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Five myths about the refugees from Burma

They’re all Burmese: The vast majority of refugees from Burma are not of Burman ethnicity. In Buffalo, about two-thirds are from the Karen ethnic minority, which, until recently, had been engaged in a 70-year civil war with the Burmese Army. Estimates from the Mayor’s Office show that the Karenni and Chin minorities from Burma also outnumber those of Burman ethnic descent.

They’re mostly Buddhist: Most of the refugees are Christian, and they’ve started several of their own churches in recent years. Local statistics are not available. But nationwide, more than 70 percent of the refugees from Burma are Christian, State Department statistics show. About 15 percent are Buddhist and about 11 percent are Muslim, with other faiths accounting for the rest.

They’re one big happy community: The various refugee communities from Burma don’t often interact. Each of the largest ethnicities – the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin – has its own community organization. All the groups speak different languages, and often they only meet as teens on local soccer fields, where fights occasionally break among teams of different ethnicities.

They’re living on welfare: The agencies that resettle refugees in the United States help them find jobs, and the vast majority of them do just that within their first few months here. Statistics on refugee employment and unemployment are hard to come by, but Census surveys show that the unemployment rate for Asians in Buffalo – many of them refugees – is almost identical to that for whites.

They’re making it on their own: Yes, refugees are working, but they are the working poor. With few language skills, the vast majority take jobs at or near the minimum wage, which leave them eligible for food stamps and Medicaid. Thanks to the wave of refugees moving to Buffalo, the amount of money Erie County spends on welfare and Medicaid for refugees has grown tenfold in 10 years.

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