Seeking Sanctuary

Language a barrier for Burmese families in Bowling Green

Photo by Lauren Nolan

This article was published at in December 2015. The site is currently down.

By Jessica Voorhees

The family of 10 stared blankly as the sales associate repeated her question for the third time.

“Did you pick out frames?” she asked. This time, she pointed to her own glasses and then to the hundreds of pairs lining the walls of the vision care office.

Kae Meh, 15, just finished an appointment with an optometrist. Her parents, Shaw Reh, 59, and Ko Meh, 44, sat in waiting room chairs with young children on their laps. The others surrounded them. Some played on the floor while the older ones plopped patiently in seats beside them. Their children ranged in age from 2 to 24 years old.

Shaw Reh and Ko Meh’s niece, Prah Mo, 15, who sat behind them, took a break from her young adult novel to ask the sales associate to repeat her question “easier.”

Prah Mo served as an interpreter for the family, who only spoke Karenni. No one else in the family spoke English and they struggled to navigate paperwork, medical appointments and daily errands during their first few months in the country.

The family relocated to Bowling Green in August 2015 after spending 20 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. They fled to the camp from their home in the Karenni State, now called the Kayah State, in Myanmar, where they suffered ethnic persecution by the Myanmar military.

Refugees from Myanmar, a country formerly known as Burma, make up more than half of the 3,040 refugees relocated to Bowling Green between 2004 and 2013, according to the 2013 U.S. census.

Around 2,000 Burmese refugees live in Bowling Green today, said Leyda Becker, Bowling Green’s international communities liaison. Becker said the city will continue to accept around 400 refugees for the next few years and most will be Burmese.

The Melting Pot

The population of Bowling Green is 10.6 percent foreign born, which includes refugees and non-refugee immigrants, according to the 2013 U.S. census.

Warren County maintains the second highest population of foreign-born residents in Kentucky at 7.6 percent, according to U.S. census data for 2013.

Cities must provide access to refugee aid organizations to meet national requirements to host refugees. Bowling Green’s aid organizations, including the International Center of Kentucky, allowed the city to accept 405 refugees in 2015. Becker said most of those refugees came from Burma.

Since January 2015, the U.S. has accepted around 13,800 Burmese refugees, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The refugees come from several of the nine ethnic minority groups in Burma. They fled from the violent civil war between their ethnic states and the Burmese government.

The war began when the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. The ethnic groups felt they lacked equal representation in the new Burmese government, so they took up arms shorty after the nation formed to try to gain autonomy and more rights.

The Burmese military took control of the country’s government in the 1960s and attempted to suppress the armed forces of the ethnic states. The military violently persecuted civilians and committed several crimes against humanity, such as sexual violence, forced labor and use of child soldiers, according to the Human Rights Watch.

The ongoing conflict has displaced over half a million people. More than 400,000 citizens of the ethnic minority states remain internally displaced in Burma, while 150,000 others fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries, according to the Border Consortium.

Around 120,000 Burmese refugees live in the nine camps in Thailand and 10.3 percent of those residents come from the Karenni State, according to The Border Consortium.

Located mostly in remote, mountainous sites, the Thai refugee camps impose “harsh restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement, prohibiting residents from leaving the camps, earning income, or obtaining a good quality education,” according to the Human Rights Watch.

Shaw Reh fled to a Thai camp with his family in the mid-1990s after he witnessed Burmese soldiers shoot neighbors and burn down houses in his village, Shadaw, in the Karenni State, he said through an interpreter.

Karenni soldiers led the family and other refugees on a weeklong pilgrimage on foot to Thailand. Shaw Reh said he and Koh Meh carried their young children the entire way.

Ko Meh said the journey took longer because their babies needed sleep, so the group slept during the day and travelled at night, hiding from Burmese soldiers along the way.

The family remained in the refugee camp in eastern Thailand for 20 years, where they worked as farmers and waited for resettlement.

“To be honest, it was not a happy place,” Shaw Reh said through an interpreter.

Shaw Reh, Ko Meh and eight of their children achieved resettlement approval in August 2015 and moved to Bowling Green, where Ko Meh’s brother resettled six years earlier. Their eldest son, now an adult, remained in Thailand, Ko Meh said.

Fresh Off the Boat

Becker said language proves the biggest challenge for new refugees in the U.S. because it takes many years to master while it affects every aspect of their lives — from doctor appointments to going to court and paying bills.

U.S. law requires medical providers who accept federal money, including Medicaid, to provide an interpreter for families with limited English abilities, said Heath Ray, refugee program coordinator at Community Action of Southern Kentucky.

“It’s uncommon that a lot of medical providers are aware of that, so it just doesn’t happen here in Bowling Green,” Ray said.

