Final Refuge

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

Living close to the border was a liability, however. "The Burmese shelled the camps a few times, and they killed one of the villagers," recalls Ar Say. It was not unusual for the Burmese to attack the camps.

One of Pya Pu Nay Soe's daughters, Mary, says some of her most vivid memories of the camps are when the Burmese military attacked. "One thing I remember is in '97, the Burmese military came and burned the camp. I was in ninth grade. It was almost the end of the year near the final exams," Mary recalls. "We had to run. And in '98, they came again. That time when they came, one pregnant woman died. And my classmate and her sister were burned [to death]. The family was hiding in the well, and then the whole family burned, and then both sisters died. One student was wounded. They shot him in the leg, so they had to cut it off. We had to run. They shot through the trees. So all the bullets were all around us. So we had to crawl on the ground to get away. At that time, the Thai government didn't do anything. They let them come into their country. It was a really bad situation. Even though we were already in another country, we were not safe."

Ar Say and his family had to move to another camp because of the security issues. Thailand never signed the United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees, so the United Nations has little say in the treatment of refugees inside Thai borders. Non-government organizations (NGOs) provide food, health care, education, and other basic needs. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, for example, provides refugees with basic rations, including rice, fortified flour, yellow beans, cooking oil, fish paste, salt, chiles, and sugar. Because the refugees are not legally allowed to work outside of the camps, they have little more than what the NGOs give them. "The food would run out in the middle of the month," explains Ar Say. "We had to find another source of income." Ar Say, however, like many of the refugees, managed to find ways to sneak out of the camp to work on nearby Thai farms for 60 or 70 Thai baht a day (about $2).

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

Josiah says there are two types of Karen camps in Thailand. "The northern camps—Mae La and Umpium—are good camps. People are allowed to build their houses with bamboo. You can travel sometimes to cities. You are allowed to travel with border patrol authorization papers. But in the southern part, like in Tham Hin camp, they are mistreated by the Thai government. The Thai government doesn't allow them to get out of the camps. And you don't get to build your house with bamboo. You have to build with a plastic sheet."

Baw, who lived in the Tham Hin camp, describes the conditions as "very, very bad. There were diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and malaria. There was not enough water and the water was not clean. Camp is like a prison. You can't go anywhere."

For most Karen, however, the final straw is the lack of opportunities for their children in the camps. "After high school, you have no future," says Baw. "You can't go to college. Most kids get married after high school. My mom and dad sent me to university. For me, I want to send my kids to have more education than me. But in the camp, they had no future."

"Karen from the refugee camps don't want to leave to a third country," Josiah notes. "They want to go back to their home country. But the political situation is very bad. They can't go back. And living in the camp in Thailand, they don't have any future. So, they try to resettle in the third country."

"My children could not get more education," explains Ar Say. "There was no opportunity for them living in a camp."

And so began the confounding maze of paperwork, interviews, and waiting, before Say was finally allowed to be relocated to Minnesota. According to Chute, of the Refugee Health Program, "in Minnesota, it's family reunification cases only. Say a family of Karen comes to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport today. They're going to be coming here because a family member applied for them to come. So they have to have a connection here to arrive."

Say and his family were given a cultural orientation in the refugee camps, where they learned the basics of how to negotiate their trip to America and what to expect during resettlement. When the family arrived in August, Mu Gay thought to herself, "Now we're here, but we don't know what we're going to do, where we're going to live, how we are going to get work."

Pastor Englund describes the overwhelming first week that his new immigrant congregants face: "Their first Sunday here, after they arrive, we try to have a blessing. We just have them come forward with someone, either their family or their sponsor. We have as few as two or three, sometimes we can go up to 15 people up front. I'll just offer some prayer or blessing from the community, because they come with kind of this glazed look. They don't know what time zone they're in yet, why they're here. There's a whole batch of appointments they're going to need to go to and interviews and questions they're being asked that they were never asked before. Even birthdays, the actual birth date, sometimes they just need to make up. Sometimes the birthday is the same for the whole family.'"

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