Relocated refugees hanging their hats in Texas
AMARILLO, Texas — A new Thai and sushi restaurant sits on a busy corner, not far from the vast prairie that once epitomized Texas’ early cattle-ranching days.
Five years ago, owner Saw Lawla left his home country of Myanmar and resettled in Los Angeles through a federal refugee program. Vexed by bigcity life, Lawla was lured to the Texas Panhandle in 2011 by cheaper living, employment at a meat-processing plant and a growing population of Myanmarese refugees.
“For our people, here is the best place,” said the 40-yearold, who recently opened Bagan Restaurant after pooling funds with four other refugees. “They can find a future here.”
Despite its reputation for anti-immigrant politicians, Texas has led the U.S. in refugee resettlements for the past four years and continues to attract others who move here on their own, in part because of a strong economy. Most are settled in large cities, but immigrant populations are also thriving in more remote areas such as Amarillo, where subtle aspects of faraway cultures have taken root.
“We’ve just adapted,” Moore County Judge Rowdy Rhoades said.
His county, north of Amarillo, will soon have a third mosque to serve the population of Somalis and people from Myanmar who work at a nearby meat-processing plant.
“They’re just here to provide for their family, like anyone.”
The U.S. State Department oversees the resettlement program, which annually places tens of thousands of people who have fled their countries in about 190 communities. In a year-long span that ended in September, Texas became the new home for about 7,200 refugees from more than two dozen countries, the majority from Iraq and Myanmar. Houston led the state with nearly 2,000 resettlements, followed by Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
Texas’ smaller cities have been accommodating the rest — including Amarillo, Abilene and Midland. In 2010 alone, Amarillo received 730 refugees, about the same as San Antonio and Austin.
Yet, the constant flow of refugees has some of Amarillo’s leaders worried the city’s resources are being overwhelmed. Among the biggest concerns are getting students up to speed in schools and addressing the language barrier. Dozens of languages are now spoken in Amarillo, Mayor Paul Harpole said, and emergency calls sometimes have taken nearly 10 minutes.
Resettlement agencies have responded, deciding that refugees would be placed in Amarillo only if they have family ties.
“We have no problem with bringing them here,” Harpole said.
“But we want to be able to do the right job when we get them here.”
Amarillo’s rich history as a refugee relocation spot dates to 1975, when Vietnamese were resettled here. Today, the majority of its refugees come from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The overall effect on the city’s demographics has been muted. Since 2000, its Asian population has jumped to about 7,400 from about 3,600 but accounts for only 3.8 per cent of Amarillo’s 197,000 residents.
More dramatic shifts are occurring in smaller communities such as Cactus, a town of about 3,000 in Moore County where the Asian population has gone from less than one per cent in 2000 to almost 28 per cent.
Farther south, about 2,000 refugees — most from the Congo, Bhutan and Burundi — have been resettled in Abilene, a city of 120,000. Groups have clamoured to help, offering everything from language classes and other education opportunities to a program that teaches refugees how to play tennis.
“It’s just a very, very welcoming environment,” said Susanna Lubanga, resettlement director of the International Rescue Committee in Abilene. “We have volunteers who started volunteering because they were at Walmart and gave refugees a ride.”
Iraqi refugee Hamzah Hussein has spent almost a year in Abilene with his wife and four children. A former teacher and interpreter for the U.S. army, Hussein has been stocking shelves at Walmart at night and by day earned his commercial driver’s licence, which he hopes leads to a job in the oil industry.
“I’ve visited Dallas, but I like it here. It’s very quiet,” the 34-year-old said. “Over there it’s too much people, too much noise.”