Great opportunities - for those who have a job
In another district of New York, Queens, the driver stops outside a yellow brick town house on Catalpa Avenue: a working class area with low-rise buildings and large numbers of immigrants and refugees. Each neighborhood looks the same: two-story buildings with oriel windows, high front-door landings, and front glass doors.
A very steep, bent staircase leads up to the family’s apartment, three bedrooms, a living-room and a small kitchen.
The interpreter Darko is with us. Mujo and his wife Hasnija do not speak any English and their sons do not know the language well enough for us to understand them.
In the living-room there are two plush-covered sofas that the IRC has furnished the home with, and also the biggest TV we’ve ever seen
”Bought on credit,” Mujo says when he notices that we seem to be wondering how they were able to afford a television set like this.
His sister-in-law, Mersija has issued a personal guarantee on his behalf. She and her husband Muhamed came to America from Bosnia with their two children two years ago. Today they work as volunteers for the IRC and are helping their newly arrived relatives get settled in the new country.
But they do not speak English either.
”Lack of English will not prevent you from working, but you will need to learn more”.*
Mujo, a wiry man, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, has a long weeks work behind him as a car mechanic at a garage on the Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.
”We fix BMW and Mercedes,” says Mujo.
He got the job after only two months in America. The garage owner advertised the post at the IRC, he has several refugees in his staff and is satisfied with their work. We are told that refugees are known as ardent workers.
Already within three months, the family were able to start paying their own bills and could start paying installments on the air tickets from Croatia. Mujo likes his job. The boss is a kind and helpful man.
”He gave me a car,” Mujo says.
However, he can’t drive it unless he is with someone who has a driver’s license. Mujo laughs and tells us that he used to work as a chauffeur for the CEO of a company in Bosnia for 25 years. In America he had to take a new driving test. Mujo passed the theoretical test but flunked the driving test. Twice.
But how about the language?
”You could live here for a hundred years and not speak one word of English,” Mujo says.
His boss speaks Serb and can easily explain what has to be done. That’s all that is needed. As long as Mujo works hard there is no problem.
Hasnija has not got a job yet.
”Life’s been rough on her”, Mujo says.
For six years the family was split up because of the war. Mujo was never able to leave Bosnia. Hasnija and the children fled from their native village Zvornik to Nürnberg in Germany. The children went to school in Germany for five years. Then they were forced to leave.
In Croatia the family was reunited and applied for the US refugee program. After one year of waiting they came to New York with everything they owned packed in six suitcases.
Hasnija serves very strong Turkish coffee in small cups and white American cake with cream that looks like plastic. Mujo lights another Marlboro.
”My mission was to save my two sons. I was 50 years old when I came here. I don’t have any big goals. Perhaps my wife and I can buy a house of our own some day.”
The twenty-year-old, Mirza, has just been fired from his job at a lamp factory. And now, when Mujo’s salary is no longer enough to support the family and they need pecuniary assistance, it is no longer the NGO organization who replenish the housekeeping funds. The family must turn to the government to get food stamps. But the wellfare will only last for three months.
Sixteen-year-old Mirnes goes to an American school for bilingual students. He is doing well and has so far passed 80 percent of all tests, we learn.
What do you want to do with your life?
While he reflects on his answer, the grown -ups in the sofas make suggestions.
”To become a doctor!”
”A President!” (No, that’s not possible. The president has to be born in the country.)
Mirnes glares at the grown-ups.
”A police officer” he finally says.
The American refugee policy might so far look like a story with a happy end. Refugees come here, given the opportunity to create a brilliant future. A refugee today, a millionaire tomorrow. But life of course is not that simple. In the Bronx we also meet a different destiny.
Zaw Wint from Burma.
We drive in a zigzag along the streets with similar stone-built, high-rise buildings for quite a while until we find the right address. Bronx is not the safest area in New York and the building is protected by a wrought-iron gate, the front door is locked permanently, and we have to call Zaw and ask him to come down and let us in.
He shares a small, two-room apartment with his brother Ye Kyaw Swa and his family. The apartment is cramped and the furnishing restricted to the most basic things: a sofa, a coffee table, some carpets – things that the NGO organization IRC put in when the family arrived. The brothers themselves have bought a television set and a computer.
Zaw and his brother lived for many years in the refugee camp Ratchburi outside of Thailand’s capital Bangkok, tent after tent in long rows filled with 1,500 refugees from Burma.
”We lived badly and ate badly, the conditions in the camp were terrible”, he says.
Zaw was put in prison twice for organizing protest demonstrations in the camp.
When we meet Zaw, 30, he has been a refugee in America for 14 months. On March 29 last year, he came to the Bronx straight from a prison in Thailand. The clothes he wore was all he had.
”You will be expected to take a job, even if it is not highly paid or in your former occupation.”*
Zaw is now a clerk at an import company. Sure, it is a good job – but in reality this young man had his mind set on a very different future, and he feels overqualified.
During his years as a refugee in Thailand he acquired a university degree. That got him a job as an assistant manager at a pharmaceutical company, which was more in line with his high ambitions.
But his degree and his professional qualifications do not seem very impressive in America. Like most refugees here, Zaw is obliged to accept low-paying jobs, and like almost everyone else he has had several such jobs during his first year here. He worked as an assistant at a summer school and as a security guard at Macy´s.
His brother started out as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant. Now he is working for a company that install sun roofs. The brother’s wife, Moe Moe, has found an easier job at a jewelry firm.
IRC’s refugee kit; three rents and foodmoney for three months, was enough to enable the family members to achieve a life on their own.
The American refugee program gives Zaw and his brother’s family an opportunity to live as free people, he says. In America they are not strangers, they are like everyone else, another couple of pieces in the great mosaic.
But the new life is tough. The refugees are expected to integrate into society quickly and not be a burden.
Zaw’s life in the new country is mostly about work and more work, about raising money for food and for paying the rent for the small apartment, 672 dollars a month. His salary, 1,200 dollars a month, rarely lasts the end of the month. Entertainment has to be free. Like jogging in Central Park, or the walks along the famous Broadway.
”The United States is known as a land of opportunity for those who work hard. Most Americans believe in the importance of adults working to support themselfs and their families rather than relying on cash assistance from the government.”*
The language barrier is greater than Zaw had expected. He had studied English for several years. But the accent which worked fine in Thailand was not quite good enough in America.
In order to get a good pronunciation and learn the important words he needs to speak every day with Americans the same way they talk to each other.
That’s how he sees it.
But he doesn’t know any ”real Americans.” Indeed, he doesn’t know that many people at all in the United States. The neighborliness that was so widespread in Thailand does not exist here.
The Bronx, he says, is very far from the America that he read about in books before he came here.
”There are many poor people living here. And sometimes several days go by when I don’t see a single white person.”
And yet, there is always hope, maybe he can get a better education here, a better position and use whatever he can learn in America to turn the Burma which forced him into exile into a democracy. Then he would return to Burma which once made him a refugee.
He belives he will be able to go back one day, to go ”home”
Bur there are refugees who make it.
Maria Trägårdh, Bo Lidén