R.I. Institute Makes Refuges Feel at Home

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — In 2002, at the age of 10, Myint Soe’s life changed forever, when he and his family walked into the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. Myint’s mother and father had lived in Burma their whole lives. His father was a carpenter, and his mother managed the home. Ethnically Karen, they were being persecuted by the Burmese government, notorious for disregarding human rights, and forced to flee.

The Mae La refugee camp, the largest of nine camps situated along Thailand’s western border with Burma, is home to about 50,000 refugees. The refugees, more than 80 percent of whom are Karen, occupy thousands of wooden homes with thatched roofs situated on rolling hills of jungle overlooked by towering cliffs. The camp provides food and services, such as schooling, health care and resettlement assistance programs, to Burmese refugees.

Initially, Myint didn’t understand what had happened to his family. “When I grew up — when we are children, how can we know?” he asks. He attended and completed high school while at Mae La, and spent his free time drawing; he has always had a passion for art. As his years progressed, he began to grasp the situation. “We felt not free,” he said. “We could not leave the fence. It was guarded by soldiers.”

Myint’s mother took care of the family, looking after Myint and his younger siblings. His father found work within the camp building houses and schools. As a result, the family was able to supplement the standard rations of beans and fish paste with pork, fruits and vegetables.

Myint and his family eventually were cleared for resettlement to the United States, after passing a series of tests that included medical exams and U.S. culture tests. In May 2012, after 10 years in the refugee camp, the Soe family finally stepped beyond the guarded fence and began their journey to Rhode Island.

Opening new doors
To the people who work at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (DIIRI), Myint’s story isn’t unusual. DIIRI, a nonprofit on the city’s South Side, has worked for 91 years to provide immigrants living in Rhode Island and southern New England with educational, social and legal services. The organization aims to make immigrants self-sufficient and the communities they settle in welcoming.

DIIRI’s assistance is in high demand; 15 percent of Rhode Island’s population is foreign born and 24 percent of children in Rhode Island live with immigrant families.

While DIIRI’s services are available to all immigrants, its Refugee Resettlement Program focuses strictly on Rhode Island’s refugee population. The program was established in the mid-1970s as a result of an influx of Southeast Asian refugees displaced by the Vietnam War. Those refugees had no ties to America and no understanding of its culture, climate or language. Hmong tribesmen, for example, were practically unfamiliar with written language. Everyday items such as TVs, toasters and doorbells baffled them.

Compounding the problem, local organizations and public schools were mostly ignorant of Southeast Asian culture. Agencies had to adjust quickly, because greater numbers of refugees continued to arrive each year. In 1978, the International Institute settled 66 refugees; in 1979, it settled 449.

Even today, three decades later, the transition can be confusing, as demonstrated by one of Myint’s first experiences after leaving Mae La. “I had never been on a plane before, and I had very-basic English,” he recalled. “I ended up in the wrong seat."

Most refugees now arrive in Rhode Island after having spent between five and 10 years in a refugee camp, according to Mary Ellen Lynch, DIIRI’s volunteer coordinator. Some, she said, had lived in camps for decades.

“They have been displaced or in camps for so long that they might have photos or some clothes, but they don’t have any valuables,” Lynch said.

Myint arrived in America with some clothes and a collection of drawings.

Visitors with baggage
In addition to their lack of basic necessities, most refugees arrive speaking either limited English or none at all. Many have mental-health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, often resulting from the events that led up to and followed their initial displacement. Many Iraqi refugees are tortured before they reach a refugee camp, according to Lynch.

DIIRI manages about 90 percent of all refugees in Rhode Island; in 2011 it assisted 165 new refugees. Upon arrival, refugees are provided with a furnished apartment and attend an intensive cultural orientation. They learn about American laws, how to access basic necessities such as groceries, and how to navigate the public transportation system.

“Transportation is a big barrier,” said Lynch, noting that refugees don’t have cars or drivers’ licenses. “Most live near the institute so they can walk here, but when we look for jobs, they need to be bus accessible.”

Bikes, she said, help refugees get around for relatively low cost.

Myint’s family is struggling with transportation. Shortly after the family’s arrival, Myint’s father found work as a roofer, but his employer had to stop using him after getting to job sites became a problem. After his father gets a car he will be able to go back to work for the company, but Myint said getting a license will be difficult since his Dad speaks no English. There is a written exam, and it’s unlikely the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles offers a test preparation manual translated into Sgaw Karen.

DIIRI caseworkers assist refugees in assuring their needs are met. They help with budgeting, financial planning and navigating our health-care system.

“They can come to me for anything,” said Sarah Antaya, a DIIRI case manager. Antaya has helped refugees search for and move into apartments. She has confronted problematic landlords, and helps get young children into Head Start programs. Many still-assimilating refugees simply come to her with mail and ask, “What does it all mean?”

The goal of the program is to teach refugees to function independently. This is often challenging as it conflicts with the lifestyle of dependency learned in refugee camps.

Education is key
English as a second language (ESL) and job readiness classes are the key to a refugee gaining self-sufficiency. Ed McFadden has been teaching the advanced level ESL classes at DIIRI since September. Only English is spoken in these classes, though McFadden said refugees who speak the same language sometimes help each other understand what is happening in the beginner class.

McFadden said the classes also concentrate on teaching cultural skills. Refugees learn about how to present themselves at a job interview. They learn common American mannerisms, how much personal space Americans expect, how to prioritize purchases and how to deal with snow storms.

“It’s bigger than just learning English,” he said.

Once refugees complete their ESL and job readiness classes many choose to take GED-preparation classes or intensive job trainings.

The International Institute of Rhode Island, which offered ESL and job-readiness classes, recently merged with Dorcas Place, which concentrated on developing more specific skills, to form DIIRI.

“(The Merger) is exciting because we see the synergy between the clients we each serve,” said Jessica Barry, development officer for DIIRI. She said the merger has created a better continuum of services and allows clients to transition between basic-skills classes and more focused job-training classes with greater fluidity.

About 90 percent of adult refugees obtain full- or part-time employment within 12 months of their arrival at DIIRI, including the 92 refugees who found employment in 2011.

American dreams
Myint and his father were among the refugees who found employment in 2012. Unfortunately, like his father, Myint is no longer working. Though he found a job moving and wrapping boxes at Ocean State Job Lot in August, he was laid off in December. He is now searching for a new job, a task he said is one of the most overwhelming he has had to grapple with since his arrival.

Myint has a high degree of determination, according to McFadden. He finished high school during his time in the refugee camp and has improved his English tremendously since attending classes at DIIRI.

For Myint, the American pronunciation of English was difficult to comprehend. “I knew a lot of English (in Thailand), but when I came here I basically had to start over,” he said. “I could not understand anyone.”

Even while Myint was working the night shift at Ocean State Job Lot he continued to attend DIIRI classes during the day. He plans on continuing with the advanced ESL and job-readiness class for another few months, then transition to a GED-preparation class. Ultimately, he wants to become an artist.

“When my father came (to America) he had a hope for his children to go to school and get educated,” Myint said. Myint dreams of going to the Rhode Island School of Design, but admitted he doesn’t understand how to make that happen.

“I love to paint portraits or people,” he said. “I want to use art to show how refugee people feel."