Final Refuge

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

The church provides a place to not only worship but, for the Karen community, to gather on Sundays and for ethnic celebrations, meetings, and summer classes where Karen can learn to read and write their own language. Indeed, on the Sunday that is probably the last beautiful fall day in Minnesota, members of the Karen community gather at First Baptist for the English communion service, followed by an all-Karen service. Some of the Karen wear traditional clothes: simple, coarsely woven shifts in bright colors with fringe hanging from the middle of the torso. At the beginning, the congregation welcomes a group of new arrivals, who stand in front of the church while another congregant introduces them. They are secondary migrants who arrived recently from Texas.

The rest of the service is mostly singing. The dark interior of the church is filled with light streaming through the stained-glass windows. Little boys in traditional red shirts sit to the right of the altar and fidget and play games with rubber bands. In the front middle, the teen and tween girls sit, every so often stealing glances around the church to see who else has arrived. To the left, in front of the baby grand piano and drum kit, a group of long-haired teenage boys, one with a spiky faux-hawk and none of them in traditional clothes, try to look bored. Behind these groups of youngsters, the elders of the community, their parents and grandparents, fill in the rest of the wooden pews.

They sing as a congregation or listen to soloists and choirs or are led by vocal quintets. They sing with their hands in the air or holding hands or clapping. Some of the songs are traditional Christian hymns and others are newer ones, but all of them are in Karen. Some of the congregants hold hymnals they brought with them from the camps. Their voices are accompanied by a piano, drums, a guitar. In between songs, they pray in Karen or sometimes they listen to a speaker or reader. But mostly they sing.

Burma has been on the front page of newspapers recently because of the pro-democracy demonstrations. But many of the Karen have little hope that these protests will change anything in their homeland. "The demonstrations are only in Burma, so the military can suppress them," says Ar Say. "Other countries need to get involved. If the demonstrations are only in one place, it won't affect other parts of the country."

Josiah agrees: "The military government won't step down from their power. My perspective is the outside world needs to be involved. But internal Burmese and other ethnic groups, I don't think they can throw out this military government. Aung San Suu Kyi [the leader of the pro-democracy opposition party in Burma] has been arrested for so many years. She can't do anything."

Still, Baw is hopeful. "One day we will go back. We have to learn what is democracy. We need democracy in our country."

Englund agrees that some, at least, are likely to return one day. "What happens is that once they get here [they want] education for their kids, and particularly the leaders, because they're looking for a time in post-dictatorship Burma where they will need educated people to help run the country."

Mu Gay misses some things, like the food that she can't get here. "There we get mostly very fresh food. Here most is frozen, and the taste is different. I miss fish paste."

Still, she doesn't count herself among those who might return. "I don't think I will go back. I will just die here." And Ar Say is glad that he and his family decided to come here. "In the refugee camp, there were no opportunities. I feel much more happy to be here. In Thailand, we felt scared. I don't feel that way here."

Soe has a different perspective. In spite of his family's success here, he says, "One hundred percent I want to go back. I haven't seen my family in 30 years."

But his daughters aren't so sure. "I'm kind of scared to go back to Burma because I've never been there," Mary says. "I don't know what's going to happen if I go there. We're still Karen. I still want to go back to the camp because I still have friends there." Both daughters think it's likely they'll raise their own families in the United States.

While Soe one day wants to return to Burma, he's also anticipating becoming an American citizen at the end of this year. "You can travel and you have a face in public when you are an American citizen. People don't look down on you."

Baw finally became a U.S. citizen in November 2006. He prepared for his citizenship test, went to court, answered the questions (they were easy, he said), and took the oath. "I don't have words to explain. My tears dropped," he recalls. For once in his life, he said, he had a warm feeling inside. He felt safe. "Now it's like a new life," he says. "Before, it was like I was a wild animal. Now I'm a human."

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