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Burmese Refugees Making San Diego Home

November 6, 2013 1:40 p.m.


April Moo, is a Burmese refugee who is a student at San Diego City College. She works part time at the Karen Organization of San Diego.

Andrew Rae is the board chair for the Karen Organization of San Diego.

Related Story: Burmese Refugees Making San Diego Home


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The nation of Burma has been wracked by an multifaceted Civil War. Since 1948, years of military regimes are still creating violence and thousands of refugees within the last decade. San Diego has become home to more than 1000 Burmese refugees. Many left from small farms to relocate to the states, and culture shocks have been enormous. This week San Diego is hoping to use art as a way to raise money for the refugee community. I want to welcome guests Andrew and April. All refugees face challenges, but the transition that Burmese are facing as they come to San Diego is moving from one world to another.

ANDREW RAE: Think about the lack of infrastructure and the current state that as a result of this ongoing conflict there. It is an extremely rural environment in a lot of areas much is very up in the air do that people tend to be moving around from village to village very quickly. In transitioning from that into the review refugee camp which is a little more step stable and a lot of people don't want to resettle as the first thought of people going to refugee camp thinking they can weather the conflict and return home at some point, and so the decision to come to the third country is often a different one year once refugees come to San Diego they are in an urban environment with it different set of challenges.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How difficult has it been for your parents to the new home in San Diego?

APRIL MOO: It's very difficult because this is a new country and it's very new for them, and they do not know the language or culture and have to start studying English, and was also hard for them to find a job, and then to adjust in this country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Assuming challenges the face you when you come from an refugee camp and run around and try to resettle in the refugee camp and then try to resettle in the United States as well, it's something that most of us cannot imagine. Andrew, this conflict in Burma is a longest civil war in record. Is this an ethnic or civil war?

ANDREW RAE: Before the new military took over it was a draft constitution that would be reunited Burma for two years and then allowed the opportunity for different ethics states to separate out into their own governments. Now contentious all of the time, and hence the military taking in and taking control of the country and keeping the country United kind of for the sake of resources that are in the different indigenous areas.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the military leadership was deposed a couple of years ago, are things there better now?

ANDREW RAE: There are early signs of improvement and in relations to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have recently visited the country and of the whole you can see the tensions but one of the things they have to consider is that the complex in the border regions are much more entrenched than the local decisions that are happening in the capital.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: On Tuesday a joint statement announced that an agreement had been made in principle for the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement, and I imagine that is good news.

ANDREW RAE: Absolutely. On the other hand is certainly not the first cease-fire agreement that has been taking place in different areas and certainly has the potential like ones in the past to break down or still get corrupted in specific skirmishes and things like that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is a very troubled region still. April, have your parents told you about their lives in Burma?

APRIL MOO: My parents don't talk about their experiences, but I remember one time that they talked about it and they said that they saw a lot of torture and a lot of killing, a lot of things. They also did run from village to village just running for their lives, and each place that they lived in was never stable. While they are talking I can see tears on their eyes and it hurts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They're trying to protect you by not talking about it?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are people able to live for years in refugee camps as April and her family have?

ANDREW RAE: Yes most of the refugees that I work with here have been in the refugee camp for more than ten years. My initial interest was my travels and work they did in one years ago, and again most of the people that were there and lived there for seven or eight years and sometimes bouncing back and forth between the current state in the refugee camp when there are tensions and for the most part it really is a part of the way of life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hoping to be able to go back is that the idea? Ultimately go back to the village you came from?

ANDREW RAE: Exactly, one of the military strategies out there is called the dry season offensive, just because the terrain is so mountainous in the rainy season is just makes the trails and roads so difficult to pass through so the military will come through the village and basically burn schools and structures and destroy livestock and crops just basically to disrupt life for the functioning rebel groups out there. It's one of those conflicts that there's no real end in sight.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: April, did you parents want to come to the US?

APRIL MOO: They didn't, they knew how hard it would be but they wanted their children to have a better life and better education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why did you want to come? What did you expect?

APRIL MOO: Because I saw it in the movies how the schools and the buildings and everything is good because when you live in camp, everything is permanent and so, my expectations here is that when I come here I am going to different buildings and everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How was San Diego like what you imagine, and how is it not like what you imagined?

