Final Refuge

Karen immigrants describe their harrowing journeys from the brutality of Burma to sanctuary in St. Paul

"My family had a farm outside of our village in the jungle. The Burmese soldiers accused us of being spies [for the resistance]. They said that if we continued farming there, they would put us in the house on the farm, tie us up, and set the house on fire. My brother continued farming."

Sitting on the carpeted floor of her apartment in St. Paul's North End, Mu Gay looks toward the ceiling as she remembers her life as a Karen villager living under the Burmese military dictatorship. "One day, Karen soldiers in the resistance in the jungle asked my brother to bring them some rice. He went back to the village and told the village leaders what the Karen soldiers wanted, but he didn't return to the soldiers. He didn't bring anything to them. The Burmese Army found out that he had contact with the Karen soldiers. They arrested him. There was no investigation. The Burmese soldiers took him outside of the village. They told him to dig his own grave and then they shot and killed him."

Mu Gay is an ethnic Karen (pronounced Ka-REN), an indigenous group who live primarily in the mountainous regions of Burma and Thailand, where they are the second-largest ethnic group in each country, behind Burmese and Thais, respectively. In Burma, the military government is trying to eradicate the people and their culture. Its practices have been called genocide by members of the British Parliament. Armed Burmese soldiers occupy an area of the country called Karen State. While Burma (which the military government calls "Myanmar," a name the United States does not recognize as legitimate) has recently made headlines because of its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the oppression is nothing new. "What happens is that whatever you're seeing now in terms of the government's reaction to its citizens, that's been the Karen experience for 60 years," explains Pastor William Englund of downtown's First Baptist Church of St. Paul, whose congregation includes many Karen immigrants.

Nick Vlcek
Karen villagers forced to carry rations for the Burmese army from Bilin town to Kaw Heh village
courtesy of Karen Human Rights Group
Karen villagers forced to carry rations for the Burmese army from Bilin town to Kaw Heh village

Saw Josiah, a Karen refugee who arrived in the United States six years ago and works as a case manager for the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC), explains the plight of his people. "If you are Karen in Burma, you are treated as a second-class citizen. The Karen revolution grew stronger and strongerÊfrom 1949 to 1980. Burmese people started offensives to destroy the Karen revolution. Karen villages are burned down by the Burmese government. Karen villagers flee across the [Thai-Burma] border."

In turn, some of the refugees are being relocated to third countries. In the past few years, St. Paul has become home to the largest Karen population outside of southeast Asia, with their numbers anticipated to swell as more Karen in the camps apply for third-country relocation. Estimates of the number of Karen in St. Paul vary from 1,500 to 3,000. According to Sara Chute, a refugee health consultant with the Refugee Health Program in the Minnesota Department of Health, "We don't have any good ways of estimating how many people are living here because we don't track secondary refugees coming from other states. And there are quite a few refugees who move to Minnesota. Sometimes we find out when people show up at a health clinic or when people go to the school district."

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 584 refugees have arrived from Burma since the beginning of 2007, at least three times as many as in any previous year. And that number will continue to grow. Area organizations that work with the refugees estimate that anywhere from 500 to 1,000 more Karen refugees will arrive in St. Paul in the next year, and all of them will need help meeting basic needs such as housing, health screenings, job placement, education, and English-language training.

At her apartment, Mu Gay explains, through a translator, Wai Linn Aung, why she left her homeland. "My father used to be a soldier for the British. He was old and he didn't do anything, but because of his connection to the British, the Burmese still suspected he had contact with KNU soldiers." (The Karen National Union, or KNU, is an organization that fights for Karen autonomy.) After they killed her brother, the Burmese soldiers in her village made her and her family carry water and cut wood for them every day. "They killed and ate all of our livestock so there was nothing left for us."

In another village, the man who would one day be Mu Gay's husband, Ar Say, worked primarily as a day laborer in his large village in Karen State. Like many other Karen, he was often forced to porter for the Burmese army, which meant he had to carry the very ammunition that might be used against his people. "The Burmese soldiers came to our village and they said that they needed labor," he explains. "Everyone who cannot contribute has to pay money. If you don't pay, they will arrest you and take you to the army base and tie you up."

Ar Say, a thin 58-year-old man with a narrow face, thick black hair, and a long, sparse moustache, was forced to porter many times, but on one occasion, he remembers that he had to carry the battery for the telegraph machine. "It was very heavy. I was young and strong so they made me carry it. When I was too tired to continue, they kicked me and pointed their guns at me."

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