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You Tell Us: Make education available for Oakland’s Burmese refugees

on December 7, 2011

Flickers of Progress – Flickers of Hope: Moving from Crisis to Community Development

With Secretary of State Clinton’s recent historic visit to Burma, there appears to be much hope for the future of the people who live in Burma. President Obama called it “flickers of progress.” Meanwhile, refugees who have fled Burma from decades of oppression to live with hope of a better life in Oakland, California, are still facing the risk of becoming a permanent, poverty-stricken underclass.

Since 2007, thousands of refugees from war-torn Burma have been resettled by the U.S. federal government and an estimated 400 individuals have been resettled in Oakland.  A new report released last month by researchers at San Francisco State University and the Burma Refugee Family Network (BRFN) found that almost 60 percent of Oakland’s refugees from Burma are currently living in extreme poverty. What will their flickers of progress be?

Burma, also known as Myanmar, had been under military rule since 1962 until 2011, when a civilian government was formed with a promise of democracy. Ethnic minorities make up 40 percent of the country’s population and many refugees are from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, who originate from some of the poorest and least developed states of Burma. These groups have been the targets of brutal military attacks, persecution and human rights abuses by Burma’s Army. The ethnic conflicts continue till this very day.

One of the consequences of these conflicts is that educational access is limited for the ethnic minorities, who are often fleeing from persecution or living in refugee camps with limited resources. Hence many of them have little or no knowledge of the English language. According to the report, refugees of Karenni origin are struggling to adapt to life in the United States: 81 percent are unemployed, 90 percent are living in extreme poverty and 90 percent have no high school education.

“These recent refugees from Burma are facing dire circumstances,” said Russell Jeung, associate professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. “The recession and government cuts in adult English classes mean that even though they want to work, these refugees have no opportunity to learn English or workplace skills in order to adapt to life in the U.S.”

Jeung and his students, together with BRFN and other community-based organizations, surveyed 194 refugees from Burma to assess the community’s needs. The researchers found that in addition to high poverty rates, these refugees face barriers to accessing employment, health care and government benefits, caused by their lack of English. These barriers have been exacerbated by recent cuts in the provision of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and a lack of appropriate interpretation services.

“These ethnic groups are faring the worst,” Jeung said. “They are the least educated, the least empowered and many of them only speak their own ethnic language, which means they can’t understand Burmese translators and are locked out of accessing the services they need.”

The report found that among Oakland’s refugee population from Burma:

  • 63% are unemployed. Those that are employed have sporadic, low-wage jobs.
  • 57% live below the federal threshold for extreme poverty, earning less than $1,000 per month for an average household size of five.
  • 38% speak no English at all. Another 28 percent speak English poorly.
  • 74% report that lack of English is their biggest barrier to accessing health care.
  • 47% report that English classes are the most-needed service in their community.

“Our findings suggest that resettlement programs in Oakland are not yet successful,” said Zar Ni Maung of BRFN. “We would like to see federal and local refugee government agencies and nonprofits working together with and supporting grassroots community organizations in order to help members of our community achieve self-sufficiency.”

The report’s recommendations include an extension of the federal Refugee Cash Assistance Program, which currently only provides support to refugees for eight months after their arrival in the U.S. It also calls for direct support for refugee community organizations helping their own communities, the funding and training of interpreters in ethnic languages, and increased provision of adult ESL classes, particularly classes appropriate for learners with low levels of formal schooling.

“Refugees from Burma are brought here to escape years of persecution and hardship, and are hoping for a better life in the U.S., but instead they are being neglected and caught in a web of poverty,” Maung said. “Here, we should have more human rights and opportunities, but we still struggle and must work together to overcome these challenges.”

One refugee who participated in the oral history segment of the report stated, “For the future, we want our children to get educated like people here. So that in the future they will be able to find jobs on their own. That’s what I think and hope for.”

But, I ask why in the future? Why not now? The education could be made available now for all refugees who want to learn, particularly English language skills, so that they can find jobs on their own, and gain self-sufficiency in the first generation of those who resettle, instead of in future generations.

In a land of freedom, liberty and equality, it is only right that the refugees from Burma should be able to keep their original hope for a better life in the United States. They should be given the opportunities that will give them such “flickers of progress” for their lives, so that they can be full citizens of this country as the United States has welcomed them to become.

Su Su Maung
Burma Refugee Family Network

If you are interested in learning more, the report is available on-line at and Burma Refugee Family Network (BRFN) is a community-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established by immigrants and refugees from Burma in 2008 to assist refugees of all ethnic groups from Burma resettling in the wider San Francisco Bay Area. You can visit our website at


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