By Harold ReutterIf the past is any guide, Grand Island may one day be home to Burmese refugees.
That's because Burma has sent more refugees to Nebraska than any other country during the past five years, said Karen Parde, refugee coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Parde spoke at a Thursday Lunch and Learn hosted by the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island.
She said Omaha and Lincoln are Nebraska's two official resettlement cities, but communities such as Grand Island, Lexington, South Sioux City and others are primary locations for secondary refugee migrants.
One of those rights is the freedom to move to any city in the United States and not remain in the original resettlement city chosen for them, Parde said. As a result, refugees often move to a secondary city to be close to family members. They often move because the secondary city offers a better prospect of finding a job and a better chance of finding less expensive housing.
Parde noted that all refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees.
A refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or for having a particular political opinion. Such a person is typically living outside his or her country of birth but is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.
Oftentimes, refugees still do not feel safe in the country they have fled to, so they want to go to a third country, such as the United States, for protection, Parde said.
Many people who flee their country end up living in unsafe conditions, Parde said. She said female Somali refugees find conditions in Somalia so intolerable that they will leave their country even though they know their decision means they may be raped, not just once, but multiple times.
In the United States, a presidential determination is made each October on the number of refugees allowed into the country, Parde said. The number has typically been capped at 75,000, but because of the international turmoil, it has risen to 80,000 refugees the past couple of years.
A total of 80,000 refugees can enter the United States in fiscal year 2010-11, with 15,000 people from Africa; 19,000 from East Asia; 2,000 from Europe and Central Asia; 5,500 from Latin American and Caribbean countries; 35,500 from the Near East and South Asia; and 3,000 refugees as an unallocated reserve with no designated region.
Refugees must undergo a security check before they are allowed into the United States, Parde said. Recently, one more security layer was added. Because security checks have expiration dates, some clearances have lapsed because of the time involved in doing the additional security check. Those initial security clearances must then be redone.
As a result, Parde estimated that between 60,000 and 65,000 refugees will enter the United States this year, even though 80,000 is the approved number.
Nebraska typically agrees to take about 720 immigrants annually, but Parde said it has agreed to take up to 800 refugees in a year. She said the decision to raise the number has been a balancing act, especially when the state economy has slowed.
But Parde said she decided it was foolish to stand firm at 720 people if refugees who originally wanted to settle in Nebraska end up moving to the state within 30 days. She said that is an especially foolish stand to take when transition aid for a refugee will not follow him or her to a secondary site.
She said the primary temporary assistance is a Cash and Medical Assistance program that refugees can receive for up to eight months. However, the expectation is that refugees will find a job within 30 to 90 days.
Parde told The Independent that Nebraska refugees had easily been meeting that goal until the economy slowed. Most refugees continue to find jobs, but now it is often taking five, six or seven months.
Refugees find work despite language and other barriers they must overcome, she said. Nebraska has become a popular state for refugee resettlement because of its relatively low unemployment rate and low cost of living. She said Nebraska's numerous meatpacking plants provide entry-level employment for many refugees.
All refugees are expected to repay the cost of their airfare to the United States, aid that is provided as a three-year loan, with initial payments to begin within six months after a refugee's arrival. That's another reason why refugees work so hard to find jobs quickly. Parde also said many refugees simply want to be self-sufficient and not be a drain on their new country.
According to a chart that Parde provided, Nebraska has accepted 992 refugees from Burma in the past five years; 414 from Sudan; 284 from Thailand; 151 from Somalia; 113 from Vietnam; 93 from Burundi; 90 from Iraq; 89 from the former USSR; 58 from Cuba; and 54 from Bhutan.
She said some Burmese refugees have lived their entire lives in refugee camps. She has seen 19-year-old Burmese women married to 20-year-old Burmese men, with both the women and men knowing nothing other than refugee camp life until they arrived in the U.S. Other refugee groups have spent long periods -- or even most of their lives -- in refugee camps.
As a result, when they arrive in the United States, they have almost no knowledge of modern life, including knowing anything about electricity, refrigerating food or modern sanitation, Parde said.
Many Iraqi refugees, on the other hand, are highly educated and worked as doctors, lawyers or teachers prior to the U.S. invasion, she said. Many of these people cooperated with the U.S. following the invasion, and that has made it dangerous for them to remain in Iraq. Parde said Iraqis who had professional careers are often frustrated that the only immediate work available to them in Nebraska is a job in a meatpacking plant.
While Americans may think of all people from the same country as being the same, refugees see distinctions, Parde said. Somali refugees will divide themselves into what she described as "Somali Bantu" and "Somali Somali." She said the Bantus, an ethnic minority in Somalia, are considered to be of a lower social class by "Somali Somalis." Bantus have sometimes been mistreated by Somalis.
Karen or Karin from Burma is another ethnic minority that sees themselves as quite distinct from other tribes in Burma, Parde said.
Most refugees, though, want to be Americans, Parde said. They want to speak English and to adopt American customs. Children adapt more quickly than parents. They go to school, learn English and get acculturated. As a result, parents sometimes say that several months after their arrival in America, they feel as though they are living in a foreign culture in their own home.
One person asked how to get to know refugees, with one woman responding that volunteering with the Literacy Council is a good way and another woman noting people can get to know immigrants who established their own worship services in local churches.