A Waiver From Homeland Security Allows A Surge of Burmese Refugees to the U. S.
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 26 Jan 2008 02:26:22 -0800 (PST)
A Waiver From Homeland Security Allows A Surge of Burmese Refugees
New America Media, News Feature, Claire Trageser, Posted: Jan 26, 2008
Editor's Note: When Homeland Security agreed that some groups against
the Burmese military government could be treated as refugees, the
small number previously allowed in quickly doubled. NAM contributor
Claire Trageser tells one man's story.
OAKLAND, Calif. - Ba Shar's 13-year journey from Burma to the United
States ended in July when his plane landed at the Oakland Airport.
For 12 years, Shar lived in a Thai refugee camp, waiting to get out.
Thanks to a waiver to the Patriot Act passed last year his chance
"The opportunity to leave is like winning the lottery, so I had to
go," Shar said using a translator. "I knew that if I stayed, I would
be a refugee forever. I'd have no hope, no freedom."
Shar was fleeing the nearly 50-year conflict between the Burmese
military and the country's ethnic minorities, and one of 13,900
refugees who came to the United States last year. This is almost twice
the number in the next largest refugee group, Somalis, and more than
eight times the number of Iraqi refugees who arrived here last year.
Burmese refugees were not allowed in before because a clause in the
Patriot Act bars providing "material support," including housing,
transportation or funds, to anyone from a terrorist organization. In
January, the Department of Homeland Security waived this clause as it
applies to some of the groups they'd previously listed as terrorist,
including groups opposing the Burmese military government.
This waiver allowed a surge of Burmese refugees to enter the United
States last year. In the past five months, the International Rescue
Committee, a refugee advocacy organization, brought Shar and 109 other
Burmese refugees to the Bay Area, compared to 56 refugees in the last
two years, said Leslie Peterson, the deputy director of the San
So Shar's quick flight out of Burma and then his long wait in one of
the nine Thai refugee camps is a typical one, says Peterson.
Now 45 years old, Shar was a rice farmer when he was captured by the
Burmese military in 1984. He knew he might be used for the dangerous
work of searching for landmines, so he and two friends fled the
military camp and ran for Thailand.
"We risked our lives, but we thought it was a good risk," he said. "We
were carrying ammunition and we just dumped it and ran for our lives."
When Shar made it to the Maelah refugee camp on the Thai border, he
sent for his wife and mother-in-law.
"The camp is kind of like a prison," he said. "You're not allowed
outside it, and there are security police looking, so if you're caught
they'll send you back to Burma."
Nonetheless, Shar tried to put together a life--working in construction
for other refugees who traded with the villages outside, building his
own home from woven leaves and bamboo and having four children, who
attended a United Nations-run school. But the camp always felt unsafe.
"The military could raid at any time," he said.
In early 2007, he heard that the UN was accepting applications for
refugee status, which meant that Shar and his family could perhaps
move to Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or the US.
"It didn't matter where we went, as long as we escaped from refugee
life," he said.
Shar applied and was granted refugee status.
"When we found out, many people were afraid to leave," he said. "But I
knew I had to go."
A snag in Shar's plan quickly appeared. Shar's mother-in-law was sick
and unable to travel. In order to not lose his chance Shar and the
children applied separately from his wife and mother-in-law. Separate
sponsors means separate locations. Although his whole family would be
allowed to leave, Shar and his three children ages 18, 16 and 14,
would be sent to Oakland, while his wife and mother-in-law would go to
Georgia. Their oldest daughter, 23, and her fiancé filed a separate
application. They left in June for Virginia. Shar and the children
left in July and his wife and her mother left in late September.
When Shar and the children arrived in Oakland, the San Francisco
International Rescue Committee helped arrange a subsidized apartment,
enrolled them for food stamps and public school and gave Shar English
lessons and help finding a job.
An IRC caseworker also told Shar about a Burmese church near his new
home. Raised as a Christian in Burma, Shar went to a service and found
a community of other refugees with stories similar to his own.
During his first week in Oakland, church members arrived on his
doorstep with 50 pounds of rice and a gallon of cooking oil in tow and
have continued to help with food, clothing, and education services.
"I knew (the United States) would be a different country, a different
culture," he said. "But I found my own countrymen here, which made it
a lot easier."
Two of the eight Burmese groups that the government defines as
terrorist organizations are made up largely of Karen and Chin people,
two ethnic minorities in Burma. So the waiver has allowed mostly Karen
and Chin people to come to the United States.
These naturally tight communities often revolve around churches. The
Burmese population is 89 percent Buddhist, though many Karen and Chin
people are Christian. Christian missionaries focused on these groups,
because they are often marginalized in Burmese society, said Penny
Edwards, a South and Southeastern Asian Studies professor at Univ. of
California, Berkeley who specializes in the cultural history of
Cambodia and Burma.
The First Burmese Baptist Church of San Francisco, established in 1977
after the first wave of Burmese arrived, eventually had to open a
sister church in Oakland. The Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church
helps the new arrivals adjust to life.
"We had a vision to start a new church in the East Bay," said Lone Wah
Lazum, the Oakland pastor. "This is an opportunity to reach out to
people here, give assistance to people here, and also for these people
to come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior."
For Shar, the church has also been a lifeline to education and work.
"When I moved here, I thought I would have a lot more difficulties,"
said Shar on a recent Sunday after church. "But finding this place,
being with my people, it made it better. Then I had a feeling that
things would be OK."
By mid-October, Shar was working at a jewelry factory in Oakland and
had saved $312 for one-way tickets for his wife and mother-in-law. Now
his focus is on his children.
"For my future, I can't do much, but my children can be more
successful," His goal leaving the refugee camp, he says "was to give
After his initial adjustment, Shar is confident he will be able to
succeed without assistance from his church and the IRC.
"Whatever other people do, I should be able to do," he said. "When I
look at other immigrants and refugees, I see people have been able to
improve their lives, so I believe I should be able to do that, too."
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