Category Archives: Refugees in Upstate NY


Refugees from Burma

Refugees from Burma

First of all, is it Burma or Myanmar? When the military junta took power in 1989, they changed the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which is a literary form of the same word. The pro-democracy movement does not recognize the country’s leadership, or the name change, as legitimate, and therefore calling the country “Burma” signals sympathy to the pro-democracy movement, and calling it “Myanmar” signals recognition of the current government as legitimate. This article from the BBC (2007) explains the controversy well.

That said, not everyone from Burma is Burmese! Burma has 8 major ethnic groups, each occupying one state within Burma. The Burmans are the majority group. The Karen are the largest ethnic minority. The other major groups are the Mon, Kayah, Rakhine, Shan, Chin, and Kachin, and there are around 145 other ethnic groups in the country. Many of the ethnic minority groups have historically been in conflict with the government, in times of democracy as well as military rule. Ethnic minorities such as the Karen have faced human rights abuses including forced labor and mass killings for several decades. The Mae La Refugee Camp (photos) in Thailand currently hosts around 50,000 people, most of them Karen. In contrast to the ethnically persecuted groups like the Karen, Burman refugees tend to be political refugees in the pro-democracy movement following Aung San Suu Kyi. The largest groups arriving in the USA are the Sgaw Karen, one of the Karen ethnic groups, followed by the Burmans. Other groups are also arriving in the USA in smaller numbers. Note that these groups have different languages and cultures, and should not be conflated into one group.

Roughly 3,500 refugees have been resettled to Utica, NY from Burma as of July 2015. Recently, they’ve been resettled at a rate of 200 – 300 people per year, about 2/3 of the total number of refugees resettled to Utica in recent years. This number includes everyone resettled from Burma/Thailand, but the majority of the refugees from Burma in the US are Sgaw Karen.

References gives a fantastic overview of refugees from Burma who come to the USA. It was created as a master’s thesis at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The numbers have changed, but the stories and situations are very relevant. I especially recommend checking out their “Resettlement in Three Maps”. (2008).

For a general overview with lots of pictures and practical advice for professionals working with refugees from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA. (2010).

The “Refugees from Burma” PDF from The Center for Applied Linguistics, housed on the Cultural Orientation Resource Center page gives an in-depth overview of the various ethnic groups of Burma, as well as their history, culture, religion, language, education, and more. (2007).

An online resource focused on Sgaw Karen language is The site is also dedicated to sharing Sgaw Karen culture and advocating for education and providing educational materials.

Challenges in the USA:

For challenges in education, this report from Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. Combined with information about Refugees from Bhutan. (2014).

For healthcare challenges when working with populations from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA (also linked above). (2010).

More considerations for healthcare providers from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center. (2012).

Prepared for a presentation to Bridges to Academic Success, a collaborative project of RISLUS and CASE at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Refugee Resettlement in Upstate NY

By the Numbers

69,933 refugees were admitted to the USA in fiscal year 2015. The 10 largest populations are from:
Burma (18,386 people)
Iraq (12,676 people)
Somalia (8,858 people)
Democratic Republic of Congo (7,876 people)
Bhutan (5,775 people)
Iran (3,109 people)
Syria (1,682 people)
Eritrea (1,596 people)
Sudan (1,578 people)
Cuba (1,527 people)

10 Most widely spoken refugee languages in the US (updated July 31, 2015)
1. Arabic 2. Nepali 3. Somali 4. Sgaw Karen 5. Spanish 6. Chaldean 7. Burmese 8. Armenian 9. Other languages 10. Farsi (Western)

2,477 refugees were admitted to New York State in fiscal year 2015. The 5 largest populations are from:
Burma (1,263 people)
Somalia (790 people)
Bhutan (495 people)
Iraq (430 people)
Democratic Republic of Congo (375 people)

Figures from the Refugee Processing Center.

The Resettlement Process

A refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For an overview of the process of becoming a recognized refugee and coming to the USA, the FAQ for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) gives a detailed description of the process. Alternatively, read this briefing on the USA refugee admissions program and process from the State Department Website. (Published September 11, 2015). In short:

  1. Become recognized by the UNCHR and USA as a person who is unable to return to your native country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution.
  2. Several rounds of security checks the National Counterterrorism Center, NCTC; the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center; DHS; the Department of Defense; and other agencies.
  3. Health screening to identify diseases of public health significance, including in many cases chest X-rays for tuberculosis. Individuals with communicable diseases may not travel to the USA.
  4. Before departure, refugees receive a cultural orientation about life in the USA and what to expect in their new home. They also sign a promissory note agreeing to pay back travel expenses.
  5. Arrival in the USA.

This process takes 18 to 24 months or longer. However, many individuals stay in refugee camps for years, or even decades before this process even starts. For example, refugees from Burma began arriving in the USA in large numbers in 2007. Some of them had lived in refugee camps in Thailand since 1988. Refugees from Burma were by far the largest group admitted to the USA in 2015.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) works with 9 non-profit domestic “National Voluntary Agencies” in the US to coordinate refugee resettlement to the USA. Each of these agencies works with “local affiliate” organizations that interact with the newly arrived refugees and assist them for the first 90 days in the USA. According to the briefing linked above, there are about 315 local affiliates in about 180 communities throughout the United States.

To give a concrete example of this, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR) is the local affiliate organization in Utica, NY. Representatives from this organization meet newly arrived refugees at the airport, and make sure they have food, shelter, and basic necessities for the first 90 days in the USA. Refugees are provided with native language support to help them with crucial paperwork, take them to medical appointments, learn about life in the USA. Learn about the services MVRCR provides here. The National Voluntary Agency that works with the UNHCR to coordinate the arrival of new refugees to Utica, NY through MVRCR is Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service (LIRS). LIRS works with local affiliate agencies like MVRCR in 24 states.

Prepared for a presentation to Bridges to Academic Success, a collaborative project of RISLUS and CASE at the CUNY Graduate Center.