By Kristin Jones
In a swearing-in ceremony late last fall, Su Baw and her husband Lah K’Paw became American citizens.
“I feel great,” Su Baw said later, on her break from a babysitting job at the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora. “I never have citizenship before, in any country. It’s the first time for me and for my family.”
Born a member of the Karen minority in Myanmar, Su Baw spent much of her childhood on the run in the jungle. A simmering Karen nationalist movement brought the wrath of the former ruling junta down hard on her community, and one of her early memories is of fleeing her village during a military strike, when she was nine years old.
“When they bomb the village, the old people and young kids die,” she remembers. The ones who couldn’t run fast enough. Su Baw thinks a lot about the people who died—a cousin, an aunt, friends—but she tries not to. “We try to forget it.”
It’s been more than five years since Su Baw, her husband and their four children arrived in Denver. For 15 years before that, she lived in a thatched-roof hut in a refugee camp in Thailand.
She had never seen a bus before landing in the U.S., had no idea how to cook with a stove or an oven, and didn’t speak English.
The words “refugee crisis” are coupled so frequently that it’s hard to remember that many refugees experience statelessness and eviction as a chronic condition. After the pain of fleeing their native land come the years and sometimes decades in a camp, the logistics of resettlement, the practical obstacle of getting a job—or even just getting on a bus—and the slow burn of trauma.
Given all that, it’s impressive how quickly many refugees are able to integrate into American life, says James Horan, who heads the refugee program for Lutheran Family Services, which helps provide many first-line services to refugees in Colorado.
“The general public isn’t aware of how successful refugees are in becoming employed,” says Horan, who says his organization works to counter the perception that refugees are a drain on public resources.
A study commissioned by the state refugee services program found that after four years, 76 percent of the Colorado refugees assessed were highly integrated. The study defines integration by factors like how connected refugees are to people in their communities and other communities, how economically sufficient their families are, and whether they feel safe in their homes. According to the report, released in February, most refugees make consistent gains by measures like household income, English language ability and civic engagement.
That’s not to say that their conditions were indistinguishable from those of their neighbors. About 24 percent of the refugees surveyed lacked health insurance, the study found. That’s in contrast to just 6.7 percent of the general population in Colorado that’s uninsured, according to the Trust-supported 2015 Colorado Health Access Survey. Many refugees struggle with English; four years after moving here, only about 58 percent said they were comfortable using English in work and social situations. Meanwhile, 61 percent said their family income was too low to cover necessary expenses.
But the study, which surveyed its participants upon their arrival in Colorado from 2011 to early 2012, and followed up with them each subsequent year, emphasized the refugees’ overall progress.
“Overwhelmingly, people are—even with all the obstacles of livable wages, increased housing costs, affordable child care, health care—even with all those barriers, they’re on a really good track to integration,” says Joseph Wismann-Horther, integration program supervisor for the Colorado Refugee Service Program.
Still, some groups of refugees struggle more than others. In particular, refugees older than 55 are more likely to have a harder time learning English, making friends outside their ethnic group or navigating the hurdles of their new lives, the study found. Stay-at-home mothers, too, who lack the regular social interaction associated with employment, said they felt isolated.
One of the study’s older participants described feeling afraid of people who didn’t speak her language; another said he couldn’t go out by himself; others said they didn’t know how to call 9-1-1.
This generational divide is something Harry Budisidharta has witnessed at the Asian Pacific Development Center, where he is deputy director. The Aurora-based center, a grantee of The Colorado Trust, provides all kinds of support to refugees, from medical care to mental health services to English and citizenship classes.
“Young people have an easier time integrating to American culture,” says Budisidharta. “This is actually causing a problem within the refugee community since a lot of the elders are feeling that the younger generation are abandoning their culture and tradition.”
One day last December, two friends sat in an office at the Asian Pacific Development Center discussing this dynamic in their own lives. Setu Nepal, who works there helping to provide refugees with health care, and Hari Uprety, who is a community organizer with a nonprofit called Rise Colorado, have both integrated successfully since arriving here as refugees.
