Final Refuge

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

Soe remembers that when he and his family first arrived in the U.S. four years ago, "Everything was difficult. The weather was different. The time was different. We had the language problem."

Even the most basic tasks—health screenings, registering for school, grocery shopping—can be a challenge for Karen whose have spent their lives in small villages, the jungle of Karen State, and in refugee camps. As project manager for the Karen Support Project, Baw helps refugees with housing and with job placement as machine operators, packagers, housekeepers, and at laundry services, and finds ESL classes for them. His work begins from the moment he wakes up, he says. "We cannot rest until we go to bed. We collect everything: food, clothing. We call for dental appointments. [We work] every day, including Sunday. They bring their paperwork with them to church."

Josiah explains the major issues new arrivals face: "First of all, the language barrier. The second is employment. I would say this year, the crisis we are facing is housing. You aren't going to get a house right away because the prices increased. To get affordable housing is very difficult."

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

"I don't speak the language," Ar Say laments. "To go to school, to work is difficult. Also, I'm old. It's not easy to learn a new language. When you get here, you think it's going to be exciting, but looking for a job is difficult."

"We will keep an eye on what American people say and do," inserts Mu Gay, "and try to follow them."

They have appointments with job counselors, but Ar Say isn't hopeful because of his lack of English skills. "In Thailand, it was easy to find jobs," Say observes. "Here, opportunities are many, but we cannot get a job."

If they follow in the footsteps of the refugees who came before them, Ar Say and his family will have opportunities for success. Soe and his family have lived in St. Paul for four years. Like Ar Say, Soe brought his family from the camps to the United States in hopes of finding better educational opportunities for his two daughters, Mary and Aye Aye. When they first arrived, the girls were 20 and 17 respectively and had spent most of their lives in refugee camps. Although Mary graduated from high school, she was unable to continue her education in the camp because of a lack of money for tuition.

Aye Aye went to 10th grade at Harding High School. She found it difficult. "The language and friends. Nobody talked to me and I didn't know anybody. I was really sad and alone." And she was confused by American culture. "In our school [in the camp] we didn't leave our classroom. But here, you have to leave the class and go to another class. It was confusing at first. One teacher, he spoke Thai, and I spoke a little Thai. He gave me a map and I followed his directions."

Four years after their arrival, Aye Aye is studying accounting at a community college and Mary will soon be studying sociology. They both have jobs, Aye Aye at the Union Gospel Mission and Mary as a receptionist at the HUBBS Center for Lifelong Learning. Their mother, Naw Lonely, also has a job as a housekeeper in a nursing home.

Their home has all the signs of a well-settled family. The television is prominently featured in the living room, where the young women lounge on couches with their textbooks around them. The shelves are full of videos and DVDs and charming tchotchkes. A large red, white, and blue Karen flag and pictures of Jesus and Karen people in traditional clothes adorn the walls next to a letter and bill holder overflowing with papers that they do not need a translator to interpret. One poster reads, "Help your enemy and bless those that curse you." In spite of their relative success in their new country, when asked if they feel like they are Karen or American, Aye Aye, ever the accountant, estimates, "I'm 90 percent Karen and about 10 percent American."

The sudden increase in the number of Karen refugees arriving here is putting a recognizable strain on support systems.

"The real issue I see now is that seven or eight years ago it was more, for lack of a better word, the intelligentsia that came first," Englund says. "So what happens is they made pretty quick adaptations, from living in the church basement to buying a house in four or five years. That's a pretty quick turnaround. What happens is that those people, after four or five years, are fully capable of sponsoring another family because they've got a place for them and the resources and the wherewithal to properly get them through, especially the first three or four months.

"Three or four years ago there was [another] pretty good influx of folk, and those folks know how desperate the situation is back on the border. And because they were able to find their way through the system with the help of people who came before, they said, well, we're going to sponsor [other families still in the camps]. Well, they're not in the same position as the first group. So what happens is, because we have weaker anchor families, it puts more burden on those who have been here for a while. Some things slip through the cracks."

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