New Americans: The plight of Cincinnati's refugee population

Greater Cincinnati is home to as many as 25,000 refugees. They come from such countries as Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Russia and Iraq, but all experienced severe persecution in their homelands that forced them to flee. They also share the struggle to create fresh lives, overcome the language barrier, learn a new culture and integrate into American society.
Steven Thang landed at Louisville International Airport on Aug. 25, 2008. His wife and her family had been resettled in Louisville from Burma a few months earlier. After escaping the hostile regime in Burma then waiting nearly four years as a refugee in Malaysia, Thang had finally gotten United Nations approval to start a new life in the United States. He saw the U.S. as a gate to his dreams, unlocked at last.
“I was really excited because America is a free land,” he says, “a place where if you really try, everything can be.” These were his thoughts as he waited outside the airport for a ride from local refugee services.
A Hard Start
Thang is from Chin, a state located in western Burma. Chin persecution goes back to the 1960s military takeover in Burma, when Burmese troops and officials began a project of forcible conversion of all minorities to Buddhism. The Chin had converted to Christianity during World War II under British occupation and held that faith ever since, even in the face of torture, forced labor and extra-judicial killings.
Thang was 22 and just about to take his final exams for a university degree in philosophy when it became unsafe for him to continue living in Burma. A refugee agent hid and connected him with a group that would escape to Malaysia via Thailand. The move was sudden, and he didn't have a chance to see his family, nor has he since.
By foot, boat and occasionally car, Thang and a group of 30 men, women and children pushed their way through the southeast Asian forests of Thailand, crossing the border into Malaysia illegally nine at a time while nearly suffocating in the covered bed of a truck.
In Malaysia, Thang and a few of his university classmates lived out of one room in a three-bedroom apartment provided by the UN. They volunteered as teachers for the young Chin refugees, using the living room and two other bedrooms for classes.
Thang and his group were safe from Burmese troops, but life was far from easy. They had barely enough resources to get by, and the Malaysian government was inhospitable. For teachers, the threat of arrest was always present. The UN provided identification forms and letters of protection, but it didn't make a difference to the Malaysian police. Just before Thang arrived in Malaysia, a group of Chin teachers had been arrested and executed for unknown reasons.
Despite the danger and cramped conditions, Thang waited. And waited. Getting the UN call for resettlement can be something of a lottery. There are 60 countries that accept refugees, and more than 15 million refugees currently registered with the UN. Resettlement is limited by how many refugees a nation can accept at a given time, where communities have already been established and what ties, if any, a refugee may have in a potential host country. Refugees have waited in camps as long as 20 years.
The waiting didn't stop Thang from moving forward with his life, though. He married a fellow Chin refugee who had waited in Malaysia even longer than he had. His break came when she was selected for resettlement with cousins in Louisville. Since Thang had become part of that family, too, the UN approved his resettlement, and four months later he was on a plane bound for Kentucky.
The Big Move
Once a refugee is selected for resettlement by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), their case is piped down through several organizational tiers before finally reaching a settlement destination. In the U.S., they arrive with an I-94 form, a unique status among all classes of immigrants. Refugees receive a social security card upon entry to the U.S. and are eligible for social services, food assistance, Medicaid coverage and most services that citizens qualify for. They can apply for a green card within a year, and are eligible for citizenship after five years of residence.
For Thang, ties to his wife and her family were enough to move him through the pipeline directly to Louisville. Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) handles resettlement cases for that region, and is responsible for acclimating refugees once they arrive, providing airport pickup, housing, medical examinations, job assistance, cultural integration and language courses.
Having already studied English at university allowed Thang to begin working at his wife's cousins' sushi restaurant right away, but that’s not the norm. Many refugees arrive with little or no education and job skills that may not translate to the U.S. Moving to a new country can be bewildering, but it's all the more so for refugees suffering from PTSD and who have lived for years in camps without electricity, running water or even reliable food sources.
“They don't make the move because they want to. Applying for resettlement means they cannot return home again for fear for their lives,” says Dabney Parker, KRM resource coordinator. “When they first get here, they're extremely excited to be in a safe place. But then daily realities set in, and it's hard. There's an emotional roller coaster for a while.”
Settling In
Resettlement agencies like KRM in Kentucky, and its northern counterpart, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, try to make that roller coaster ride as smooth as possible. The first step is cultural orientation classes taught or interpreted by agency staff who speak the refugees' native language. These cover fundamentals like opening a bank account, enrolling children in school, accessing public transportation, abiding by U.S. laws and getting a job. These classes are coupled with English courses to provide refugees an overall crash course in America.
