Burmese refugees are getting lost in translation in Iowa

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When he came to Iowa from Myanmar, one of thousands of Burmese refugees to settle in the midwestern state, Way Moo hoped for the chance to start a new life. But since he moved there in 2007, he struggled to find work or communicate. After Moo was investigated by the state for hitting his child, he shot himself earlier this year.

His story and those of other Burmese refugees in Iowa are explored in a fascinating series of articles published over the past week in the Des Moines Register. Reporter Lee Rood spent three months talking to immigrants, advocates, and government officials about how refugees from the southeast Asian country of Burma are adapting to life in Iowa, the sixth whitest state in the country.

Most of the Burmese refugees in the state are ethnic minorities and Christians who have fled civil war. There are now about 7,000 Burmese refugees in the state, many who were resettled elsewhere in the U.S. and then came to Iowa to find jobs, Rood writes.


But once the refugees arrive in Iowa, they receive only 90 days of government assistance before they’re expected to find work and make a living for themselves, even though most don't speak or read English. According to Rood’s reporting, the state’s refugee agency has suffered steep budget cuts and service groups say they’re being overwhelmed by Burmese refugee requests for aid.

“In Iowa, we have this perception that we’ve welcoming to refugees,” Rood told Fusion. “But many of these families are really struggling. They’re working, they’re trying hard, they want to do well here, but they need much more help.”

Meanwhile, many Burmese refugees face post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges, as well as challenging language and cultural barriers. After Moo disciplined his five-year-old son by hitting him with a coat hanger—something that would be totally normal where he grew up—he was placed on Iowa's Child Abuse Registry, making it even harder for him to get a job. During the state’s investigation of the incident, Moo and his wife struggled to understand what was happening, and signed documents in English that they didn’t understand.

Just a few weeks after he was put on the registry, Moo called his wife to say he loved her, covered himself with a blanket, and shot himself with a .22-caliber rifle. He was one of nine suicides or suicide attempts reported in Iowa’s Burmese community since 2011.


Other families facing similar cultural barriers had their children taken by the state foster care system, which doesn’t always have translation or interpretation readily available in their language. Burmese refugees in the state speak more than 27 different languages. “You can call in a translator, but that person might not even speak a language that’s remotely familiar for the person needing the translating,” Rood said.

Young refugees—many of whom were born in camps in Thailand and have never even seen Myanmar—also face educational challenges. Some never learned to even read and write their own language, let alone English. Nearly 40 percent of Burmese Americans are high school dropouts, according to a report from the Asian & Pacific Islander Scholarship Fund.


"We came to America with all of our hopes and expectations. It felt like we were going to heaven," Maria Boe, the oldest of nine siblings, told Rood. "But there are a lot of problems to overcome.” She will attend college in the fall.

The refugees are changing Des Moines and other communities around the state—Burmese make up a fourth of the population in at least one small Iowa town. And there are now more children that were born in Burma than in Mexico (the state's largest immigrant origin country) in the Des Moines Public School District’s English Language Learner group.


Read the whole series at the Des Moines Register.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.