New world, new worries
Two weeks after landing in Seattle, Dolla Nung heads to World Relief’s offices for the first of three orientation classes he must take before starting English as a Second Language classes.
He wears a smile as he sets off toward the bus stop, forgetting this time to remark on how much colder Seattle is from balmy Malaysia as he steps out the door. His wife, Helen Cer, stays behind to care for two-year-old Rachel Malsawmhui, who has developed a cold, but Dolla promises to relate the information from class to her.
They are both in higher spirits than they have been since their first days in Kent: They spent the last two weeks sitting in their new apartment, waiting to hear what they needed to do next, and after so much time doing nothing but waiting in their new apartment, the novelty of reaching America has been replaced by an eagerness to do something.
During their first month in America, the family will finally learn just what life in America looks like for a resettled refugee. The next three weeks will be spent wading through stacks of incomprehensible paperwork and juggling the tension between their new culture and their old one. The longer they’re in Kent, the more the family realizes how imperative it is that they find a job quickly, because their newfound support in America won’t last long.
The U.S. government gives World Relief $900 per person for resettlement purposes. This money is used to pay for the first months of rent and security deposits, furniture for refugees’ new homes, clothing, bills, and other necessities. World Relief controls this money, giving families small amounts of it to spend at a time, and acts as broker for finding an apartment with reasonable rent. Otherwise, it would be too easy for landlords and other parties to take advantage of refugees who are unfamiliar with the cost of living in America.
At the end of the 90-day resettlement period, World Relief gives whatever of this money is left to resettled families, warning them to be careful with it: this is the last of the funding the government will give them. Often, refugees do not yet have jobs, and it is at this time that they become disenchanted with America. The harsh financial realities of the country emerge at the same time as World Relief’s involvement with them wanes: they must shift their attention to help resettle the additional refugees who are coming to Seattle each month.
In each of the orientation classes World Relief gives newly resettled refugees, the greatest emphasis is placed on the importance of work and money. By the time Dolla finishes these classes, he understands the dire financial situation he will be in without a job once his resettlement period ends in February.
The World Relief classroom could belong to any high school in the country, from its small chairs crowded in circles around large tables to the bright posters that cover its walls. Dolla arrives to his first class early and takes a seat, looking around the room. As more refugees enter the room, he fidgets slightly, folding his hands on the table and then placing them in his lap before again returning them to the table.
A large world map stretches across most of one wall. A young refugee stares at it in the final moments before class begins, ignoring the buzz of conversation around him. He raises his hand and traces a path on the map from Southeast Asia to Washington State.
Liz Andes, a resettlement caseworker at World Relief, leads the day’s orientation class. She speaks slowly, looking around the room to make eye contact to confirm understanding with every refugee sitting at the crowded tables or leaning against the walls in the absence of enough seats.
While Dolla has spoken English for most of his life because the language is usually taught in Burmese schools, for many refugees, resettlement thrusts them into a completely unfamiliar culture mediated by a completely unfamiliar language. Andes tells the room of refugees what the next three months will look like, and what their responsibilities will be.
“Keep all of your important documents,” she says. “In America, paperwork is very, very important.”
For refugees, these important documents include their i-94 cards, which prove to any government official that the people carrying them are in the country legally under refugee status as defined by international law; the Social Security card refugees receive about a month after arriving; their employment authorization documents; food stamp cards; Washington state identification card; and the medical cards World Relief issues to each refugee.
“It’s very important that you keep your information private,” Andes says. “Do not give people your Social Security number and do not lose these documents. They prove that you have been invited by the U.S. to come live here. Keep them safe.”
The refugees sit still and silent as Andes speaks, nodding occasionally as they try to understand the intricacies of U.S. social programs, where numbers and papers mean so much. Even as a refugee with advanced English skills, Dolla has a hard time ingesting all of the information Andes relates. It’s all forms and rules and things to think about in the future, and the class is overwhelming.
Later, as Dolla explains their paperwork and responsibilities to his wife, there are gaps in his explanation, and his mind feels hazy as he tries to recall the precise wording of the instructions in class. The couple’s neighbor, Steven Khai, a Burmese refugee who has been in Kent for two weeks, comes over later that afternoon and the three discuss with furrowed brows what all the rules
Orientation is also an invitation for refugees to seek help when they need it.
“World Relief is here to help you start your new life in America,” Andes says. “Your caseworker will not do everything for you, but they will show you how to do it.”
Caseworkers are the mediators between refugees and the rest of the country. They visit their assigned refugees to answer questions and help them get all of their paperwork in order for their lives in America. Suiem Vankulh is Helen and Dolla’s caseworker, and she helps the family register 16-year-old Albert Pui for school, apply for Social Security numbers, and get food stamps. She schedules and drives them to their first doctor’s appointments, explaining along the way how to navigate such appointments on their own.
Caseworkers do what they can to ease refugees into their new cultures, but it’s difficult to cover all the difficulties that might arise, and refugees often seek consultation with their caseworkers.
Andes gives more basic instructions: read your mail every day and bring your caseworker anything you don’t understand, and come to ESL class every day as well. Don’t lose your bus card – it allows you unlimited access to the public transportation system. She also explains that in America, time is more important than it is in most countries. It’s important that refugees take heed of this and arrive at appointments on time.
Finally, refugees need to ask questions. Often, they will feign comprehension out of frustration with the complexities of English and the speed at which native speakers talk. Things that seem fundamental to those who have grown up in American culture – such as telephone etiquette or the use of crosswalks – are new to many refugees, and World Relief works to make the transition between one set of cultural norms and mores to another.
“Always tell someone if you don’t understand what they are saying,” Andes tells the newly resettled refugees.
