Fort Worth

Refugees find a haven in North Texas

One in an occasional series on the immigrant communities of North Texas.

FORT WORTH — Ru Hta Dun fled her native Myanmar in 2005 after spending two nights in jail.

Her crime? Letting a relative spend the night without telling the government about the visit.

Ru Hta Dun, who goes by Ruth, was an accountant living with her children in the Southeast Asian country’s former capital, Yangon. Because she is a Christian and an ethnic minority known as Kachin, she faced strict rules from the government, including the random checks of her home.

“We didn’t have a chance to report it,” Ru Hta Dun said, explaining that the train carrying her guests arrived too late so they could not follow protocol.

“I was in jail for two nights,” she said.

She was released on bail and had a court hearing scheduled, but because she feared she wouldn’t be treated fairly, she fled to Malaysia by boat, then foot.

“We had to run,” she recalled. “We had to hide.”

Ru Hta Dun, who lives and works in Fort Worth, came to Texas as a refugee. She can’t return to Myanmar, formerly called Burma, because she said she will be targeted.

She is among hundreds of refugees a year who resettle in North Texas because they are no longer safe in their native lands. Most recently, the Obama administration paved the way for 10,000 additional Syrians to move to the United States from their troubled homeland.

And while these refugees are mostly safe in the United States, the obstacles are many.

“They are coming to a whole new country,” said Laila Amara, area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth. “They don’t know the language. They don’t know the culture. They are having to really start from ground zero and learn a whole other way of being.”

Tarrant County has long been a place where people in flight seek sanctuary. Waves of refugees have been living and working here — from Vietnamese who settled here, mostly in Arlington and Haltom City, after the Fall of Saigon 40 years ago to the tormented Somali Bantus who have been rebuilding their lives in south Fort Worth since 2005.

Locally, Refugee Services of Texas, Catholic Charities Fort Worth and World Relief work with the federal government and help refugees move here. They also help them get acclimated to new surroundings, culture and language. People who have been resettling in Tarrant County recently include minorities from Myanmar and refugees from Bhutan and from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. While many are arriving as refugees, others hold immigrant visas granted by the U.S. government. For example, Iraqis and Afghan translators and interpreters who worked with the U.S. government have been using this status to build a safe future in this country.

“Most migrants flee because living at home becomes too dangerous,” said Hadi Jawad, a member of the Dallas Peace Center’s steering committee. “Challenges collaborators face vary between regions. They are persecuted in Afghanistan by the Taliban. They are safe in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq but face horrendous consequences in ISIS-controlled regions.”

Resettling more

In recent years, Texas has resettled the most refugees because of various factors, including a network of resettlement agencies, grassroots refugee communities and job opportunities.

Tarrant County is among the top three counties in Texas to resettle families — after Harris and Dallas counties, according to state data. From October through July, 6,837 people moved to Texas under refugee or special immigrant visas. Of those, 1,122 moved to Tarrant County and 33 percent were from Burma.

TX Refugees 
Tarant Refugees 

“Texas is quite a diverse state,” said Mike Auman, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities Fort Worth. “It is also a great place to get work.”

Every year the U.S. administration sets a ceiling on the number of refugees who will be accepted into the United States, Amara said. That number has recently been set at 70,000, but the federal government has moved to increase it to 85,000 with at least 10,000 over the next year coming from Syria. By 2017, the number of refugees accepted will increase to 100,000.

The image of Syrians risking their lives to find safety has received global attention and prompted the State Department to make a change to help more of them. An estimated 4 million Syrian refugees are scattered outside the native country, according to the State Department.

“The plight of the Syrians is extremely dire at this time,” Amara said. “They have no good choices and they are desperately fleeing for their lives. To stay is to risk death; to flee is to risk death. No one should be forced to face this type of situation.”

Amara said Refugee Council USA, a coalition of U.S. nongovernmental organizations that works to protect refugees, continues to advocate that the United States resettle an additional 100,000 Syrians in the upcoming fiscal year. She said there is historical precedent for helping a large number of refugees. For example, in 1980, the United States resettled 200,000 Vietnamese.

