Burmese Refugees in Omaha, NE A Study of a People in Transition

Read the Project on Burmese refugees below or read it via this link.

Margarita Higgs, Kenneth Roberts, Andrew Zitka, Michelle Thiessen,

The University of Nebraska Omaha

Introductory Sociology – April 23, 2015


The incoming refugee population to Omaha, Nebraska in recent years has been dominated by individuals from the country of Burma/Myanmar, specifically of the Karen ethnicity. This population makes up roughly 1% of all Omaha residents. Census data indicates that they predominantly live in areas with high rates of “food stamp” usage, low rates of homeownership, lower than average incomes, higher than average unemployment, and larger than average household sizes. Integration and outreach efforts by the local community could potentially reduce the incidence of social ills among this population.

Burmese Refugees in Omaha, Nebraska

A Study of a People in Transition

        Few Americans would be surprised to hear that the United States is the world’s largest recipient of international refugees, as selected for resettlement by the United Nations. However, perhaps due to the same factors that enable us to take in so many refugees, many Americans are unaware of the local refugee populations living within their communities. This case study is an effort to shed some light on one of the largest refugee populations in Omaha, Nebraska: that of the Burmese/Myanmar people. Many local residents of Omaha would likely be surprised to hear that their modest city is one of the largest hubs of Burmese resettlement in America, and that Burmese refugees have accounted for the lion’s share of recent refugees resettled in Omaha. Figure 1, below, illustrates this trend.

Figure 1. Percent of Total Incoming Refugees to Omaha Originating from Burma/Myanmar.

aSource: US Department of State, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

        Unfortunately, the relative lack of familiarity that local Nebraskans have with the resettling Burmese population exacerbates a number of difficulties that these people experience. Burmese individuals that have resettled in Omaha are predominantly of the Karen ethnicity (pronounced kuh-ren). They were a minority in Burma in ethnicity, culture, and often religion, with many having been converted to Christianity in the 1800’s by western missionaries. Due to political instability resulting from the end of a long period of colonialism in Burma, and resulting regional insurgencies that spawned, the government of Burma/Myanmar undertook a brutal military crackdown that can perhaps best be described as ethnic cleansing. Many Karen refugees in Omaha therefore have experienced horrors such as war, genocide, decades in Thai refugee camps, and insecure conditions that led to high incidents of rape and other crimes. Now many of the Karen people that have resettled in Omaha, Nebraska, do not speak the local language, do not have a great deal of resources, and largely are not well integrated with the local community.

        This lack of local familiarity with the history and culture of the Burmese refugees, and specifically the Karen, serves as a barrier to their integration and thus chance of obtaining a higher quality of life. This has had predictable results such as a higher rate of alcoholism, higher rates of poverty, and less access to healthcare and other services.  This paper will help shed some light on these people by investigating the story of how they came to be refugees, what their current condition is within the local community, and who they are as a people.


To fully understand the Burmese refugee population, it’s important to start from the beginning. After all, many of the adult refugees still suffer what could perhaps be described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a result of their experiences in Burma and in the refugee camps in Thailand. Jay Milbrant tells of a typical scene of the Karen people in the story of a man named Pa La Sae in Burma. Pa La Sae’s story begins in his family’s bamboo hut one evening as the Burma Army began what was a routine operation. Mortar shells began to rain down on his village and Pa La Sae and his family ran out, and his parents ordered him to run ahead and to leave them behind. Machine gun fire and mortar’s razed the town as the Army approached. Those who were unfortunate enough to not escape were killed or forced into slave labor with the Burma Army. The women were raped, and landmines were left behind to make sure no villagers returned (Milbrant 64-65). The genocide of the Karen people can be traced back to the end of the Second World War when the British granted independence to the Burmese people. The Burma government was plagued with strife and civil unrest until the eventual downfall of the weak democratic government by a military coup by the Burmese Army and has been in power ever since (Moonienda 13). The leader at the time, General Ne Win wished to isolate Burma from the outside world and established a one party system known as the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Seeing an existential threat to their regime, the magazineThe Irrawaddy stated:

Aware of the growing influence of [the] Karen… [General] Ne Win and his commanders routinely launched military campaigns in the region but were unable to wipe out the insurgency. In 1971, Ne Win assigned Col. Than Tin to lead the mission to turn the delta “white”-that is, to cleanse the area of insurgents once and for all,” (Milbrant 69).

 The Burma Army began its brutal genocidal campaign known as the “Four Cuts,” This involved targeted the civilians in the country who either aided or were likely to aide guerrilla fighters. Villages near hostile zones were forcibly relocated, like in the story of Pa La Sae. In areas beyond the zones known as “brown areas,” the Army was given strict shoot-on-sight orders (Moonienda 14). During the period from 1995 to 2003, hundreds of Karen villages were razed and the people forced to relocate.

