Surviving the American Experience

From the jungles of Burma to the concrete jungle of modern America has become a challenge for the new arrivals to say the very least. I spoke with a Karen refugee woman, through my interpretor, and I was saddened by what she told me. Though she survived the ethnic cleansing of the military junta in Burma and managed to survive 10 years of hardships in a refugee camp on the Thai border, she was hard pressed to survive in modern America.

Given three months from the time she arrived in America she was supposed to learn English, find a job and then pursue the America Dream. For immigrants from Europe this would not be much of a problem. Granted there is always the language barrier that must be conquered as well. But imagine, if you will, the refugee who lived in the jungles of Burma then dropped into modern American society. It’s a culture shock to say the least. Three months truly was not enough time to assimilate with our complex culture for her and the multitude of refugees who’ve come to America with hopes and dreams.

She told me of how she used to dream of this place of freedom called America. She and other Burmese who lived their entire lives in the jungles never ventured to any urban areas even in their own country. They were jungle people who lived their lives hunting and gathering as well as farm their land. Never did they want nor have the desire to go to any city. Free from the complexities of modern life they lived with nature for the most part. Their lives where likened to living in a Garden of Eden where the jungle provided all their needs. They were children of the jungle who lived in paradise until a military junta decided to gather them up and place them in bondage and forced labor camps or simply raped and murdered.

What a sad and horrific introduction to the 21st Century to be hunted down and in many cases murdered in cold blood by rockets, bullets and bombs. Their crime, being a simple and peaceful people who had no need for modern ways or ideologies. Quickly they learned the harsh realities of this modern era of greed as soldiers came to their villages, burned down their homes, raped their women and killed anyone who opposed this new iron fisted rule. Their only salvation was to find sanctuary in one of the many refugee camps along the Thai border.

Naïve to the ways of modern society they fell pray to unscrupulous and fast talking people. Stripped of their innocence their only hope was to find a host country who would offer them salvation from the horrors of living as a refugee in this ambivalent world. Their dream, to live in America the land of the free. Eagerly they drank up all that was American. They heard stories about this land of “Milk and Honey”. Oh how they dreamed of living in such a free place, America. Hmmmmmmmmm…

It’s been eight months since she and her family left Thailand and only 5 months since the US government stopped giving them assistance. With 10 people living in this household sharing a two bedroom apartment, life has not been quite the American Dream from legends told in the refugee camps. Totally ill prepared to deal with modern American society has made them targets again to say the very least. In this household there is only one person who managed to find work, her husband. He found work but it has fallen short of the hopes and dreams they once conjured. They were given three months to assimilate and enter American society, gads. Now he works out of town for minimum wage and lives with other refugees in an effort to support his family.

Others tell me of how relations have been maimed and injured by lawn mowers, hedge cutters and other common garden tools. Many who have been injured are fearful of reprisal and never report these events. Some work for far less than minimum wage and are not aware of laws that protect workers in the work place. Thankful they are not being hunted down and killed they press forward though almost impossible odds. “We thought this land was free but you have to pay money just to sit” one tribesman told me.

Sadly rape still follows the women of the jungle like so many other ethnic minority women. One woman told me of how she was held captive and raped repeatedly for days until she was made to go to the bank and withdraw all her funds by the perpetrator. Undaunted she went into the bank and immediately notified authorities. The culprit was quickly dispatched and eventually placed in prison, you go girl. But this is not always the case and rape is still a very real reality for minority woman. This has been the case for Native women as well. Statistically speaking 7 out of 10 assaults on Native women were perpetrated by non Native men. This horrific statistic is shared by Canada as well.

Social issues ranging from alcohol abuse to spousal abuse have been largely ignored. Despair and sorrow also haunt these people since this new world is so foreign to them. Funny, I find this to be the case with my people living on the reservation. Many live in poverty on the rez rather than endure racism and hatred from non Natives. My brother was a roofer but quite when his employer refused to give him more than half his promised wage. I can imagine how much worse it is for a refugee who does not know the language or the labor laws.

Unscrupulous business owners have taken full advantage of the ignorance of these innocent people and have literally placed some of them in indentured servitude. They work 20 hour days for less than minimum wage and are kept is squalor. Ironically some of these ruthless businessmen are educated Burmese. Again another mirror reflection from the Native American world fore it’s been my observation the cruelest people I’ve encountered was our very own. We expect others to be cruel to us but when it’s one of our own people it is the ultimate betrayal.

From the Maori, Aborigines, Native American’s, Mayan, Cambodians, Nigerians and other ethnic minorities, assimilation has been quite a disaster from the onset. Tribal people in general have had to struggle with a society that was not groomed for life but groomed for material gain. It has become a crime of sorts not to have this material lusting and desire to have “stuff” like this modern age seems to require. Why is it such a crime to be truly free? How come everything has a price tag in modern society? What has this world become when you can’t simply sit by a stream and enjoy the day? Civilization? Show me where it is and I’ll find the contradiction fore there is nothing civil about this modern culture, nothing.

When I was a child assimilation was a very real issue for my mom and I. We just did not understand this strange new world. The fact my ma and I were from an ethnic group other than the status quo placed us in such a negative light I still suffer the emotional consequences (PTSD) from the hatred we endured. I remember men coming up to my mother and propositioning her in my presents. I can still remember this line, “Do you want a new pa pa little boy?”, and we were US citizens. The feel of warm spittle on my face from non Native people who used to spit on us still haunts me to this day. I will never forget how we were treated. I can just imagine how these little chubby cheek Burmese kids feel when their mothers are accosted and asked for sexual favors simply because they are minorities.

Guess it is only apparent that I’ve taken a personal vested interest in the plight of these human beings. I’ve allied myself with Kachin, Karen, Burmese officials and ex political prisoners who are true champions of their people. I am honored to call them my friends. They are a wealth of knowledge and are my key to the secret world of the refugee communities they serve both nationally and internationally. We all agree there is a serious lacking in educating and preparing people from the jungle to face the challenges of this modern and complex society. Many refugees never had an electric appliance in their lives let alone electricity. And for some refugees this has become a living nightmare from which they will never awaken from. Sadly they ponder if death from the military junta would have been a more humane way to die.

Your Devil’s Advocate
Buffalohair