Published: Feb 05, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Feb 03, 2012 05:52 PM
Refugees discuss their needs
Chapel Hill 2020 hears concerns
CARRBORO - The volunteers in Chapel Hill 2020 have taken the community planning process to schools and senior centers. They've pitched tables at the mall and knocked back beers with the under-30 crowd.But how do you ask people how the community should grow when you don't speak the same language? That was the challenge last weekend when Chapel Hill 2020 visited Carrboro to speak with the community's newest immigrants, refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma.About 800 people from the Asian country between India, China and Thailand now live in Orange County, brought here by resettlement programs to escape the military junta's persecution. About 100 of the immigrants attended the Jan. 28 meeting at Carrboro Elementary School."I'm interested in the lives of all the people of Carrboro," Mayor Mark Chilton welcomed them, pausing as interpreters translated."Not just people who happen to be citizens of this country," Chilton continued, "but also people who have come here more recently."Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989, but many do not recognize that name, said moderator Jimmy Shwe. There are eight main ethnic groups. The Karen, who comprise 7 million of the country's 56 million people, have been targeted for genocide, but even majority Burmese risk their lives if they criticize the government."The Karen are the main target to wipe out; they call it ethnic cleansing," Shwe said. "They only want to have Burmese. We thank all of you that are helping us very much."On their feetThe U.S. State Department grants Burmese refugees legal status and gives them $900 per person to get on their feet, said Flicka Bateman, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member who has worked closely with the refugees.Many work as housekeepers at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the reasons resettlement programs chose the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. They ride the towns' free buses and send their children to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, which began seeing a large influx in 2007, Bateman said. Carrboro Elementary, where many of their children go, has become a gathering space.The 2020 volunteers asked the group what they liked about living here and what problems they have."We like this place because we don't have to worry, like our old place," a young woman in the back row said through an interpreter. "And also free, you can move freely."But the immigrants said some people look down on them because they don't speak English."They integrate to the degree they know English," Bateman said. "Some do, some don't. It's hard. Many of them are illiterate in their own language. To go to school and even hold a pencil is hard for them."Several men said it's hard to get a job if they don't speak English and, even if they do, it's hard to get a permanent position or move up.Before coming here, they had heard "if you work hard, you will survive; you will do well in America," Tkru Hswe said through an interpreter. "But even if you work hard, you cannot get a job."The buses are not always available when they need them, especially on weekends, and if they have to go or take a family member to the hospital they sometimes have to rely on an interpreter over the phone instead of in the room with them, several people said.Housing issuesMany said housing was a problem."When we apply for a government house they tell us our income is too high," Lei Say, 25, said through an interpreter. "When we go to rent, they say your income is too low because you have a big family and only one person is working."Sometimes rules require more than a family can afford, he continued. "If you have five people, you have to live in a two-bedroom," he said.Where they come from, especially in refugee camps in Thailand, families often sleep together in a single tent, Bateman said. Even here, some continue sharing a bedroom because it is what they are used to, she said.And those who can afford a home sometimes run into cultural differences, she said. Some immigrants can afford a subsidized townhome, for example, but most want a yard because they come from an agricultural tradition and want to grow their own food."They want their own land," Bateman said.Town prioritiesThe goal of Chapel Hill 2020 is to help town leaders and residents craft a new comprehensive plan to guide growth and spending priorities."To me it seems reasonable for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community to put some thought into the employment questions, the transportation questions and the language needs," said former Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf, a 2020 co-chairwoman who attended the Burmese session.Last weekend's meeting was the third effort to reach the Burmese immigrant community, said 2020 outreach volunteer Faith Thompson."This is by far the largest, this is the most informative, and I believe this is the start of a relationship as opposed to just outreach," she said.