The year 2003 saw the end to cease fire negotiations between the Burma Army and the Karen rebels, which prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to begin resettling the Karen refugees into other parts of the world (Moonienda 14). Further compounding the Karen plight, a deadly hurricane ripped through Burma, killings hundreds of thousands in predominantly Karen villages.  Despite a ceasefire in 2004 with the Karen National Union, Abbot Moonienda states that “[f]orced labour, the destruction and relocation of villages, killings and torture, and ongoing fighting” are still typical in the nation now renamed Myanmar (Moonienda 16).

An often-used term by Karen refugees on the Thai-Burma border is that of birds inside of a cage. Karen refugee participants in a healing workshop lead by Al Fuertes in Mae La Camp stated:

Karen refugees are birds inside a cage that get fed on a regular basis but are not able to fly. When the owner comes and opens the cage and lets them go, chances are that most of the birds cannot fly anymore because they did not have the opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a very long time now. Many do not even know what it means to fly, (Fuertes 20).

According to the workshop led by Al Fuertes, refugees in these Thai villages have no means of livelihood or making an income, which has made them extremely dependent on subsidies that provide food, clothing, house, medical supplies and education for their children. Their lack of means for an income is compounded by the fact that in these camps, many cannot achieve an education higher than a high school level. Fuertes reports that only forty of two to three hundred students get accepted into a refugee village “college” which even then is non-accredited (Fuertes 21). Many of the young then will leave the refugee sanctuary and head into neighboring Thai village, which is illegal for them to do. A report in the Journal of Traumatic Stress points out that among these refugees, 42% met the criteria for depression and suicide ideation is a large problem (Falb 631).  The need for compassion, understanding, and work is an integral part for helping and aiding Karen refugees in what can only be seen as a genocidal attack.


According to the Office of Refugee resettlement from beginning in 2005 to 2010, 1,574 Burmese refugees initially settled in Omaha, NE (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013).  However, our census information accounts for 1,665 people of full Burmese descent (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).  It is possible the discrepancy is due to births, with children of refugees adding to this number of Burmese people, as well as secondary migration. Once a Burmese population became established in Omaha, it is possible refugees from other states or cities settled in Omaha. In 2013, Nebraska had a net gain of refugees through secondary migration with 153 refugees entering Nebraska and 43 refugees leaving (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013).  However, since 2010, 900 more Burmese arrived and were settled in Omaha through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013).  In a 2013 Omaha-World Herald article, an associate pastor stated that there are 4,000 Karen refugees in the Omaha area (Burbach 2013). While that seems much higher than the 2,400 refugees from Burma alone, including those who aren’t Karen, who moved to Omaha through initial migration, it is possible that the rest of the Karen refugees came through secondary migration.  Perhaps the more accurate estimate is located on the Karen Christian Revival Church’s website, which states that between Omaha and Lincoln there are more than 3,000 Karen refugees (Karen Christian Revival Church Website).

U.S. Census Bureau Data on Burmese Refugees In Omaha, NE

In order to gain more insight into the economic situation of Burmese refugees in Omaha, we looked to the U.S. Census Bureau.  The most useful information available to us about them was that the Bureau tracked Burmese people by zip code, and this information was available in their website as long as more than 100 Burmese people lived in that area.  This narrowed down our information to six zip codes.  We were then able to make a rough sketch of the economic profile of Burmese refugees by examining economic and social metrics for the entire zip code.

The most specific economic information we could obtain about the Burmese refugee population was the percentage living in owner-occupied homes, and for all zip codes with greater than 100 Burmese residents this number was extremely low in comparison to the Omaha average. To compare, 58.3% of Omaha households are owner-occupied while only 7.6% of Burmese people are in owner-occupied homes. This low number of homeowners in the Burmese population is due to their inability to get more than low-level jobs, as many refugees come to the US without English skills, an education, or transferable job skills.  According to an article in the Omaha World Herald, most Karen refugees, the largest ethnic group of refugees from Burma in Omaha, work for meatpacking plants in Omaha.  However, some refugees, such as the associate pastor of the Karen Christian Revival Church, own small businesses, but they seem to be exceptions to the rule (US Census Bureau 2010).  

We also found interesting demographic information, such as, for all zip codes the Burmese population had a median age in the early 20s, while Omaha’s median age is 34.2 years old. For the total Burmese population accounted for in these zip codes, 15.9% of the population is under the age of 5, while only 7.5% of Omaha’s population at large is in this category.  In Omaha, the average household size is 2.45 people.  However, for the Burmese population each zip code had an average household size of around 5 (US Census Bureau 2010).