“Some refugees arrive here signing with just an 'X' because they have never needed a signature before,” says Alisa Berry, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio. “Ease of adjustment depends on where the refugee is coming from. For those from camps, it's a big change. Many have never been to a grocery store, never seen a bus or paid rent. Just being in a home with running water, electricity, heating, a refrigerator and a stove can be quite an adjustment.”
KRM's target is to have refugees become self-sufficient in six to nine months. That comes with job placement assistance at the end of the course, typically involving entry-level positions in hospitality, hotels and food service, as well as manufacturing for those with intermediate English abilities.
Levi and Club Chef are significant employers of Chin refugees in Northern Kentucky. About 300 Chin live in the region, most of them close to the factories. It's hard for them to go anywhere else, as most don't drive. Although the drivers license test is translated into many language, Chin is not one of them. And once a refugee starts working, it's very difficult to attend resettlement agencies' free daytime English classes.
“When we were talking with the refugees, that came up over and over again: We want to learn English but there are no classes we can make it to,” says Kelly Birkenhauer, chair of RefugeeConnect, a Junior League of Cincinnati project.
Getting Connected
RefugeeConnect officially launched in 2013 as a support network to bridge the gap between initial refugee services and the later struggles these immigrants face as new Americans. In March, the project worked with Thang and other Chin community leaders to organize weekly evening English classes at a church within walking distance of a large number of the Chin refugees. Volunteers teach the classes, and each week one or two dozen Chin who wouldn't otherwise be able to fit the studies into their work schedules attend.
The broader goal is sustainable improvement of refugees' lives in Cincinnati through a strategy of “Ambassadors, Community and Events.” This involves the training of volunteer English and citizenship tutors, community collaboration, and events that increase cultural awareness and advocacy. Beyond the language barrier, one of the most widespread problems is that refugees and social service organizations are not often aware of one another.
“We're building those community connections that people who are not from here may not have,” Birkenhauer says. “That can be hard to navigate even if you are from here. Our goal is to create a supply system where we can plug refugees into the different agencies.”
New Neighbors
Outside of support services, community integration and awareness are critical for the wellbeing of Cincinnati's refugees. Thang learned quickly that the escape from violence and persecution in his home country didn't mean the end of hardship. He is educated, has a high proficiency in English and has worked his way into ownership of two sushi franchises in Cincinnati, but he still experiences prejudice and backlash from the local community.
“Most people don't understand who refugees are, or what their status is in the U.S.,” Birkenhauer says.  “Many think refugees are here illegally. But in reality, refugee status means you've been invited here by the U.S. government in order to become a citizen. It's about as opposite of illegal as you can get.”
Refugees are often turned away when they show I-94 status papers to banks and landlords. The forms are unfamiliar, and people assume they're illegitimate or undesirable. Even with proof of residence and an ability to show income, Thang has struggled for months with banks that are unwilling to grant him a home loan.
“A hard thing is when I think about my future,” Thang says. “As a refugee, you have to work and use your energy twice as much as other people.”
But problems don't stop at the bank or work. Thang has been stopped by police or security guards and searched on suspicion of theft several times. On one occasion, he was browsing at a furniture store and noticed the cashier watching him. He visited the restroom, and when he came out, there were police officers waiting to escort him outside and search him.
“I thought, 'Why are you doing this to me?'” he says. “I'm not a criminal. That day I cried.”
For this reason, Thang works tirelessly to improve conditions for his family and community. He is the president of the Chin Baptist Church USA, which has 74 member churches throughout the nation. He is also his church's worship leader, vice president of the youth group and president of the Chin Literature and Culture Community, which teaches and preserves the Chin language, writing, literature and culture for future generations in the U.S. Beyond his church activities, Thang finds time to be the Chin Community Secretary, too.
“My community first needs knowledge, and second to learn how to change and integrate their lives with the community,” he says. “When I feel happy is when I see my people enter the U.S., grow up, go to school and finish university.”
Thang's ambition to finish his own degree has taken a backseat to community work, supporting his family and studying for the citizenship exam. Once he becomes a citizen, he can bring his mother, father, brother and sister over from Burma; he hasn't seen them since he left, and they've never met his son, who turned 2 in May.
“Any of the groups will tell you that it's very difficult,” Birkenhauer says. “But at the same time, they're excited for their children. It's a similar experience that any immigrant group faces. Looking back through Cincinnati's history, first generation immigrants may not have learned English or had jobs that they liked. But there is hope to improve things for the next generation.”
Signup for Email Alerts