Refugees try to make America their home

Ben Wolford

Htoo May, 19, came to Akron from Burma one month ago. She says that language barriers and transportation are the two hardest parts of her new life here.


Credit: Ron Soltys

Since the Watergate scandal was exposed and the new phrase “credibility gap” was introduced, American government officials have been called ‘a bunch of crooks.’

When Myanmar refugee Sunday Moo’s government set fire to her village, she came to roughly the same conclusion about her own government.

“They burn your house, take away your things and then if they see you they would kill you,” Moo said. “So we could not stay any more at our village. So we had to leave everything and move to Thailand to become a refugee.”

Moo is just one of millions of people who have fled their countries because of persecution.

Across the globe there are 13,948,800 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants’ 2007 World Refugee Survey. And, like Moo, some of them eventually take refuge in Northeast Ohio.

As of 2006, according to the World Refugee Survey, Ohio is one of the top 10 destinations for refugees coming to America. A big reason for this is the cost of housing.

“It’s obviously much cheaper to buy a house here than it is in New York City,” said Tom Mrosko, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Health and Human Services in Cleveland.

But the process for admitting refugees into a third country is slow and tedious.

Htoo May’s family found this out after leaving Myanmar (formerly Burma) and living for five years in a U.N.-established camp in Thailand, she told Moo, who has served as a translator at the Akron International Institute since arriving in 2006.

“I was far away from my motherland. Even when I lived in Thailand I could not visit Burma,” May said in her native Karen language. “Now I’m even farther.”

Since Dec. 20, 2007, May has been resettled in Akron with her father and two younger brothers. Despite her homesickness, May said she’s happy to be in this developed country.

Switching from bamboo huts in Mae La and Tham Hin, the camps May and Moo each called home for several years, to the electricity and insulation of U.S. structures was a welcome change.

Still, their refugee experiences may have been relatively happy ones compared to others around the world.

Betty Freund, lecturer in the college of nursing at Kent State, volunteered to help Rwandan refugees in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1995. She said the condition of the camps there were less than sanitary.

“We saw lots of infections just because everyone walked around barefoot,” Freund said. “Any wound got infected. I saw awful infections full of pus.”

She said medical treatment was limited by the variety of antibiotics available and by the difficulty of reaching the nearest hospital. Paved roads are rare.

And so was law enforcement.

“They’re not very safe,” Freund said. “People would get attacked and women would get raped. They were at the mercy of whatever sort of security is there. I mean they have no rights, and who could ever know?”

The refugees even had to re-learn how to do basic tasks without the use of household commodities.

“These were people who had houses with stoves and stuff in them,” Freund said, referring to their homes in Rwanda before they fled.

For a Rwandan refugee, Freund said, home became a U.N. standard-issue piece of plastic supported by sticks, and stoves were replaced by open fires. Water came in enormous tanks that were nearly impossible to keep clean.

Such conditions may have been tame compared to the environments some of the refugees came from.

“We heard awful stories about how a parent would be told, ‘OK, which one of your children do you want us to kill first?'” Freund said.

Experiences such as this are the reason 69,369 refugees around the world in 2006 moved to a third country instead of back to their homes, according to the 2007 World Refugee Survey. Of those, 41,279 came to America.

The process can take years, though. Moo waited nine years in Tham Hin before getting approval to come to America.

Mrosko explained the long and detailed process for resettlement in the U.S.

He said it all starts with a recommendation from the U.S. Congress to the president to begin accepting a certain group into America. Next, state officials go to refugee camps to individually interview each potential client.

“It has to go through the Department of Homeland Security and they screen people very carefully,” Mrosko said.

The State Department then determines what part of the country will be best for resettling the refugees based on factors such as affordable housing and job market.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has affiliate offices in all parts of the country that assist refugees with basic needs when they arrive.

Mrosko’s office and the Akron International Institute are the two USCRI affiliate refugee resettlement agencies in Northeast Ohio.

“From our program we can help them financially so they don’t ever have to ask for public assistance,” said Goran Debelnogich, director of refugee resettlement at the Akron International Institute. “We also help with social services, which includes things like interpreting and English classes.”

May has already begun taking English classes and will eventually try to enroll at a university, Debelnogich said.

“I could not go to school (in Burma),” May said. “My family was too poor.”

She said she attended a free service for education in the Mae La refugee camp, but in the U.S., May looks forward to the new opportunities.

“Here is a big country,” May said. “It is a developed country and you can do whatever you want.”

Here, unlike where she came from and in dozens of other countries, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution are strictly prohibited.

“(Refugees) are people like you and me that just ended up in awful circumstances,” Freund said. “It could almost happen to anybody.”

Contact features reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].