Karen seek freedom on foreign soil

Karen seek freedom on foreign soil

Refugees from a restive area of Myanmar find a sense of safety in the United States but can face struggles while settling into new surroundings

at home: Karen refugees Catalina Say and Bu Paw in Saint Paul, Minnesota, show Karen fabrics. PHOTOS: MICK ELMORE
at home: Karen refugees Catalina Say and Bu Paw in Saint Paul, Minnesota, show Karen fabrics. PHOTOS: MICK ELMORE

Bu Paw watches her four-year-old daughter run around screaming with other Karen children in Keller Island Park in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It is a joy the daughter seems to take for granted and the mother appreciates.

Now in her mid-20s, Bu Paw didn't know that freedom until her late teens. She was born and grew up in a refugee camp in Myanmar's Karen state, which was not officially recognised by the international community at the time. When she was around six years old, her family moved to a UN-registered camp hugging the Myanmar border in Thailand.

"I'm not sure how old I was, but I was about six," she said, adding it was old enough to understand that the UN-recognised camp in Thailand offered more security than living in Karen state despite the limited personal freedom. The freedom from fear came appreciated, she said, but life in a refugee camp was stagnant, offering few prospects in life other than staying put and surviving.

So Bu Paw jumped at the opportunity when sponsorship was offered to resettle in Minnesota. Someone vouched for her in the upper Midwestern state. After a lengthy immigration process, she made her way to the United States in 2010.

Bu Paw says she is content in America. She attended university for a couple years, met her husband -- a fellow Karen refugee -- and their daughter was born. She calls it home and plans to stay. Despite this, she adds that she and many Karen her age and older in Minnesota still say: "I want to go back [to Karen state] -- maybe for a year to help people there."

Sitting with Bu Paw is Catalina Say, selling clothes woven by Karen women still living in the Thai refugee camps where she spent much of her own life. Her young teenage sons are playing games in the park with both noisy volleyball and takraw matches in progress.

Catalina was living in the Eh Htee Khu refugee camp, the southernmost of about a dozen camps along the border. Like her husband, another former refugee camp resident, she got a sponsor in Minnesota and moved.

Her route from Karen state to Minnesota, however, was bumpy. First she moved to Bangkok, joining the tens or thousands of illegal migrants looking for work in Thailand.

There she found employment but was eventually caught in an immigration trap. After some time in jail, she found herself back in Karen state with no support, little money and nowhere to live. She moved around in Karen state a few times. Then, in a tragic incident, her husband lost his leg to a landmine. After this, she decided to use her last 1,700 baht given to her by UN staff to move back into Eh Htee Khu. There she started the process of finding a better life that eventually led to a sponsorship, migration to Minnesota, and a cool sunny Saint Paul afternoon with about 100 other Karen and friends.

Bu Paw and Catalina are two of about 70,000 Karen who have migrated to America in the past 15 years, said Morrison Johnny, Programme Manager with the Karen Organisation of Minnesota founded in 2008.

"The Karen are spread over 41 states with nearly 20,000 right here in Minnesota," Mr Johnny said. Karen have been coming to the Twin Cities since the UNHCR started resettling Karen to third countries in 2000. The first Karen were like a magnet for others and the region is now a hub after word got out it was a good place to come."

They feel welcome in Minnesota, too, as other refugee groups have settled here before them. The Hmong first settled in the state, alongside California, in the 1970s and '80s, and Somalis in the '90s and early 2000s. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul claim to have the biggest populations of both Hmong and Somalis in the United States.

"There are a lot of Asian people here," said Mr Johnny. "Why do they live here? Because [Minnesota] has systems and people to support them. It is really helpful for the refugee families."

The Karen are learning from those who came before them, Mr Johnny said, adding he has a multifaceted mission. He wants Karen to know their new home and his home to know the Karen. But he also wants the young Karen to remember their homeland.

"I want to keep my culture, but I want to fit in," he said.

