In Iowa, Tyson Foods hires large numbers of Burmese refugees at each of its 6 plants. Image: Flickr user Capital Area of Food Bank of Texas.

US Communities Welcome Burmese Refugees in Record Numbers

ASEAN The Mekong

Burmese refugees in Tulsa, Oklahoma now have access to a new source of free family medical care at the recently founded Myanmar Good Samaritan Clinic. Organized by the local church community, the clinic caters to Tulsa’s community of more than 3,000 Burmese refugees. Resettlement for many Burmese has not been an easy process, with problems ranging from cultural disorientation and communication problems to a lack of education and employable skills. The annual number of refugees from Myanmar resettling in the US has surged in recent years, rising from just over 1,000 in 2006 to 16,299 in 2013, and as a result many communities across the US must rapidly find ways to support these growing communities.

In Iowa, meat-packing company Tyson operates six plants, each of which hires large numbers of Burmese refugees. Each location is equipped with its own Burmese dialect interpreters, in addition to at least one chaplain who offers guidance on issues from marriage to home finance. Texas, which for the fourth consecutive year resettled the most refugees of any US state, has been working with both federal and local resources such as NGOs and churches to support its new residents. The Burmese American Community Institute in Indiana—a state that has major Burmese refugee centers located in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne—has also reported that the number of Burmese students attending or planning to attend college has increased significantly over the last decade.

Only 3,528 Burmese refugees entered the US between 1984-2004, but the number jumped to over 107,000 entering from 2005-2013. These refugees have settled across the country, with 27 states taking at least 500 Burmese refugees over the course of the five years from 2008-2012. States that accepted the highest number were Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and Georgia, each taking between 4,000-6,500 Burmese refugees over the same period. The Karen and Chin are the two largest Burmese ethnicities to have settled in the United States, representing 46% and 33% of all Burmese in the US, respectively.

The United States plays a key role in resettling refugees from around the world, welcoming more refugees historically than the rest of the countries in the world combined. Presently, it is one of only 11 countries that give entry to Burmese refugees, making it a critical destination for Burmese living in refugee camps across Thailand, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. The cities and states across the US that have opened their communities are working at all levels to ensure their recent entrants transition smoothly into their new lives.

Lincoln Lin is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.