did not speak English. I did not know anybody.” Takwae Htoo is a refugee from Burma, renamed Myanmar by the current government, a country that has been ruled by a military junta since the 1960s. She was originally placed in Texas a decade ago. Now, she calls Chapel Hill home. She is a housekeeper at UNC, attends English classes through the Orange County Literacy Council and works part time at a farm run by refugees and volunteers. She married another Burmese refugee who settled here too, and her children go to school in Carrboro.

Sey Mor practices identifying the President and Vice President at a citizenship class at the Refugee Support Center of Carrboro. Sey Mor is a refugee from Burma living in Carrboro. By Stephanie Lamm The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has placed more than 4,000 refugees from Burma in North Carolina. Fewer than 300 were originally placed in Chapel Hill and Carrboro; however, more than 1,000 refugees from Burma have since found homes here, according to the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro. Refugees from Burma belong to many different ethnic groups, including Burmese, Karen and Chin. They speak a variety of languages, most commonly a dialect of Karen.

Many refugees placed around the country move to Orange County due to the area’s wealth of refugee assistance organizations — most run by volunteers. Volunteer organizations assist refugees in gaining citizenship, learning English and finding work and housing. When the honeymoon ends Eh Paw came to Carrboro from a refugee camp in Thailand three years ago with her 3-month-old son who was having seizures every day. While searching for a job and taking care of her two older children, she traveled to and from UNC Hospitals daily to take care of him. “My baby is very sick,” Eh Paw said. “They sent me to America so he could receive medical care that is better than in the camp.” Eh Paw now considers herself lucky — she understands English, her son’s condition is under control and her husband joined her in Carrboro six months ago. Most importantly, she can move about freely. Raised in a refugee camp, Eh Paw had to ask the camp supervisor for permission to leave. Eh Paw works as a translator at the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro, which helps refugees from Burma with everything from applying for public housing to filing for child support. Flicka Bateman is the director of the center, which relies on volunteers to help refugees with legal services, language skills and a variety of other needed programs.

She said her organization provides long-term support. “It’s hard to explain exactly what we do because we do so many different things,” Bateman said. “If you think of it as a hierarchy of needs, we usually step in after the placement organization meets the families’ most basic needs. We work with public housing, we place them with jobs, help them set up a bank account, find schools for their kids and connect them with other resources in the community.” Refugee placement organizations like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and Church World Service provide support for the first three to six months, but after that, refugee families must turn to a variety of organizations to meet their needs. “We usually meet people once the honeymoon period ends and they become anxious and start questioning whether refugee placement here was a good idea,” Bateman said. Takwae Htoo was originally placed in Texas, but Orange County’s community of volunteer-based organizations has provided her with a more stable life. “They paid rent for six months. After that, nothing,” Takwae Htoo said. “Things are not as hard here. 

We have people to help us.” Learning the language Takwae Htoo said of the challenges refugees face, learning English is the greatest. Takwae Htoo’s oldest child, now a junior in high school, was 5 years old when they came to the U.S. She said she is proud of how quickly he picked up English, but she is disappointed she cannot help him with his homework. At East Chapel Hill High School, students founded the Refugee Outreach Club, which tutors refugee children. Elsa Steiner, a sophomore at UNC and one of the founding members of the Refugee Outreach Club, said teachers often do not have the time or resources to make sure refugee children succeed in school. “When teachers assign homework, especially in the lower grades, sometimes they assume that the parents can help, but that’s not the case for many of these children,” Steiner said. Casey Smith, another founding member, said the Karen and Burmese communities face a lack of resources within the schools to learn English, and she and other co-founders took on the challenge of providing support where the school system could not. “It’s not like Spanish or even Arabic where there are translators and resources for people who want to work with the Karen community,” said Smith, now a junior at Wesleyan University. “Unless they learned in the camps or unless they were very young when they came here, it could take many years before they speak enough English to get by on their own.” Smith’s mother, Lori Carswell, teaches Takwae Htoo’s English class through the Orange County Literacy Council. “I didn’t expect to become so involved, but when it’s something like this, it’s so rewarding to watch them grow,” Carswell said after teaching a recent session of her English class at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Cultivating Community On her days off, Takwae Htoo and her husband work a small plot of land at Transplanting Traditions, where 28 refugee families are given plots of land to grow and sell crops for supplementary income. 

Customers for Transplanting Traditions prepay for food grown by the farmers before the harvest season. Crops are also sold at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers’ Market, teaching farmers how to market their goods. Kelly Owensby, director of Transplanting Traditions, said the organization expects to bring in $60,000 by the end of 2015 — money that will go directly to the refugee farmers. All of the farmers at Transplanting Traditions worked as farmers back in Burma. Steiner, who volunteered with the organization, said it’s empowering for refugees to find work in an industry they are familiar with. “Transplanting Traditions makes them feel like they can provide for their family without having to learn a new skill,” said Steiner. “This is something they knew how to do back in their country. They can take on leadership roles and collaborate with other families. There are numerous mental health benefits in addition to providing them with a livelihood.” Owensby agreed that the benefits of the program include far more than supplementary income. “We’ve seen a decrease in stress and better mental and physical health in the families we work with,” Owensby said. Transplanting Traditions is entirely run by volunteers. The organization also offers educational and enrichment programs for teenagers and children — for example, its cultural preservation initiative, which records the stories and cultural traditions of refugees. “Our goal is to improve refugees’ lives through food security and supplemental income,” Owensby said. “But we also try to take a holistic approach to serving the community. Transplanting Traditions plans to expand the farm by 50 percent — to 7.5 acres — by next summer. And Transplanting Traditions recently partnered with People Offering Relief for Chapel Hill Carrboro Homes, which provides 111 refugee families with $100 in fresh produce each month. The farm donates $1,000 worth of food grown by its farmers, including specialty produce typically grown in Southeast Asia, to PORCH, which is a volunteer-based hunger relief organization. Debbie Horwitz, the founder and director of PORCH, said the Food for Families program, which began in 2010, was designed with these refugee families in mind. Most families are referred to the program by a school social worker. “We found that local pantries often weren’t meeting the needs of the refugee community,” Horwitz said. “They aren’t used to the food grown here. It’s important that they have access to fresh produce native to where they are from. With our partnership with Transplanting Traditions, we can provide that for them.” About half of all Burmese and Karen refugee families in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are served by PORCH, including more than 300 children. Food donated through PORCH is delivered by volunteers. 

They also deliver clothing, books, computers, strollers, mattresses and other donated items as they are available. “It forms a bond between our volunteers and the refugee community,” Horwitz said. “When people see how gracious our families are they often want to find new ways to help. You can’t just see the need these people are in and walk away without wanting to donate more of your time.” Steiner, who has continued her work with the refugee community since high school, said it’s important that volunteer organizations pick up where government services leave off. “People who work with refugees talk about how there’s a bell curve of resettlement,” Steiner said. “When people first come over they are overjoyed, and they thought the worst was over. Then they begin to realize that they will probably live in poverty the rest of their life, but at the same time they don’t want to seem ungrateful. Eventually things get steady and they find the support they need, but things are really hard for a while.” For Takwae Htoo, the hard times are over. She’s found success in her new home through the help of volunteer-based organizations. “We love it here,” she said. “We’re free here.”