As for the socioeconomic status of the areas in which the Burmese population lived, in all zip codes except for one, the median household income was lower than the median household income in Omaha, with incomes around 87% of the average. In all zip codes with a significant Burmese population the unemployment rate was higher than it was in all of Omaha at the time. Lastly, for all zip codes the percent of households who had received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or “food stamps”, in the last 12 months was 2.3 times higher than Nebraska’s average (US Census Bureau 2010).

Source: City-data.com

Figure 2. Referenced Zip Codes in Omaha, NE.

Table 1. Zip Codes with Large Burmese Refugee Populations as Compared to Omaha.a

aSource: US Census Bureau 2010.

According to the data above, Burmese refugees in the Omaha area face a number of challenges. They have a neighborhood unemployment rate that is 204% of the local average, earn an income of only 87% of the local median, have a household the size of 201% of the local average, and receive the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) at a rate of 233% the local average. With the large percentage of children under the age of 5, it means that within the Burmese and Karen community there will be a large percentage of children in economically disadvantaged households for many years to come.  

Table 2. Zip Codes with Burmese Refugees as Compared to Total Omaha Population.a,b

aSource: US Census Bureau 2010.

bPercent Normal Value is a ratio of data from zip codes with greater than 100 Burmese refugees compared to all zip codes in Omaha area.

        The average family size of Burmese refugees is about twice the size of the average family size in Omaha, with the average household size being very close to that number as well.  However, the median household income and the average household income for Karen families is about 87% of the overall median income in Omaha.  This means that even though the average family size and average household size of the Burmese refugees is larger than the average household and family size in Omaha, the median income is still smaller.  We can therefore conclude that Burmese refugees are living off less income than the average person in Omaha is.


According to traditions within the Karen community, the Karen are descended from the Mongols.  The Karen people are very diverse. There 20 subgroups in the Karen ethnic group. The Sgaw Karen are the largest subgroup of the Karen, and they are sometimes referred to as the white Karen.  Similarly, there are three main Karen languages and many dialects, the main types are Sgaw Karen, Eastern Pwo Karen, and Western Karen (CDC). According a report done by the CDC, the Karen pride themselves on being a “simple, humble, unassuming, and peace-loving” people. This reflects on the Karen communication style, which places priority on harmonious interactions.  Additionally, speaking directly or emphasizing one’s own needs is considered rude. Therefore, Western communication styles can be seen as impolite to the Karen people. Originally animists, around 70% of the Karen are Buddhist or Buddhist-animists and the rest are Christians. The Karen people highly value family, and respecting elders is viewed as very important. Community, meaning the extended family, is very important; however it is the nuclear family that central to life. Men and women are both involved in the decision making in the family. Women actually have an increased importance compared to other groups in the same geographic area because of their increased importance due to many families being without a male presence due to conflict (CDC).

While all refugees face issues when they migrate to the United States, the refugee experience is by no means universal, and so refugees from different countries face different challenges.  For the Karen community in America, alcoholism is a problem.  According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, social workers and caseworkers that have worked with the Karen community in Minnesota have identified alcoholism as a problem for many Karen refugees (Glass 2011).  Although the University of Minnesota’s report focused on refugees in the Minnesota community, other Karen communities across the US have found alcoholism to be a problem.  For instance, in Fort Wayne, Indiana the local county has deemed it necessary to offer an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for Burmese refugees (Bogue 2011).  Local organizations in Omaha have also realized the need for substance abuse programs in Karen because of the rates of alcoholism; however, it is difficult to find the necessary materials in Karen to begin this program (Institute of Public Life – Omaha 2015).  The unusually elevated rate of alcoholism in the Karen refugee population likely stems from the mental health challenges that refugees face.

 Refugees from Burma may have experienced torture, sexual assault, and deaths of family members before moving to a refugee camp.  While living in a refugee camp they had little access to healthcare.  Therefore, alcohol becomes a way to cope with anxiety, trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Glass 2011). With the stress of acculturating in the United States and becoming financially independent compounded with previous trauma, it is little wonder their mental health suffers.  The language and financial barriers to receiving mental health care in the United States places a heavy burden on the Karen community to deal with these issues in isolation (Vang and Trieu 2014).

