Burglary spree among Burmese refugees

For the last two years, a series of burglaries and assaults directed almost with impunity at a silent Burmese population and their businesses in the West Side area has raised deep concerns among refugee communities in Buffalo. Burmese people are among the newest refugee groups who enter the U.S. after going through long years of brutal, atrocious treatments and tribulations under a long-ruling military dictatorship in their home country. Sadly, for nearly two years, the same refugee group has become the subject of a burglary spree that seems to take the form of an incurable cancer in their communities.

In an effort to help competent entities effectively address the problem, Karibu News has conducted an investigation that could serve as a reference tool in helping Burmese people and the rest of the refugee and immigrant communities live a peaceful life in Buffalo.

Among five Burmese and non-Burmese owned stores randomly visited by Karibu News on Grant St., four of them have been attacked, robbed, or burglarized, and the victims have for the most part decided to keep quiet by fear of retaliation, or mistrust of the police. A female refugee in the neighborhood confided to Karibu News that those who perpetrate these attacks are not only people from the outside, Burmese and Somali youths are behind it because they already know that refugees keep money in their homes. “You know that refugees are good at saving whatever little they get, and they are not used to placing money in the bank. Their children and children’s friends know that in breaking into those homes they are going to find money,” she said.

A man whose store has been burglarized three times and who requested anonymity told Karibu News that the situation refugees are facing is contributed by both burglars and the inability of police to effectively intervene in the matter. “We were burglarized here and I called the police. They came here and said they were sorry and were going to handle the matter. They promised to call back within three days but guess what, they did not after a week. I kept calling in order to know where the problem stands, but to this day there is no feedback, and I gave up” he said. When asked why he has decided to give up, he said that he prefers to shut his mouth before “they shut it up” for being big mouthed. By the end of the month, the anonymous victim said he will be moving out and go to a safe and friendly area for business.

As the investigation went on, it was clearly indicative that telling the truth or involving the police, or even identifying oneself to the police for being a victim of a crime is perceived among refugees as rather an aggravation of problems than a solution. Another Grant St. business owner who did not want his name to be reported told Karibu News that like Burmese, he too has been victim of burglary. “Clearly, you can tell that among the groups, sometimes there are Puerto Ricans, Somalis, Burmese and even African Americans. But, I just kept quiet because the police won’t do anything.”

According to Khin Myung Soe, a Burmese community leader and business owner, there has been a teaching session organized in the past where the police and the bankers were involved in order to inform Burmese people of the importance of placing money in the bank to deter burglars from targeting their homes. “I don’t know how many followed the teaching, but a good number did not. And sometimes, they get mad at me when I remind them about it,” he said. On the other side, Soe said that many of the burglars who are terrorizing the Burmese community are known, but no one, he said, among the Burmese community is courageous enough to denounce them or to witness against in court when they get caught. “Burmese need to step up to the fore and testify against these burglars,” Soe said. He also acknowledged that the other difficulty consists of the fact that these boys, he said, can only be denounced or witnessed against by their parents, neighbors, or friends who really have hard time to do so.

Realizing Karibu News’ confusion on why Burmese people were so adamant and mad about the idea of putting money in the bank, another refugee from Somalia who insisted that his identity be kept confidential and who is friend with some Burmese refugees said that there are two main things: the first one is that Burmese people do not trust banks; they see in banks a sort of government proxy, which they do not like based on the suffering they have gone through from the hand of their government back home. So, “they don’t think that their money will be safe in the bank, which they associate with the government. Therefore, they prefer to have it in their homes,” he said.  The second reason, he alleged, is that Burmese people say that if they put their money in the bank, they are going to lose their benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid if the government comes to find out how much money they have in their saving or checking accounts.

Focusing on the home breaking side, Chris DelPrince, a consultant for small business and not-for-profits, who is very connected with Burmese people with whom he works for many years on various matters, indicated that only Burmese can solve the problem. “All the leaders of these groups are well known as well as their dwelling. These are kids who skip school and decide to stay home and nobody in the community bothers to denounce what they are doing. These are groups that can be quickly squashed if Burmese people are ready to step up, to denounce and witness against them in the court of law,” he said.

DelPrince also indicated that at no time Burmese people have got the police so involved in their case than now. “We have got involved police leaders such as Chief Brian Patterson or Officer Steven Nichols who have been frankly committed to this problem all along and Soe is now able to reach them at any time whenever there is a similar issue. But, the inability of Burmese to come together and deal with this issue as one force makes it difficult because “there are among them about seven different ethnic groups that are deeply torn apart by internal conflicts inherited back home.”

“As I said, all these boys are well known. But the police cannot do anything because in our legal system, once an individual is arrested and taken to court, there must be at least someone to witness against him. Otherwise, it is going to be difficult to keep him in jail,” DelPrince said. Even when it comes to arresting them, he added, cops can only do so if they catch them in action. Otherwise, people or Burmese who know them are the ones who should inform the police and witness against them in court.

Supporting DelPrince’s statements, Soe indicated that there has been in the past a group of burglars who were arrested but no one accepted to witness against them in court and they were released.

