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.
Only five years ago, owner Saw Lawla left his home country of Myanmar and resettled in Los Angeles through a federal refugee program. Vexed by big-city life, Lawla was lured to the Panhandle in 2011 by cheaper living, employment at a meat processing plant and a growing population of other Myanmar refugees.
“For our people, here is the best place,” said the 40-year-old, 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 nation in refugee resettlements for the last four years and continues to attract others who move here on their own, due in large part to a strong economy. Most are settled in large cities, but immigrant populations are also thriving in more remote areas like Amarillo, where subtle aspects of far-away cultures have taken root.
“We’ve just adapted,” Moore County Judge Rowdy Rhoades said. His county, just 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 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 — hovering in the 400 to 500-person range in each of the last four years — has some of Amarillo’s leaders worried that 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 911 calls have sometimes taken nearly 10 minutes.
Resettlement agencies have responded, deciding that refugees would only be placed in Amarillo 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 of being a refugee relocation spot dates to 1975, when Vietnamese were resettled here. Today, the majority of its refugees come from Myanmar. The overall effect on the city’s demographics has been muted. Since 2000, its Asian population has jumped from about 3,600 to about 7,400 but still only accounts for 3.8 percent of Amarillo’s about 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 1 percent in 2000 to the most recent estimate of almost 28 percent.
Farther south, refugees have been resettled in Abilene for only about a decade, but during that time, about 2,000 have arrived to the city of about 120,000 — most from the Congo, Bhutan and Burundi. Groups have clamored 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 Wal-Mart 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 Wal-Mart at night and by day earned his commercial driver’s license, 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.”
Stengle reported from Abilene, Texas.
Jamie Stengle and Betsy Blaney