With a growing number of refugees from Burma making their way to the US, unexpected places like Columbus Junction, Iowa are finding themselves searching for ways to assist these new arrivals.
Burma has been entrenched in political turmoil for the past 50 years. A repressive military dictatorship has caused the displacement of more than 3.5 million Burmese to the Thai-Burma border.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees live in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
Why the Burmese Come to the US
The US is one of some 11 countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Finland, to accept Burmese refugees. The US has historically accepted more refugees for resettlement than all other countries combined. In FY 2010, the US admitted more than 10,000 Burmese Karen and Karenni refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burma border and 6,000 Burmese Chin in Malaysia. The State Department proposed admitting up to 18,500 more Burmese refugees in 2011.
Where Burmese Refugees Are Settling
Fort Wayne, Indiana, is home to about 3,500 Burmese refugees, the largest community in the US. The refugee population includes people who have fled Burma over the past 20 years, such as Buddhist monks, Christians and Muslims. Many of Fort Wayne’s Burmese refugees were imprisoned and tortured in Burma in the wake of a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
Non-profit resettlement organizations began bringing Burmese refugees to Fort Wayne for a number of reasons, including the city’s number of jobs not requiring English proficiency and the low cost of housing. Once refugees started resettling there, the area became a bustling Burmese community that even offered Burmese products.
Recently, a Tyson Foods pork processing plant just outside of Columbus Junction, Iowa has become a large draw for Chin Burmese refugees looking for work. The small town of 2,000 has seen an influx of about 400 Chin over the past few years — a significant number that has required the town to hurdle many unfamiliar translation and interpreting issues.
In addition to Fort Wayne and Columbus Junction, Burmese refugees have resettled in large numbers in Utica, New York; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Phoenix, Arizona; and Fort Worth, Texas.
How Resettlement Works
Burmese refugees are interviewed by US government officers in Southeast Asia. If they are approved for resettlement, they are subject to a background check, screened for medical issues and then provided basic cultural training before traveling to the US.
Eleven resettlement agencies with offices scattered throughout the US are responsible for resettling refugees once they arrive at a port of entry.
These agencies operate under contracts with the US government to provide refugees rent, English language classes, job placement and training, and medical assistance. The goal is to make the refugees self-sufficient by the end of four months.
Language Services for Burmese Refugees
Many of the Burmese refugees are ethnic minorities, including the Karen, Karenni, and Chin. The Karen are one of the largest ethnic populations from Burma. Karenni (or Red Karen) people originated from a formerly independent region in southern Burma. Both the Karen and Karenni speak dialects of the Karen languages.
The Chin people originate from western Burma and also live in nearby Indian states. They speak Hakha, a language shared by other small groups in nearby India and Bangladesh.
A city or community should determine whether its refugees from Burma speak Burmese, Karen or another language or dialect, and then consider what translation or interpreting services are needed to communicate with the population.
For example, Columbus Junction has seen a growing demand for English language classes at a local community college, and has hired an interpreter to provide effective communication for all of the Chin schoolchildren. Other considerations may include translations of public notices and government forms, and/or interpreting for on-site or telephonic proceedings.
Of course, your community may have its own unique needs, and a professional language services company can help you meet them. In fact, a company like Legal Language Services can even help you determine how best to reach out to any newcomers, Burmese or otherwise, if you are unsure of the languages or dialects specific to your community.
Contact us today and discover how the professional linguists at Legal Language can help you.