Burmese add to Robeson’s rich diversity

First Posted: 7/25/2010

Robeson County has been identified as one of the most culturally diverse rural counties in the nation. Into this mix comes another culture.
At the end of 2009, Burmese refugees began to be placed in our county. The Union of Myanmar (or Burma) is a country in Southeast Asia. Just the name itself creates strife. Renamed in 1989 by the ruling military government, opponents inside and outside the country have refused to recognize the new name because the government did not have legitimate authority to institute it. The United Nations recognizes the Union of Myanmar but the United States, Canada and United Kingdome, among other nations, refer to it as Burma. It has a population of 43 million. Many of us remember maps of Burma that included parts of what is now China, Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand. It is predominantly Buddhists, but those following Islam are located on the western seaboard. Christianity made little headway with the Buddhists but the Catholic and Baptist churches had successes with other populations. In fact, it is home to more Baptists than any country in the world, except the United States.
The refugees have fled their country and many have been housed in camps in Thailand (there are over 300,000 there now). They cannot return with the current government in place. Gross human rights abuses are the norm for the Burmese government. An ethnic minority, the Karen, have fled because of slavery, forced relocations of villages and destruction of crops. Karen and Karenni are two of the most common dialects spoken by the refugees in our county.
The males (and some females) are working in a poultry processing plant in the western part of our county. Because they are fully documented, they have advantages over a population that has historically had issues with being properly documented. Some of the children speak some English, but most adults do not.
The Robeson County Health Department was one of the first to engage this population because of issues with screenings and immunization requirements. Typically populations held in camps have issues with communicable diseases. We have seen the children in our child health and immunization clinics and we have some of the women in family planning and prenatal. While Medicaid was extended to them initially, many are no longer covered. Children are preparing to attend several local schools. In essence, the education and health fields have had to embrace them.
With each new group, issues surrounding customs and cultures surface. For the adults, translation services must be acquired. There are limited translators, so a telephone translation service must be used. In the case of a family planning or maternity visit, where a complete medical history must be acquired and education and counseling must be delivered, hours quickly accumulate. The telephone service charges us by the minute so costs quickly escalate.
So why should Robeson accept another group? As the U.S. welcoming lighthouse (our front door mat) reads, Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
If you go far enough back, everyone came from somewhere else (unless, biblically, Robeson was the Garden of Eden), so why not make room for more? While the current refugees probably did not enter the U.S. passing the Statute of Liberty, they are what the country was built on.
Besides, Robeson County can identify with all those Burma-shave ads that stated that its ingredients were from the Malay peninsula and Burma an ingredient from Burma, now is a part of our melting pot.

Bill Smith is director of the Robeson County Health Department

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