By Amy Lieberman
Monday, September 6, 2010
Female refugees take many paths to a Vermont resettlement program. But a drive to support their families--sometimes with the first paid employment of their lives--buoys many along, often more successfully than male counterparts.
COLCHESTER, Vt. (WOMENSENEWS)--These days Hsar Ra Bin Ji chats breezily about the difficult times she's survived. The 22-year-old refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, fled her homeland in 2001 and spent her teen years in a western Thailand refugee camp.
"The regime troops would go to houses in the villages and if there was a head male in the household they would recruit him and if not, they would collect fees," Ji said. "My father had passed away and it became too much money for us to pay the fees. So we left."
But she seems stumped when asked to explain why she decided to join this remote resettlement program, even after her husband had second thoughts about moving so far away and withdrew his application.
"I don't know what to say," Ji said softly in Burmese, speaking through a translator. "This is just something that I had to do. There was nothing left for me or for my daughter in that camp."
In March Ji arrived here at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. By late June she'd began her current job of cleaning rooms in a nearby motel at minimum wage, earning just over $8 an hour.
The program is operated by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit agency based in Arlington, Va. It was launched in 1980, the same year the U.S. Refugee Act became federal law and permitted the admission of refugees on humanitarian grounds.
The Vermont program annually accepts approximately 350 people–roughly half of them women--from various conflict-ridden countries in Africa and Asia.
The population constitutes a sliver of the 80,000 refugees the United States is expected to admit in 2010. But it's a standout for helping women navigate what Claudia Connor, director of the International Rescue Committee's U.S. resettlement program, calls the twin challenges of education and employment.
The hallmark of the Vermont program, which arranges rental apartments and housing for its clients in downtown Burlington and accessible surrounding towns, is a 450-strong force of volunteers who facilitate outreach with local employers and community organizations.
The program aims to link employable participants to jobs and financial independence within eight months.
That feat might seem particularly difficult for the women who arrive with no paid-work experience, but volunteer Laurie Stavrand says the adjustment can actually be harder for men who leave jobs they liked and are suffering a loss of status in a new country where they can't speak the language.
"For a lot of women, this can be their first opportunity to work outside the home and they are not mourning the loss of a job that they never had," said Stavrand. "It's a clean slate and they are very enthusiastic and willing to try whatever it takes to support their families."
The program's executive director Judy Scott agrees. "It happens quite a bit more frequently with men that after a few days on a new job they say, 'I just can't do this. This is impossible.' They have their identities wrapped up in their jobs and when that is taken away, that can be so painful they cannot adjust. A woman who did not work before just sees it as a key to a better life."
That was the case for Ji, who never worked before she became a housekeeper at the motel. It's "OK" that language barriers prevent her from communicating with her boss or co-workers, she says. Life is busy and she's glad to send money to her husband, who now regrets his decision to stay behind.
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