Knowing your neighbours is the right thing to do as cultural misunderstanding can cause problems, Mr Johnny said. Some misunderstandings are funny -- others not so much. Speaking to a conference room of lawyers in Saint Paul seeking to better understand the Karen, Mr Johnny recites one of his stock stories. He recalls a Karen man, a fresh arrival, who he was teaching how to use the Twin Cities' public bus system. After their first ride, they got off the bus to transfer to a new route and Mr Johnny noted the man wasn't wearing shoes. "So I said, 'Where are your shoes?' and the man says, 'I couldn't wear them inside so I left them outside the bus," said Mr Johnny.

The story gets some laughs, underlining the different cultural expectations at play.

Mr Johnny emphasises that Karen are good people. They are law-abiding people who value education highly, he says, but different cultures have different ways.

"Two Karen men were arrested in Illinois for hunting turtles because it is illegal there," he tells the lawyers. "But where they come from, that is what people do."

Mr Johnny can rattle off facts, figures and observations with ease.

"The Karen people migrated from Mongolia in 1128 to China where they stayed for a while, then moved on to modern day Myanmar," he explains to the conference attendees.

"They sided with Britain in World War II. The Karen revolution started January 31, 1949. They are one of Myanmar's eight main ethnic groups. There are seven million in Burma, one million in Thailand and 106,000 registered in Thai refugee camps."

The takeaway point of his talk is simply that the Karen are good people, but integrating into the community will take time and patience.

The Karen community faces many challenges, Mr Johnny said.

Extended families living in the same household can suffer a lack of space. There are also language difficulties, and problems pertaining to access to to jobs, transportation and health care -- even asking for help.

In addition, several of them are still dealing with bad memories. Mr Johnny said he was "kidnapped" and made to work one year on a fishing boat.

"It was horrible," he said of the experience. "I feel lucky just to have survived."

Others suffered violent persecution in Myanmar before arriving in refugee camps. According to research at the University of Minnesota, some still suffer mental illness due to these experiences.

Co-founder of the Karen Organisation of Minnesota Ehtaw Dwee told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in early 2015 that the Karen are reluctant to discuss mental anguish caused by past experiences and cannot directly translate mental health into either of the two main Karen dialects.

In one University of Minnesota study, researchers interviewed 180 Karen refugees in Saint Paul and found more than a quarter said they had personally experienced, or seen a family member experience, beatings, forced labour, rape or other forms of torture.

The Karen brought many bad memories with them to the US, but there are many good memories from Karen state, too, and Mr Johnny said they want to keep those alive. Karen are new enough to America that the first generation serves as a bridge to the "old world" but their children born in America have weaker links, he said.

New generations are expected to assimilate into the greater community more, but as it stands, most Karen bond with fellow Karen due to shared backgrounds and the experience of facing the complexities of life in the US.

Some hold prospects of returning to Karen state. Myanmar has seen tremendous change over the past years, including increased freedom and opportunities for people -- but this doesn't apply to everyone. The Karen, locked into the world's longest-running ethnic war with the Myanmar government, have seen little change in their reality.

Speaking with Karen living in Minnesota, a common thread emerges -- everyone would like to see a free Karen state, either independent or afforded a greater degree of autonomy. But nobody sees that ideal coming true any time soon, with Myanmar's current approach to treating minorities being a strong indicator they have cause to be concerned.

In the meantime, Bu Paw's daughter runs in circles -- at times, stopping to catch her breath. The daughter doesn't seem to know or care where she is going, but her mother knows they have already arrived. It's not perfect, but it is safe and here they can strive towards better lives.

kicking habits: Takraw, a popular sport in Southeast Asia, is played in a park in Minnesota. The state has 20,000 refugees from the Karen ethnic group.

fine tune: Morrison Johnny, Karen Organisation of Minnesota programme manager, performs a song.

GOOD SPORTS: Young Karen men play volleyball with a takraw match in the background.

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