Dr. Russell Jeung of San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department has completed a new study on recent refugees from Burma in San Francisco's sister city of Oakland.
Its main report, From Crisis to Community Development: Needs and Assets of Oakland's Refugees from Burma, clearly describes the social hardships these refugees face as they try to assimilate into US culture during a recession: They face unemployment rates as high as 80%, and about half of the refugees who are of Karen ethnicity and 87% of the Karenni ethnicity are living in severe poverty.
These new refugees confront more dire circumstances than the previous waves of Southeast Asian refugees. Given the recession and government cuts in adult English classes, they have no opportunity to learn English or workplace skills in order to adapt.The high unemployment rates translate into household incomes of less than $1,000 per month, which is less than 50% of federal poverty level.
The study of 194 refugees from Burma who have resettled in Oakland was conducted in collaboration with the Burma Refugee Family Network, Asian Health Services, and Street Level Health Project. Since 2007, an estimated 500 refugees from this war-torn country have been relocated from refugee camps to Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood.
Besides high rates of unemployment and poverty, the refugees suffer from severe linguistic isolation, where no one in the household speaks English. Almost four out of ten refugees report not speaking any English, and another 28% speak poorly. Unfortunately, few trained interpreters who speak Karen or Karenni are available.
The report recommends that a pool of trained interpreters be funded in order to provide face to face translation across agencies, health clinics, and government offices. Adult ESL classes also need to be reinstituted that take into account the low levels of formal schooling received by the refugees.