The Challenges Facing Bhutanese and Burmese Refugees in the U.S.—And What We Can Do to Help

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As the U.S. becomes a more diverse country, more people are also beginning to realize that Asian Americans are not a monolithic entity. In an effort to shed light on the unique challenges facing Burmese and Bhutanese Americans, two groups with some of the least visibility among Asian Americans, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund has released a new study entitled, “Invisible Newcomers: Refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Bhutan in the United States.”

The findings are sobering, but hopeful. The study observes that 30% of Burmese Americans are living below the poverty line—that’s almost double the percentage of people living below the poverty line among the general American population. On top of that, roughly 39% of Burmese Americans drop out of high school. Burmese and Bhutanese Americans also seem to be having a difficult time economically; Burmese Americans’ mean individual income registers in at $25,901 — one of the lowest among all Asian American & Pacific Islander groups — and most are employed in low-wage jobs. (The figures for Bhutanese Americans are not available because the study draws its finding from census data, and the Census Bureau does not yet disaggregate data for people of Bhutanese descent.)

Many of the challenges faced by Burmese and Bhutanese Americans can be traced back to difficulties as refugees. The resettlement process to the U.S. is very complicated, and many refugees are displaced in camps for extended periods of time before they are eventually settled in the U.S. While refugees do get 8 months of cash assistance once they arrive in the U.S., refugees must begin paying back travel loans from the International Office of Migration 6 months after they’ve resettled, which already creates a financial burden for people trying to adjust to a new life.

On top of that, refugees typically only receive 90 days of case management before they must figure things out on their own. Individuals interviewed for this study viewed the pre-arrival orientations for refugees as inadequate preparation for their new lives, and it also doesn’t help that most Bhutanese and Burmese refugees arrived just before or during the Great Recession—a time when job opportunities were scarcer than they are today.

Nevertheless, the study notes that immigration is a self-selective process, and interviewees for the report hoped for upward mobility in life. They dream of education, successful integration, and contributing positively to American society. They also take active steps to make it possible by forming self-help organizations and convening informally and formally to share resources.

To further help Burmese and Bhutanese Americans unlock the doors to success, the study provides several policy recommendations, including: revising refugee orientations to be more informative of the realities new arrivals will face in the U.S.; expanding English language learning resources, and providing capacity building support to self-help organizations.

The last recommendation strikes me as one philanthropy can play a large role in as well. Self-help organizations often work well because they are run for the people, by the people. In NGO-speak, good self-help organizations have the “constituent voice” aspect of program design down pat. Self-help groups can be key players to sustained success given proper funding and room for growths. Furthermore, there are also different self-help models that have been successfully scaled by the efforts of other Asian American groups, so there is a lot of potential to learn and adapt from one another.

To see the full report and additional policy recommendations, click here.

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