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Nwe Oo provides a voice for Burmese refugees in Oakland

on December 5, 2013

When Nwe Oo, a Rakhine Burmese refugee, first arrived in Oakland in 2007, she was overwhelmed by an array of emotions ranging from excitement for her new life to grief for the family that she was leaving behind. Oo had applied for political refugee status in Thailand and was granted asylum just six months later. She decided to leave Thailand because her three sons were undocumented in the country so she wasn’t able to enroll them in school. As a third generation refugee, Oo was accustomed to displacement, and like many other refugees, says that she had an “American dream”: that her children would be safe and that she would finally have stability in her new country.

But after living in Oakland for a few months, Oo soon realized that the transition was more complicated, and that many of her fellow refugees were struggling.

Oo noticed that many of the refugees surrounding her were still not able to speak English after several months of living in Oakland and were subsequently unable to find jobs, seek services or apply for green cards. In her spare time she began providing consultation to refugees who needed new jobs, helping them apply for food stamps and assistance-based housing as well as interpreting for them at hospitals and social service agencies.

In Oakland, Oo works at Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA) as the Community Advocate for Burma refugee communities, which seeks to bring culturally aware health services to under-served Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Through the organization, she advocates for the presence of interpreters in hospitals, and educates service providers throughout Oakland about the Burmese refugee communities.

According to CHAA, there are over 700 Burmese refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area, with most of them living in Oakland. The Burmese refugees belong to the ethnic minority groups Karen, Kareni, Chin and Rakhine, which all have different languages and cultures.

Oo herself comes from a long line of Rakhine people, an ethnic minority from Burma that controlled the Arakan state until 1784 when the Burman Buddhists usurped their land. Since then, she and her relatives have been displaced due to the country’s ongoing civil war.

Born on the Bangladesh-Burma border, Oo moved to Thailand as a teenager to attend university. While there, her interest in political activism was sparked when she became involved in the Burmese democracy movement and the Women’s League of Burma. Throughout her years in Thailand she remained outspoken about women and minorities’ rights.  Oo says that while she was in Thailand and speaking out on the unjust treatment of minorities in her native country, she was motivated by her goal of seeking safety and justice for her family. “They can take over our land, they can take over our home, our village, but they can not take away our future,” Oo says.

Recognizing a need for representatives within the refugee community, Oo has helped initiate several organizations throughout Oakland to provide immigrants with a voice. Oo is an administrator for the Burmese Youth Association, a refugee-youth ambassador program. Through the organization she helps bridge the gap between ethnic Burmese minorities that historically didn’t intermingle, encouraging them to sustain their culture by sharing their traditional food, song and dance.

She is also involved in a monthly gathering for AAPI women, where she lends an ear for them to vent about the issues that they might be facing at home. She hopes that her efforts to bring together refugee women will provide them with a support system that they may not otherwise find in their community. Once a month she also holds weaving circles so that the women can maintain the traditions of their homeland and to generate an economy for the AAPI community by selling them at various cultural events throughout the city.  “Many AAPI women stay at home with their children. They don’t have any social support,” Oo says.

When refugees first arrive in Oakland, a resettlement agency sponsors them through the Reception and Replacement Program that is initiated by the Department of State. The program provides the recent arrivals with housing, cash assistance and basic needs for at least 30 days. Afterwards, the Department of State encourages the resettlement agencies to have a contingency plan for the refugees that helps them find work or social services and lasts for at least three months.

But that assistance isn’t always enough. Oo says that many refugees living in America are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder because they are coming from war zones, and may also struggle to adjust to a new language, culture, and environment. “Because of the many barriers in their life, and because they don’t understand the system, the people are frustrated,” Oo says. She thinks that these challenges sometimes cause refugees to be violent.

According to CHAA, domestic abuse is a concern amongst the refugee populations in part because of the frustration of not being able to find a job, with men sometimes resorting to domestic abuse as a way to reassert power roles in a new country where much feels uncertain.

Oo herself was a victim of domestic violence, and says that women in the Burmese community are often led to believe that violence in the home is a “family matter” and that it is inappropriate to speak up about it.

Her commitment to speaking out for human rights has led Oo to participate in committees elsewhere throughout the nation and internationally. Nationally, she is involved in the White House Initiatives on AAPI, where she provides advice on programs and policies for the Burmese refugee population. She is especially outspoken about women’s rights and encourages politicians to provide women with more support. She thinks that it’s important to represent female immigrants, “When I look at the policy makers who make decisions, there are no women of color like me,” Oo says. She speaks on behalf of the Burmese refugees, consulting the White House about the different languages Burmese refugees speak and the needs for various language services. Oo helped bring the initiative to Oakland last year, where they had a town hall meeting on the status of minorities from Bhutan, Burma, Mongolia and Tibet in the city.

Internationally, Oo spoke at the 57th annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting in August 2013, where she used her personal experience of being abused by her ex- husband as a springboard for a conversation about domestic abuse. She also shared stories that women in her community have told her about suffering from domestic abuse. “We need a judicial system…that works for women’s rights and makes sure that women and children are safe,” says Oo.

Oo hopes that her advocacy work will create a safer environment for other women who are in her shoes, but unable to speak out as she is – whether those women are Burmese or not. “I care about people of color, people who suffer, are poor or undocumented, because I come from this life,” Oo says.

Image: Nwo Oo speaks at the TEDxPeacePlaza 2013. Photo credit: Jason Jao.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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