Each was forced to leave Bhutan in the early 1990s, threatened by violence and repressive government policies that targeted ethnic Nepalis like them. Each spent decades, stateless, with restrictions on rights and movement, in a refugee camp in Nepal.
“I lost my prime age as a refugee,” says Nepal, who was 22 when he arrived in the camp, where he spent another 22 years.
And yet both were college-educated when they arrived in Denver—Nepal received his bachelor’s degree in Bhutan, and Uprety got his in eastern Nepal—and received additional advanced degrees after arriving here.
Both also experienced hurdles in adjusting to their new lives here.
“The system of education here is so different,” says Nepal. “I was lost for six months. But I got my master’s in clinical psychology. Now I’m getting a doctorate. My feeling is never give up hope.”
Uprety recalls the shock of encountering diversity. He was 12 when he entered the refugee camp, and spent his lifetime surrounded by people of his own culture, until he was resettled in Denver along with his wife, two children, parents and brother.
“I had never been to a place like this. It was totally new to me. I was seeing different colors of people around. It seemed like they were from different countries,” he remembers.
“I was a little confused as well. I was thinking, what am I going to do now? Everybody is a stranger to me. I don’t know if they’re really good people, if they’re really helpful.”
Now, that same diversity is his favorite thing about Aurora, where Uprety recently bought a house.
“Aurora is kind of a small United Nations, with 130 different communities and 120 different languages,” he says. “I’ve had a very nice moment getting to know other cultural communities and norms.”
At his job for Rise Colorado, he works with Burmese, Somali and Nepali refugees to provide them with tools to organize and demand change in their communities.
That work of building connections with people across cultures and communities is key to integrating in American society, the state’s study found; those refugees who can find a way to bridge cultures are also more likely to integrate swiftly.
“The most successful people are the ones that are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and make friends with people from other cultures,” says Budisidharta, who is not a refugee but has noticed this, too, among his fellow immigrants from Indonesia.
Sometimes willingness isn’t enough, though. Fears about neighborhood safety can be well-founded. The state’s report found that 97 percent of refugees studied felt safe outside their home, but Budisidharta says that doesn’t track with what he’s heard from Asian Pacific Development Center clients. Some of the metro area neighborhoods with the largest numbers of refugees, including the East Colfax neighborhood where the center is located, have higher than average crime rates. And older refugees—especially those without any formal education—may find it difficult to learn enough English to make friends across cultures.
Discrimination can also be a barrier to full participation in American society. Uprety has applied for education jobs (he attained a master’s degree in teaching after coming to the U.S.), and felt that he was turned away by potential employers because of his ethnicity.
“Every time, they said, ‘you are a good resource of the Nepali community,’” he says. “They think I am only good for the Nepali community, not for other communities.”
Uprety and Nepal both say that resettlement in the U.S. has been hardest on the elders, though. Uprety’s mother has tried unsuccessfully several times to get citizenship, a necessary condition to continue receiving federal benefits. His father, he says, isn’t trying. He is a skilled carpenter, but hasn’t been able to get a job. They rely on their children.
“My dad says, ‘I’m almost 60, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live,’” says Uprety. “Many people feel like they’ve lost something, even though they have Internet here.”
“Those who didn’t have a bicycle, now they have a car,” says Nepal, completing Uprety’s thought. They talk in the manner of people who have had this conversation many times before. Nepal adds: “We often hear, ‘the refugee camp was better than this.’”
“Many of our parents say that,” says Uprety.
The children of refugees, meanwhile, often adjust quickly to American life. Uprety and Nepal are part of a group called Human Hope Foundation, which convened last year to help other refugees. One of the things they’ve done is organize Nepali language classes for the younger generations, so that their ties to the culture of their elders, and means of communication, aren’t lost.
In the hardest years in Bhutan and Nepal, Uprety recalls, “there was only one option—getting together, connecting with the community, feeling that everybody was with us to get out of those traumatic situations.”
Even as he works to integrate into American life and leave behind the trauma of political violence and dislocation, that sense of connection is one thing Uprety is trying to keep alive from the past.