Ray said medical providers violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by failing to provide equal access to services for individuals with limited English while receiving federal money.

“If we were to tell people you can’t come here for services because of your skin color that would be obvious discrimination, but if I were to say you can’t come here because of your language, no one cares,” he said. “It’s common, but that’s also discrimination.”

However, the few options for certified Karenni language interpreters limit medical providers from arranging interpreted appointments, more so than for people who speak Burmese or Karen languages, Ray said.

One certified Karenni court interpreter serves the whole state of Kentucky and maintains a busy schedule throughout the year, Becker said.

To address the language problem, Bowling Green provides language access cards to individuals who are limited English proficient. Non-English speakers can show the card, which identifies their preferred language, at all city departments to receive access to a telephone interpreting service that serves 170 languages, Becker said.

The city also provides Language Access Plan and cultural competency training to help city employees communicate effectively with limited English proficient individuals and handle cultural differences, Becker said.

“We’ve gone a long way to get people to understand across the city,” Becker said.

Land of Opportunity

Despite language challenges, most refugees work within 30 days of arrival in the U.S. They must pay back the cost of airfare for their travel to the country and meet their rent payments, Becker said.

“The U.S. says we want you here, but you have to work right away,” she said.

But, the job options in Bowling Green for people with limited English abilities are slim. Employers are not required to accommodate non-English speakers, and the language barrier often raises safety concerns, Ray said.

Many refugees, like Shaw Reh and his daughter Prah Mo, 24, spend 12-hour days commuting and working outside the city, Becker said.

Four years ago, 90 percent of refugees worked at the Perdue plant and Tyson Foods, which is an hour from Bowling Green. Recently the International Center of Kentucky stopped the placement of refugees at Tyson due to its distance from the city, Becker said.

Transportation to and from jobs creates a challenge for refugees, who have difficulty obtaining drivers licenses, Becker said.

The driving test offers no options for interpretation for non-English speakers. The content on the written test is hard and offered in 22 languages, not including the Karenni language, Becker said.

“It’s a big problem because a lot of refugees don’t work in Bowling Green,” she said.

Some refugees, like Shaw Reh and Prah Mo, solve the problem by carpooling to their jobs. To travel within Bowling Green, refugees can use Go bg Transit, which runs five bus routes Monday through Friday around the city. The service provides translated route maps in several languages, including Karenni, to accommodate the community.

Ray said affordable housing for refugees, especially big families supported by the income of one or two members, like Shaw Reh’s family, is another challenge to find in Bowling Green.

“Those units are out there but they’re very few and far between,” Ray said. “Some people get on waiting lists for years.”

Two couches lined the bare white walls of the living room in Shaw Reh’s family’s apartment. Pray Mo napped on one while the TV played “Sesame Street” on mute with English subtitles scrolling along the bottom of the screen.

Klaw Reh, 6, and Benedic Reh, 4, kneeled in front of a dancing Elmo as they laughed and play-wrestled on the beige tile floor. Ko Meh swept around her playing children. They giggled from the hallway and ran around the tiny space.

Shaw Reh hopes to someday move out of their apartment, where loud knocks on the door at night startle the family who are too frightened to answer, he said through an interpreter.

But moving is challenging and expensive. To support their large family, Shaw Reh and Prah Mo work the night shift at a Perdue factory in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, which is about 45 minutes away from Bowling Green.

The American Dream

Many refugee children of legal working age drop out of school to help support their families, especially since children tend to grasp English faster than their parents, said Jen Kash, who volunteers to help refugee families assimilate to U.S. culture and practices.

“They’re not telling them to drop out, but they’re not upset if they do,” Kash said. She works with Shaw Reh’s family, who she met at her Catholic church.

Shaw Reh decided to send his son Soe Reh, 19, to Greenwood High School despite his ability to work. Soe Reh takes ninth grade classes with his sister Kae Meh.

Eleven percent of students in Bowling Green speak English as a second language. Within the hallways of the city schools, students speak 38 different languages, according to a 2014 executive summary report by the Bowling Green Independent School District.

An influx of refugee students enrolled in Greenwood High School in the last few years and flooded the ESL classes, said Marie-Louise Mallah-Mbanfu, an ESL teacher at Greenwood.

Refugees can take high school classes until they turn 21 years old. Mallah-Mbanfu encourages older students, like Soe Reh, to take summer classes so they can graduate on time, she said.

Shaw Reh said he hopes Soe Reh learns from his general classes but also gains knowledge about American culture and the world.

Shaw Reh’s first expectation when relocating to America was that his children would be educated. Because he and Ko Meh were not able to get an education, he hopes America provides more opportunities for his children.

“We were not educated, so they will have a better and brighter future than us,” Shaw Reh said through an interpreter.