However, despite the economic situation of the many Karen people in Omaha, and despite alcoholism becoming an issue for some members of the Karen community, the community thrives. The strong Karen presence firmly established itself in Omaha when leaders of the community announced the building of a $2.5 million church for the Baptist Karen community in Omaha (Burbach 2013).  According to their website, the church plans on providing ESL classes, day care, computer literacy classes, skills development workshops, among other community enrichment activities and services. The ability of the Karen community to raise this money within the community indicates that while they face struggles, the Karen are dedicated to the good of the community (Karen Revival Church Website).


        This information clearly indicates a community in need of help and assistance. Not only will helping these people better integrate into their communities assist the Burmese-American population, but it will also improve the community as a whole through lower poverty and fewer social ills.

        So what is the path forward for Omaha and the Burmese refugee community? The State of Nebraska and the City of Omaha can implement policies designed to increase the use of social services by qualified individuals within this particular community, including healthcare, translation services, and support with adjusting to this new country and new way of life. Additionally, community leaders can take steps to engage the Burmese population and involve them in community activities, to over time strengthen ties between locals and refugees. This can be as simple as inviting the Burmese refugee population to joint social functions, interacting with their religious leaders, and checking up on the work environment at large-scale Burmese employers, such as meat-packing plants. The children of Burmese immigrants can also be provided with additional support in terms of in-school translators, help learning English, and perhaps a curriculum specifically designed to ease their transition into English learning.

        The experience of the local Burmese refugees in Omaha, NE, can also be used as a learning experience to prepare for future influxes of refugees from world conflict zones. Typically it takes some time after the emergence of a conflict for the United Nations to recognize refugee populations eligible for international resettlement, and then coordinate with the United States and other nations to do so. This influx of new refugees can generally be predicted, and with national coordination, we can predict exactly which communities the incoming refugees will settle into. In this way, we can be prepared for the next great influx of refugees into our local community. Instead of reacting passively to incoming refugee populations, the city of Omaha and State of Nebraska can actively seek to engage incoming refugees from day one, to prevent large-scale social and economic disparities from developing. Ultimately, easing the transition of the refugees into Nebraskan life will largely pay for itself, through reduced use of social services and greater payment of taxes as incomes increase.


Bogue, Ellie. “AA Program Designed for Burmese Immigrants.” News Sentinel, January 20,  2011.  Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.news-sentinel.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=%2FSE%2F20110120%2FNEWS%2F101200306.

Burbach, Christopher. “Ethnic Karen Refugees from Myanmar Plan $2M Church in North Omaha.” Omaha World-Herald, December 20, 2013. http://www.omaha.com/news/ethnic-karen-refugees-from-myanmar-plan-m-church-in-north/article_a56d61b9-0a76-58fd-a284-792be8022cef.html.

Center for Disease Control. “Burma.” In Promoting Cultural Sensitivity – A Practical Guide for Tuberculosis Programs. Atlanta, Georgia: Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/tb/publications/guidestoolkits/ethnographicguides/burma/default.htm

City Data. “Omaha, Nebraska (NE) Zip Code Map – Locations, Demographics.” City Data. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.city-data.com/zipmaps/Omaha-Nebraska.html.

Falb, Kathryn L., Marie C. Mccormick, David Hemenway, Katherine Anfinson, and Jay G. Silverman. “Suicide Ideation and Victimization Among Refugee Women Along the Thai-Burma Border.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 26.5 (2013): 631-35. JSTOR. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.

Fuertes, Al. “Birds Inside a Cage: Metaphor For Karen Refugees.” Social Alternatives 29.1 (2010): 20-24. Print.

Glass, Kaela. Understanding Alcohol Use in the Karen Community. Minneapolis: University of  Minnesota, 2011. 2011. http://www.cura.umn.edu/publications/catalog/cmv-032.

Institute of Public Life. “Becoming a Welcoming Community for Refugees.” Institute of Public Life. 2015. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://iplomaha.org/Refugees.aspx.

Milbrandt, Jay. “Tracking Genocide: Persecution of the Karen in Burma.” Texas International Law Journal 48.1 (2012): 63-101. JSTOR. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.

Moonienda, Ashin. The Karen People: Culture, Faith and History. Bendigo: Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation, 2010. Print.

U.S. Census Bureau; Census 2010, Summary File 2, Tables DP-1 and DP03, generated by Margarita Higgs; using American FactFinder; <http://factfinder2.census.gov>; (08 April 2015)

U.S. Department of State, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). 2000-2014. “Refugee Arrival  Data.” Retrieved April 02, 2015 (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/refugee-arrival-data).

Vang, Chia Y., and Monica M. Trieu. Invisible Newcomers: Refugees from Burma/Myanmar and   Bhutan in the United States. Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, 2014. http://apiasf.org/research/APIASF_Burma_Bhutan_Report.pdf































































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