Karibu News has unsuccessfully attempted three time to reach physically and telephonically the D-District Community police officer to hear from them. However, five days earlier through the second police-community West Side Safety Task Force meeting hosted by Jericho Road Community Health Center to address burglaries that are taking place against refugees in the West Side, Chief Brian Patterson from the Buffalo Police Department (BPD) was quoted by Karibu News contributor, Jake Steinmetz, stating “an average of only 4 of every 40 burglaries are solved throughout the district. Solving the crime of burglary is not easy, it is not like on TV. Only through evidence, eye witness and police patrols that criminals can be apprehended,” Jake Steinmetz quoted. However, all advocates and police at the meeting agreed on the fact that reporting crimes was the effective way to take action on crimes in the area.

No matter how many burglars cops might arrest or get off Burmese communities, the presence of money in Burmese homes –if these allegations are verifiable-, will continue to entice further burglars to break into Burmese homes and eventually engage in fatal acts that would jeopardize human lives in the process. Karibu News attempted to know whether local resettlement agencies provide some sort of financial literacy to refugees of whom Burmese are integral part; to know how effective is the literacy in dissuading Burmese from their anti-bank mindset, and how such literacy is designed not only for providing financial information to Burmese, but also for destroying Burmese’s home-inherited psychological infrastructure, which influences them to look at police and banks as bête noire.

According to Mustafa Ali, Case Manager at Jericho Road Drop-In Center, all their clients go through a financial literacy at Journey’s End Refugee Services where they teach them budgeting, the use of bank account, debit cards, and other bank transactions. But, Ali is not quite sure how good the literacy information is acquired because English language and education still constitute a problem among Burmese. “Many come here to ask the reason why they were sent a paper because they don’t know that it is a bank statement; some don’t know what to do with a debit card and they even don’t know how much money they have in their bank accounts,” he said.

While acknowledging the commendable contribution of the police in helping Burmese against burglaries, Ali said that it is important to understand that “much of the violence, brutality and burglaries Burmese were victims of back home were committed by men in uniform. And they could not involve the police because they believed it was just the same people. That’s why they do not trust police or get them involved in their problems here in Buffalo.”  Ali said that many of Burmese people they serve come from refugee camps in Thailand where they have spent five, ten or even more years without working or having any legal document that would enable them to open a bank account of to learn about it. “So, the fact that they don’t trust bank, which they look at as another face of government, including the mistrust towards cops, all that compels them to keep money at home and therefore to become the targets of burglars from Karen, Nepal, Burma and Somali origins,” he said.

“Another reason that really does not encourage Burmese to place money in the bank is that some of them strive to save at least $500 each month. After five months or more, they get $2,000 or even more than that. They say that putting such money in the bank will lead them into losing their food stamp benefit if the government finds out that they have more money than they should,” he said.

According to Ann Brittain, Director of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Services of Buffalo, the agency serves Burmese and other refugee groups upon their arrival in the city. She said that refugees undergo a 6 to 8-week financial literacy orientation during which they are taught how to open a bank account, how to cash checks, and how to deposit money in a bank. “Financial literacy is part of our 8-week initial orientation to all new comers. We show them how to open a bank account, how to deposit money, how to use a debit card, how to cash a check, how to use discount cards etc.., and all this is done with the support of interpreters. Now, it’s up to them to choose whether to do it or not,” Dr. Ann said. She also added that the educational level across Burmese people is varied. ”Our initial orientation enables us to assess their level in order to serve them accordingly,” she said.

Pamela Kefi, Director of Program Development and Integration at the Jewish Family Service of Buffalo, said that their agency provided financial literacy program last year, but the agency does not do it this year. As to what kind of information the financial literacy session consisted of, Kefi directed Karibu News to Apple Maria Domingo, Director of the agency whom Karibu News has attempted to reach on three different occasions without success.

According to Karen M. Adolina Scott, Executive Director of Journey’s End Refugee services, Journey’s End provides financial literacy through which refugees, including Burmese people, learn bank transactions. “This financial literacy enables them to open accounts with the money they receive at their arrival in the city, as well as the money that would come from employment,” she said. As to the ability of Burmese people to acquire and process effectively financial information pertaining to bank transactions, Dr. Scott indicated that Burmese people seem to have low formal education level compared to other refugee groups.

Research indicate that for many years, Burmese military dictatorship, the longest military dictatorship in history according to analyst Thand Myunt-U, has significantly stifled intellectual freedom. Schools curricula comprise few hours only. Like any other entity, education is reduced to the control of “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese armed forces. Education is poor and many Burmese who have fled Burma/Myammar have spent five, ten or more years in refugee camps without access to a formal education. Here in United States, 64% of the Burmese refugee population is young, age below 40; 78% of them are foreign-born. Among the Burmese refugee population, 39% are high school dropouts, while 31% of them have reached a college level. The rest has no educational reference.

Eva Hassett, Executive Director of International Institute of Buffalo (IIB), indicated that her agency provides extensive financial literacy to all new comers in order to enable them to open bank accounts, to learn about budgeting, and other finances related issues they need. The IIB’s Director indicated that once in the past, M&T Bank was involved in helping Refugees open accounts and develop basic banking practices. It is not quite clear how many have taken advantage of the session.

According to Mr. Jonathan Danat, Branch Manager at M&T Bank on Grant Street, the bank has provided several sessions not only to Burmese refugees but the entire refugee population as to the importance of having a bank account; how to open a bank account and other transactions. “We have done it with various refugee resettlement agencies. We don’t at this level follow up to know how many refugees have opened accounts, it is up to the institution. Again, we just do what we have to do: telling people and the refugee population the benefit of a bank account. It is up to them and other people to choose whether to open a bank account or not,” he concluded.

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