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Sharmila Rudrappa, Director BUR 480, Mailcode A2200, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-232-9468

“Resettlement City? Austin’s Refugee Communities,” a Community Forum

Posted: May 22, 2013
Panelists and moderator, Dr. Eric Tang, at the community forum

Panelists and moderator, Dr. Eric Tang, at the community forum

By Eric Tang

The federal government recognizes Austin, TX as a refugee resettlement city. Of the nearly 5,000 refugees who resettle in Texas each year, many are choosing Austin as the place to rebuild their lives after years of political violence followed by confinement to international camps. Refugees are also part of the city's rapidly expanding Asian American community, and yet they are often dropped from broader discussions on race, immigration and the economy. The general narrative surrounding Asian Americans in Austin is one of economic stability, educational achievement and cultural integration. There may be truth to some of the above, and yet for many refugees in Austin—particularly those who have escaped the political volatility of nations such as Bhutan and Burma/Myanmar—life in the United States is characterized by working-poverty, confinement to cramped apartment complexes and uncertainty about the future. Meanwhile local public schools are scrambling to figure out how to serve the children of these unique populations.

On February 15, 2013, the Center for Asian American Studies organized a panel entitled “Resettlement City? Austin’s Refugee Communities.” As part of the Abriendo Brecha Activist Scholar conference, the goals of the event was to shed light on the largely invisible refugee community, to better understand its history and its needs, and to hear from local refugee community leaders and agencies that are working with them. The panel also included noted scholars and activists from other cities who have developed successful community-based projects that build the leadership skills and educational opportunities of refugee residents in cities such as Boston and the Bronx, New York.

Panelists included:

  • Chhaya Chhoum, Founder and Director of the Mekong Center of the Bronx, New York. 
  • Lesley Varghese, Executive Director, Austin Asian American Resource Center 
  • Meg Goodman Erskine, Co-founder and Executive Director, Multicultural Refugee Coalition 
  • Suresh Pokhrel, Member, Center for Survivors of Torture
  • Dr. Peter Kiang, The University of Massachusetts, Boston 
  • Aaron Rippenkroeger, Refugee Services of Texas

There are several organizations in Austin that are servicing the immediate needs of refugees. In particular, Refugees Services of Texas (RST) has been instrumental in helping newly arrived refugees find short-term employment and housing. Yet such groups are confronted with the challenge of a U.S. refugee resettlement policy that only grants six months of support to refugees; once this short period ends, agencies are no longer funded to work with families who are only beginning to make adjustments to life in the United States after years of living in refugee camps. The task, then, is to build the capacity of refugee communities to develop their own networks of mutual support, and to help them develop programming and services that are rooted in their communities and cultures. Here, the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) has been instrumental in working with refugee leaders to establish programming ranging from support groups, youth development programs and even a refugee soccer league. According to Meg Goodman Erskine, executive director of the MRC, these programs aim to draw on the local knowledge, specific cultural practices and leadership skills of refugees to meet their most pressing needs.

Refugees are often called upon to provide the rest of us with the kind of feel-good, redemption stories that fuel American exceptionalism: the U.S. has not only saved the unfortunate and displaced, but has conferred upon them a freedom unmatched anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the economic opportunities of the U.S. free market are said to be unparalleled. This narrative masks two critical facts. First, many refugees continue to live in both working and jobless poverty for years, if not decades. The second generation that comes of age in the United States often fares no better than their parents. Second, the traumas of the past remain a central feature in the lives of refugees, presenting psychological and emotional obstacles that continue to hold refugees back from achieving the kinds of freedoms portended by resettlement officials. The redemption narrative is but a fiction for many refugees.

According to Chhaya Chhoum, director of the Bronx-based Mekong Project, it is important that refugees are able to speak truth to power: to do so not only brings them closer to developing meaningful solutions to the harsh realities they face in the United States, but it also provides opportunities for reckoning and healing. Chhoum spoke to the audience about her own journey as a refugee and activist, describing the ways in which her advocacy of welfare and housing rights for fellow Bronx refugees is inseparable from her own healing process.

Finally, Dr. Peter Kiang, professor of Education and director of the Asian American Studies program at UM--Boston spoke of the role that public universities can play in supporting the refugee community. The university can carry out research on refugee employment and poverty and solutions to address that poverty, while supporting local groups in pursuing accountability from city and county officials, as well as large nonprofit institutions. The university can also work with local public schools and teachers to develop programs that meet the specific needs of refugee students to ensure that they have equal opportunities to pursue higher education. These are just some of the goals that Dr. Kiang’s program has successfully implemented in Boston over the past twenty-five years, and his presentation served as a call to action for the UT Austin community. Indeed, as the refugee community grows in Austin, UT can play a vital role in ensuring that this particular refugee city lives up to its title.

Dr. Eric Tang is assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, core faculty of Asian American Studies, and director of the Social Justice Institute.

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