After Long Journey, What Refugees Find Upon Arrival

Aug 2, 2013

There’s a lot of debate surrounding immigration, but there is one kind of immigration that receives bipartisan support– that of refugees. More than 2,000 refugees resettled in North Carolina last year. We often hear about what refugees have to leave behind – war and persecution – but what is waiting for refugees when they get here? 

It can take years of paperwork to come to America as a refugee. Once that is sorted, Rebecca Zanniatnuhma works on those final details that stand between refugees and their new lives. She works at Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, sorting out renting and furnishing refugees’ new apartments, meeting them at the airport - and filling the fridge.

Today, Zanniatnuhma is at a supermarket on the east side of Charlotte, shopping for a Burmese family set to arrive in town that evening. Zanniatnuhma is a Burmese refugee herself, and picks out traditional Burmese ingredients so the new arrivals feel at home - at least as much as they can. Her brother lifts a 50-pound bag of rice into the cart, Rebecca picks out vegetables for a Burmese style soup. "For a Chin," she says, "we never finish without a soup."

Rebecca Zanniatnuhma works at Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, helping newly arrived refugees settle into the city. She was resettled by the same agency six years ago, after fleeing Burma because of religious persecution.
Credit Briana Duggan

Of the over 600 refugees that were settled in Mecklenburg county last year, more than a third were from Burma, also known as Myanmar. Rebecca is one of them, and has lived in Charlotte about six years. She’s Chin, a Christian ethnic minority that makes up about three percent of the Burma’s population. 

“Most of the people and the governor of Burmese people, people and the government, they all are Buddhist,” Zanniatnuhma says. “And they said the religious is free to practice but not really.”

Most Burmese refugees settling in the area are Chin.  They’ve been fleeing Burma since the 1960's when a military government took over the country. Under it, Chin faced religious persecution, extrajudicial killings, and forced labor. The situation in Burma has improved in the last several years, at least in regard to the Chin, but across the country Amnesty International reports continued human rights violations.

In Rebecca’s case, she once invited a Buddhist friend to go Sunday school with her. When her friend’s father found out, Rebecca says he accused her of trying to convert his daughter and sent the authorities after her. Rebecca knows she would have been arrested if she had stayed. “After arrest we never know what we could face,” Zanniatnuhma says. “We could be killed, or you could be sent to jail for a lifetime. So most of the people, if we have time, if we have a chance, we flee”.

Rebecca must be careful with her spending, it’s not her money. The $200 she just spent on groceries comes out of the welcome money the federal government provides refugees, about $1,000 per person. Later, many refugees will find physical work, often at a poultry plant or greenhouse.

But that’s later. For now, there’s the moment all this work led to.

Khup Than Lun has just stepped out of the terminal at the Charlotte airport and into her niece’s arms. These are her first moments in her new country. Lun, her husband, and her three children have just traveled 24 hours from Malaysia, where many Chin refugees flee and then seek help from the UN.

The family looks exhausted, but they look like any other weary travelers. Their clothes are clean, pressed, and stylish, the only thing that sets them apart are their bags which read IOM – International Organization for Migration.

But you can also hear relief in Khup’s voice, even if you can’t understand it. A friend, John Mang, translates, “She say that it will be ok, it’s the first time so we are just worried, but everything change so she hope she will be ok.”

The resettlement staff drive them to their new home – a townhouse on the east side of Charlotte. But that’s not before a quick detour through Uptown.

Lun’s husband points to the Bank of America Building, “That building”, he says, “reminds me of one I just left in Malaysia.”

Briana Duggan joined Morning Edition Host Marshall Terry to talk more about refugee resettlement. 

TERRY: Briana, we just met a family of refugees the moment they arrived. What are the next steps for refugees after they land?

DUGGAN: Well, a resettlement caseworker - like Rebecca in the story – signs them up for social services. So that’s food stamps, whatever cash or medical assistance they’re eligible for, enroll any children in school. And then, there’s finding a job - with help from refugee resettlement agencies. There are two in Charlotte, and they told me it takes refugees around here about three to four months to find a job.

TERRY: And you said refugees get welcome money from the federal government.  What does that pay for?

DUGGAN: Yeah, so the welcome money is about a $1,000 per person. And it’s meant to cover the basics while refugees are looking for those jobs. So rent, utilities, deposits, a bit of food.

TERRY: A thousand dollars—for the three to four months it takes to get a job? That couldn’t cover rent alone.

DUGGAN: Right, but you have to remember that most refugees do arrive in families. So, for example- Khup Than Lun who was in my story - she came to the U.S. with a family of five, so that comes out to be $5,000. If they run out of money before they find a job, they’ll get welfare cash assistance. And it’s also important to note that many refugees come to Charlotte because they have family or close friends here. So they may live with their sponsors while they get on their feet.

TERRY: But what about those refugees that come alone?

DUGGAN: That is more complicated. It’s not all that common, but in that case, resettlement agencies have to dip into any donations or extra funds they may have. Agencies will sometimes group together single refugees from the same country to save on rent. But ultimately, it means that those single refugees will need to be quicker on their feet when they arrive to their new country.