Burmese Refugees Making San Diego Home
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Aired 11/6/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.
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.
April Moo's parents never talked about their life in Burma. It wasn't until a friend interviewed them that she heard their story.
They said they were farmers; they never went to school. Her mother was adopted and her father was orphaned when he was young. And, they told the friend, they saw a lot of people being killed.
"I can see the pain of what they've been through," Moo said.
In Burma this week, the possibility of peace is raising hope that the world's longest-running civil war could end.
The Burmese government and rebel groups began talks that many hope will result in a cease fire agreement.
Despite talks of peace, sectarian violence persists.
Fighting in Burma, now known officially as Myanmar, began shortly after the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.
More than 60 years of war have forced hundreds of thousands to flee their country and live in refugee camps along the Burmese border. About a thousand of those refugees now live in San Diego.
Moo is one of those refugees. She came to the United States with her family in September 2007 when she was 15. Moo was born in a Burmese refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma. She first learned of the U.S. from a movie. She said she was attracted to the tall buildings and the people seemed nice.
Moo said she and her brother tried to convince their parents to leave the refugee camp, but they were reluctant. Moo's father said he didn’t know the language and felt he was too old to learn.
Moo told her mother that they should apply to a refugee resettlement program to come to the U.S. so that she and her siblings could get an education. And so they came.
In the six years since Moo has lived in San Diego, she's graduated from high school and now attends San Diego City College with hopes of one day becoming a nurse.
"I want to be able to go back to the border of Burma to help people," she said.
She also helps Burmese refugees in San Diego by working part time at Karen Organization of San Diego, pronounced "Corienne." The Karen are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma. Karen San Diego also provides assistance to Kachin, Chin and Burmese refugees.
Karen San Diego is funded by a three-year federal refugee resettlement grant. With that funding, board chair Andrew Rae said the organization helps Burmese refugees gain access to resources.
Moo said as a case manager, she accompanies people to medical appointments or parent-teacher meetings and acts as a translator and fills out paperwork.
She said a group of young Burmese refugees are also learning handweaving in order to be able to make traditional Burmese clothes.
Rae said for many of the adult refugees, language and job skills are low.
He said because these people were part of a generation of armed conflict, they tend to create a very insular community.
This creates a domino effect of Burmese refugees not reaching out for help and, he said, without the connection, some are left feeling as though they don't have all of the opportunities they thought they'd have.
Rae said in addition to connecting with the outside community through the church, Karen San Diego is trying to help bridge the divide between Burmese refugees and the greater San Diego Community.
They hope an event Friday will help more San Diegans understand who these Burmese refugees are.
A local musician was inspired to plan the benefit event when he met a group of Burmese refugee children who were dancing a traditional bamboo dance at an event. He recruited local musicians to donate their music to be a part of a benefit album and to play music at the event.
The benefit concert and art fair at the Mosaic Warehouse in Barrio Logan will feature student artwork and traditionally woven creations.