But most importantly, refugees need to save as much money as they can.
“Right now, you might feel like you have a lot of money,” Andes says. “But it won’t last forever. You need to save for the future.”
Dolla nods his head hard once as class ends; he’s determined to make it.
“I just need to work”
“I am worried about my future,” Dolla says.
One rainy day stretches into another as the family waits for their work cards to come. By the beginning of December, they know the urgency of finding a job: their government funding expires in just over a month, and once that happens, they don’t know how they’ll find money for their living expenses.
“We can’t even look for job until we get cards,” Dolla says. “I know people, other refugees, who look for months and can’t find anything.”
Much of the last month has centered on one problem for Helen and Dolla: they still do not have employment authorization cards, which give them permission to seek a job in the country. Helen says that they’ve been told to wait for the cards to come in the mail, that there has been some sort of mix-up with the registration and that the cards will be here any day. She feels helpless because she knows that many refugees look for months or years without finding a job – and her family can’t even begin the search.
Dolla heard there are shipyards in Seattle. As a young man in Burma, he left the country for several years to work in shipyards in Singapore, so he wants to walk or take the bus twenty miles north to seek employment. He also knows how to do electrical wiring, and he thinks somebody in the city might have work for him. He doesn’t want to call ahead; he says people don’t like to talk to him on the phone because his English isn’t as strong as it could be. “I just need to work,” he says.
In the end, he decides not to journey north. Everyone keeps telling him the best thing to do is wait until the cards come in the mail, but nobody seems to be able to tellDolla when that will happen. All he can do is sit and wait.
Among the myriad classes World Relief hosts are job classes. In this class, refugees learn about finding employment, including about the application process – many countries don’t use resumes or references – and about how to approach a job interview. The organization does what it can to find as many jobs for refugees as it can, and it partners with multiple local businesses who hire refugees specifically for their entry-level jobs. But in a recession economy, Kent’s unemployment rate sits at 8.6 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and finding a job becomes doubly hard for refugees who have limited experience in English or American culture.
As December continues, life for Dolla and his family looks much the same as it did just over a month ago when they first landed in America: read, watch TV, and reminisce about their homes in Burma and Malaysia. After they got their first phone bill, the family realized that the long-distance calls they’d been making to friends and relatives needed to stop. Instead, they watch music videos that were filmed in the Burmese countryside. Helen says she doesn’t like the music much, but she likes seeing the country she grew up in.
“It is so beautiful in Burma,” she says. “I miss it.”
“I don’t want her to forget she is Chin”
Winter moves in on the city quickly after the family arrives.
“In Malaysia, we don’t havewinter,” Dolla says. “All the time, hot. When we stayed there, we wanted cold.” He laughs. “Here, we want hot!”
One thing is certain: Kent is a city for refugees. The refugee population is vast enough that resources are in greater supply here than elsewhere in the country, and refugees move into a built-in community of similarly displaced people.
Often, refugees coming to America struggle in their assimilation to their new culture, but in Kent, refugees are not uncommon. Since Kent hosts most of the refugees resettled in Washington State, its city actively creates and sustains organizations to promote refugees’ integration into the city life. Not only are there active resettlement agencies in the city, but there after-school programs for refugee children and housing initiatives to produce more low-income, easily accessible housing options. Many churches lend their building to different refugee communities so services can be held in the host of languages that can be heard on the streets of Kent.
Further, ethnic minority groups total approximately 30 percent of the city’s modest population, compared to the 20 percent population in the United States as a whole. Most refugees settle into pockets of the city, with entire apartment complexes hosting refugee families nearly exclusively. Doors remain unlocked, and children move from one apartment to another in mimicry of the shared childcare system refugees in Malaysia assumed. The longer refugees stay in America, though, the less trusting they become. Doors are closed and knocking becomes customary as the American values of security and privacy settle.
The longer refugees stay in America, the more American they feel. The only way to make it here is if they shed some elements of their native cultures and adapt to American life. One thing refugees must struggle with his how much of the old to replace with the new.
Usually, the children of refugees grow up as near-Americans, a hybrid of their parents’ cultures and the one they grow up in. Even if a mother tongue is spoken at home, refugee children encounter English from the time they start school. Because they are educated in the language, and because they speak strictly in English when out shopping or at appointments, they absorb the language gracefully. Often, refugees will rely on their children as cultural brokers to the rest of the world: their kids explain the language of leases, translate at the doctor’s office, and explain social systems.
Helen knows this, and her feelings of it are bittersweet. Although Rachel was born in Malaysia after Helen and Dolla married, she was only two when she moved to America. This gives her some options.
“I want her to go to college, have car, find a good job,” Helen says. “I want her to have more.”
Rachel is the first in the family who will be able to experience the American school system in its entirety. Unlike her older brother, she will never have to flee from gunshots into the Burmese jungle or spend time in a harsh Malaysian prison. Hers will be a different story, and Helen says she’s glad to raise her daughter in a safer place.
Since they’ve arrived here, Dolla and Helen have spoken exclusively in English, switching to Hakha-Chin only when their evolving English lexicon limits them too much to communicate – and when they address their daughter.
“She is going to grow up American,” Helen says. “I don’t want her to forget she is Chin.”
Helen is grateful every day that she lives in America. Things are easier here, and she knows her children will grow up to have a better life than she ever did. But as much as Helen and Dolla love America, they refuse to lose their national identity. They grew up in Burma, and they do not forget that. They are Chin people no matter what, and once they have jobs, they plan to send money back to those they left behind.
“We are very lucky,” Dolla says. “But we must remember the rest of the Chin people.”