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Burmese Refugees in Oakland Living in Extreme Poverty

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Lack of English language skills has prevented many of the refugees from landing jobs and even seeking health care, said 29-year-old Kwee Say, who interprets for both the Burmese and Karen-speaking refugees at the Asian Health Services.

She herself arrived in Oakland as a refugee back in 2004, armed with English skills and a determination to earn a degree from a U.S. university.

“Knowing English was a big help,” Say said. “It helped me earn a degree” in biochemistry and science from U.C. Davis.

The needs assessment report found that 38 percent of Oakland’s refugees from Myanmar speak no English at all, while 28 percent of them spoke English poorly.

It also found that 63 percent of them are unemployed, and those who are employed, are in low-paying jobs.

The majority of them said lack of English-language skills is their biggest barrier to assessing health care, according to the report.

Most of the refugees from Myanmar are on the Alameda Alliance health plan, which however does not cover dental and vision care. But refugees get those needs met at the Asian Health Services on 8th Street, which has two interpreters fluent in Burmese and Karen.

However, if AHS refers their refugee patients to specialists, many of them just don’t go because of language barriers, Bwar said.

“We cannot communicate with them, and we cannot find interpreters to take with us,” Muang said.

Even if interpreters are available, the long wait for them at clinics or hospitals discourages many refugees from seeking medical care.

“Sometimes I have to wait all day,” said Moe Reh.

Their hardships notwithstanding, Muang said he wouldn’t dream of going back to Myanmar on the strength of promises currently being made by its military leaders.

“But if (opposition leader) Aung San Suu Kyi comes to power and establishes a democratic government, I’ll go back,” Maung said, his face lighting up at the prospect.

This post was originally published by New America Media.


Related Stories:

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Burmese Fishermen Are Trafficked and Abused on Thai Fishing Boats


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Photo: SF State researcher Kwee Say (right) interviews Karen refugees from Burma Tha Mee (center) and Mu Doe (left) at a health fair. Photo courtesy of Johnny Hu. Courtesy of New America Media

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4:43AM PST on Dec 8, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:11AM PST on Dec 8, 2011


5:02AM PST on Dec 7, 2011


12:43AM PST on Dec 7, 2011

It's sad- but to learn another language you must immerse yourself in it. After classes, watch only English speaking TV and listen to English radio. Speak English at home as much as possible. Use your native language only when important- like legal matters.

12:41AM PST on Dec 7, 2011

Thanks for posting.

5:13PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

Well... the USA isn't exactly known for it's empathy on the weakest of their society...

1:02PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

My ancestors (great-grandparents, akshully) came to America poor, learned English through their kids (there were no ESL classes in 19-ought-6, my great-grandma had to go around to rich peoples' houses with cleaning supplies to get work), and we as an extended family, four generations later, are still fighting our way out of the poorhouse. While I feel bad for these folks, it's a dog-eat-dog world in America right now, and has been for a while. Not that we shouldn't try to care for each other, but they couldn't have thought that coming here was coming to a place of golden streets, laden with milk and honey.

10:25AM PST on Dec 6, 2011

My Ancestors migrated here and became Americans. They had about the same kind of problems these Burmese have. Well they learned American English, from their children and struggled to find work. They survived the Great Depression, they survived. You only get things out of life what you put into it. You survive. These people can now join the ranks of those patiently waiting on line,for help. Well we are still,to a degree,The LAND of the FREE. Thank you for the article...

6:56PM PST on Dec 5, 2011


4:37PM PST on Dec 5, 2011

sad, they go from Poverty, to more poverty, but more free :/

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