Forty Syrians resettled in Tarrant County between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 22, according to area resettlement agencies. Whether more move into the region depends on whether more Syrians are processed into the U.S. refugee programs.

“There is a possibility to see additional Syrian cases resettled in Fort Worth,” Amara said. “The number of Syrian cases in the overall national pipeline is very low, so at this point Syrians would not be a large percentage of the population we would resettle in fiscal year 2016, unless we see an increase in cases placed into the pipeline.”

Amara said that since 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Commission has submitted roughly 18,000 refugees for resettlement consideration to the United States. Because the process for vetting and interviewing refugees overseas is lengthy and can average anywhere from two to three years, at this point only around 1,600 have arrived this year.

A safe place

On Sundays, Myanmarese refugees living in Dallas, Fort Worth and Venus in Johnson County show up at the Agape Clinic, which is in the basement of Grace United Methodist Church in east Dallas. The charity medical clinic has been reaching out to such refugees for four years.

Nurse practitioner Aaron Mitschke and his wife, Diane Mitschke, director of the master of social work program at the University of Texas at Arlington, work together to address a variety of needs from paying bills to dealing with chronic diabetes.

The Mitschkes said Myanmarese refugees come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds that include Karen, Karenni, Chin and Rohingya. Many don’t speak English and can’t read or write in their own language — living a life without understanding written characters, they said.

Many Myanmarese often arrive with incredible skills that don’t fit into urban life, Aaron Mitschke said. They are described as great farmers, hunters and fishers who can build their own houses, he said.

“Those skills are great, but they are not necessarily the skills that they need to thrive here in the United States,” Aaron Mitschke said.

The clinic is a safe place to get answers to questions that are not always related to their health.

“My wife sees them upfront, helps them determine what bills need to be paid, helps them to interpret what is going on — almost like a cultural liaison,” he said.

Many struggle with employment training and just accessing basic social services, they said.

“When they come here, they are usually placed in the middle of a city in an apartment complex,” Diane Mitschke said, adding that many work in factories, assembly lines or food-processing plants, she said.

She said many are dealing with the trauma of persecution and have “witnessed something terrible in their country.” As they try to learn English and how to drive, they also struggle with depression and anxiety, she said.

Diane Mitschke also uses this grassroots work to find out how to address the health and mental health needs of refugees.

“How are refugees doing once they come to the U.S. and once they come to North Texas to resettle?” she asked.

‘A citizen of nowhere’

Sudar Shan Adhikari, 38, was 12 when his family was forced to go to a refugee camp in Nepal.

“I was born in Bhutan, but I have a faint recollection of Bhutan,” he said.

Refugees from Bhutan are ethnic Nepalese who migrated to southern Bhutan decades ago but were kicked out of Bhutan in the 1980s, Amara said.

“They fled back to Nepal and have been living in refugee camps along the Nepal border. Many of them have actually grown up in these refugee camps and spent a couple of decades there,” Amara said.

Adhikari said the Lhotshampa people or “people from the south of Bhutan” were targeted by the government. They lost their rights and their property. They were forced to flee.

“We just got our one piece of clothes and that’s it,” he said. “We left our country in the middle of the night.”

Adhikari and Ru Hta Dun understand the hardship of being on the run. Today, they work together helping refugees at Catholic Charities Fort Worth. Both said they share a bond with the refugees who are new to the area.

“We understand what they have been through,” Ru Hta Dun said. “We can share our experiences with them.”

They said they have embraced new lives in the United States. Ru Hta Dun recently became a citizen, and Adhikari is preparing to take that step, too.

“That’s going to be my first citizenship in my life,” he said. “Almost half of my life, I was without citizenship. I was a citizen of nowhere actually.”

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Refugees arriving in Tarrant County

2005: 508

2010: 1,559

2011: 1,144

2012: 1,327

2013: 1,524

2014: 1,577

Sources: Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Refugee Services of Texas Fort Worth and World Relief Fort Worth