APRIL MOO: Well, it's kind of like what I expected because I lived in camp and never touched a computer or cell phone or anything technology, and also our house is made of bamboo and wooden leaves, it's totally different here. When I came here so excited, I also felt lost because I don't know how to figure it out how to open the door, flush the toilet and all of those little things. Also, it's something that I did not expect to see some of the people from different countries.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Also, different people from different countries all here in the United States, or you have this one image of people maybe living in big houses?

APRIL MOO: Yes, I expected that everyone would live in huge houses and have white skin and blond hair and blue eyes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the reality is different than that. How old were you when you arrived in the US?

APRIL MOO: I was fifteen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many Burmese refugee groups are represented here in San Diego?

ANDREW RAE: Basically 80% but we also have clients that are currently from many other areas. There are other groups that are in smaller pockets but have similar enough needs that her organization caters them all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of assistance and support you give to the refugees here in San Diego?

ANDREW RAE: I think that one of the biggest things to developing a sense of self efficacy and a lot of our community when the command over is finding a way to transfer job skills that they have and find a way for them to make a living and liberties that we take for granted. A lot of the work that we do is in job placement and since we began 2009 with placed 142 refugees in work environments and another big thing that we've helped with is navigating bureaucracy that is very new to a lot of people that come over. If you think about receiving healthcare, how comforted that is to go to the process of hearing a diagnosis and getting prescriptions and understanding when and how to take them, if you're in an environment where you do not have the proper language and understanding of what people are giving you, a lot of times you end up receiving healthcare is it daunting task.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it important for Burmese committee to reach over assistance, do people find themselves isolated in this community?

ANDREW RAE: Absolutely. It's one of those things that comes from generations of conflict that have been happening there. A lot of the groups can be insular and a wary of outsiders but at the same time very eager to rebuild their lives and to establish connections that they need in order to thrive as a community here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: April you work with young Burmese here in San Diego, what do they tell you that they find difficult in the US?

APRIL MOO: The first thing is that a lot of them are the youth living in camp and they've never been to school so it's hard for them to become language and to make friends.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do you help them?

APRIL MOO: Well, I've been through that, and I say to not to give up and be positive and even though you don't know the language to go through Saturday school and afterschool programs and take every opportunity you have.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are your other goals?

APRIL MOO: I want to be in nurse in the future, and go back and to my country to help somehow in the medical field.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How are your parents? They must be proud of you.

APRIL MOO: My parents are proud. My dad is one of the leaders in the community and he has been doing great.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: At the end of the year the US will not take refugees anymore and this situation has supposedly stabilized. How has the community responded to that?

ANDREW RAE: We have not been getting a lot of feedback. Initially there was a lot of anxiety and they thought that this was going to be an immediate and the process as a whole but the reality of it is that this is going to be one last big push for all the people that either have half their family in the US and half in the refugee camp, or the individuals have maybe gone and begun the process recently but haven't finished. The reality is that there's going to be a surge of refugees from Burma, coming before the program is completely shut down.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you prepared for that?

ANDREW RAE: Absolutely, San Diego is one of the largest cities that refugees from Burma are definitely resettled to and we think that the last two years that the organization has developed. We are very community driven in progress, very grassroots and very born out of effort. Consider the community to organize themselves so I think that we're really cultivating that capacity in our organization and the community that lives here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you have a fundraiser coming up on Fridays it's going to be really packed with art and a lot of local artists have taken part, and a lot of musicians. Tell us about what this event is going to be like.

ANDREW RAE: The event originally came to me through a musician and he gets in youth participants that show where they use scripted traditional dance using bamboo poles. He was so inspired by the community that he wanted to do a fundraiser with us. I can't say no to that. Since then we have had a wonderful convergence of interested people and a lot of people who of discovered the community for the first time and a lot of people who have that special insight into it and we've mobilized a wonderful group of partners namely the Balboa city schools, the Ballast Point Brewery, the Coffee and Tea Collective, and the Mosaic Center downtown. We're having performances and art from local artists.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Andrew Rae and April Moo. Thank you for coming in and talking to us.