Smells of coriander, ginger and turmeric waft through the room as Burmese community members file in. Some hurry their children into the daycare space while others fill the room with chatter, catching up with old friends.
“I think if I didn’t take the workshop, I [wouldn’t] know how to take care of the children [in the United States],” said Annie Philit through an interpreter. Phillit, olive-skinned and curvy, is a 50-year-old Kent resident who came to Washington as a refugee seven years ago.
The workshop she mentioned was that held by the Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB), a Kent-based nonprofit. Every Saturday at Kent Alliance Center, about 15 to 20 refugees from Burma (officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) participate to learn about life skills to succeed in the United States.
For many American parents, driving kids to school and going to PTA meetings is just part of a normal routine. Yet for most refugee families, just talking to a child’s teacher is a new concept.
Oftentimes, refugee parents come to the United States without knowing what is expected of them in the American education system and culture, said CRB executive director Mona Han.
“[In] the countries they come from, they send the kids to school, and the schools actually educate and discipline the children, and the parents have very minimal involvement regarding their children’s discipline and education,” she said.
In Kent, refugees from Burma can find help in nonprofits such as CRB. Through the organization, refugee parents can participate in the Advocate Community in Childhood Education for Student Success (ACCESS) program, which aims to provide refugee parents with life skills that can help them advocate for their children’s education.
In the workshops, Han, along with other speakers from partner organizations, break down various subjects to the parents. Although the first cycle of ACCESS workshops ended in December, CRB recently held its second cycle of ACCESS workshops called Parent Education and Home Management Workshop Series, which ran through June.
The ACCESS workshops focus on issues such as bullying, discipline, parent-teacher relationships, domestic violence, and emotional well-being.
Han said typically, when refugee students come to the United States, they are placed according to their age and not their school level. Although the education level of refugees vary—with some even reaching the college level—those with no prior formal education may be left behind.
“In refugee camps, it’s difficult for a 17-year-old to start high school without any foundation,” she said. “To add to that, if they have parents who are not aware of what is expected of them and how they can support their children, then they are behind on everything.”
For Philit, the workshop has helped her adjust to technological differences between United States and Burma.
“In my country, we don’t have Internet, we don’t have phones … and when I moved here, I didn’t know anything about computers or Internet stuff, but my children, they are quick at that,” Philit said through an interpreter. “I didn’t know what they are doing, so when I take this workshop … I know what to expect they are going to do.”
Philit’s experience is one shared by many. She comes from the Karen group, one of the ethnic groups in Burma. As of 2011, more than 140,000 Burmese Karen refugees have fled to Thailand to escape war and human rights abuses, according to The Karen people: culture, faith and history, a 2011 book published by the Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation.
For 60 years, the Karens in Burma have been fighting a civil war against the Burmese military regime for autonomy and cultural rights. Between 2005 and 2011, almost 70,000 refugees from Thailand, most of them Karen, were resettled in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Washington is no stranger to this community. According to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the U.S. government resettled around 1,366 Burmese refugees in Washington between 2000 and 2009. The Karen group makes up 50 percent of the total Burmese population in the state, and the remaining 50 percent includes the Chin and Karenni. About half of the total Burmese population in Washington resettled in King and Pierce Counties while the other half reside in Spokane, Benton, Franklin, and Snohomish Counties.
As in any other refugee groups, issues like mental health problems can arise due to traumatic experiences. Many refugees arrive in a new country with PTSD or depression. Symptoms tend to show up a year or two after resettlement, Han said.
But even on the less-extreme spectrum, frustrating experiences of adjusting in a new country can affect emotional well-being. For example, 43-year-old Aye Paw arrived in Washington in March and has been living in Tukwila. She said her biggest challenge comes from not knowing the language.
“I can’t speak and understand English and I can’t read and write, so every time the mail comes, I have to go to somebody to translate and interpret for me,” Paw said through an interpreter.
She said having to go through that process, even for relatively simple matters like receiving mail or taking the bus, is “very stressful because I can’t read and understand at all.”
Such issues can affect the educational and professional achievement of Burmese Americans, a recent report found. The Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund published a report in January that provided a historical and demographic portrait of the Bhutanese and Burmese refugee experience in the United States.
Among their various findings, the report noted that nationwide, the high school dropout rate of Burmese Americans is 39 percent. For other Asian Pacific Islander (API) groups, the dropout rate is 16 percent and 19 percent for all non-API groups.
“In order for refugees to learn different topics, they must first gain basic English language skills. This can be an insurmountable task if they are illiterate,” the report stated. Less-educated parents are unlikely to advocate on behalf of their kids in school.
Philit said the American school system is “totally different” from ones in Burma.
“When they are in school, I have to see their teacher, like in a teacher conference, so I need help from my community to go to school and talk to my children’s teachers,” Philit said. “In my own country, I don’t need to see my children’s school teacher.”
However, the report found that while many in the Burmese community require assistance with parent literacy, many don’t.
“In the Burmese community, as far as skills and abilities, they are very wide-ranging,” said Clair Chean, manager of the Kent School District’s Refugee Transition Center. “Some are educated and even have a college education, and some of them have gone to school before, so it’s a very diverse group.”
The Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund report found that 13 percent of Burmese Americans only finish high school. However, 16 percent went to college, 23 percent graduated college, and 8 percent received advanced degrees after high school.
While they face various challenges, the communities hope for a better life for their families. Some, like Paw, hope to return to Burma.
“I have to study English hard and I have to read and understand English to get a job to support [my family] in the U.S.,” Paw said. “I plan to go back to my country when I get older and my children become independent … so I need to save money for that.”
Others, however, hope to stay.
“I hope my children they do great in their education and finish good high education,” Philit said. “For myself, I still want to learn and study, but I think the time is gone for myself, so I have to just support my children.”