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.

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."

"They gave us very little rice," he continues. "Whenever I saw water, even though it wasn't safe or good, I would drink it. Some of my friends who were forced to porter, when they couldn't carry the things anymore, the Burmese soldiers kicked them down a hill. They died. I couldn't even go and help them because I was tied up. We had to porter for several months. When some porters couldn't take it anymore, they tried to run away. The Burmese soldiers shot them."

After starting their family together, Mu Gay and Ar Say decided to leave her village. "They told us if we left the village, never come back, because if you come back, you and your entire family will be killed." They moved to another, smaller village where KNU soldiers lived. They were there less than a year. "I was sleeping because it was early in the morning," explains Mu Gay. "After the initial gunshots, we stayed inside our house and listened. I was afraid." Mu Gay and Ar Say had four children. The twins, Eh Kaw Say and Eh Kaw Htoo, were eight days old. Burmese soldiers were attacking the Karen soldiers in the village.

"There was a really, really big artillery explosion," Ar Say remembers. "Really big trees were cut down. The explosion shook my chest." The family continued to wait as more heavy artillery rained on the village. Eventually, Karen soldiers told them that they had to leave. "We were carrying our children," Mu Gay recalls. "We couldn't take anything else with us."

 

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, extrajudicial killings, rape, forced relocation, and destruction of villages and rice fields and other food sources are a matter of course for the Burmese military. The Karen have borne the brunt of these atrocities, and those who now live in St. Paul are no exception.

Saw Josiah, the MCC case manager, says that when he was six years old he was put into a detention camp with his mother, who was arrested for working against the military dictatorship. Pya Pu Nay Soe, who volunteered for the armed wing of KNU, was arrested and placed in a Burmese prison for six months. (Soe asked that his name be changed for fear that the Burmese government might retaliate against his family in Burma.) The conditions in the prison "were very bad at that time," he remembers. "We slept on a cement floor and it was really dirty." Wilfred Daniel Tun Baw, who also served with the KNU, hesitates as he suddenly recalls a memory from those days. He furrows his brow; he is reluctant to mention the Karen woman who had been raped by 30 to 40 Burmese soldiers.

Many Karen live in Karen State, but they can be found in all of the cities in Burma. In the cities, they face other forms of discrimination. Baw was rejected from the Military Academy, he believes, because his name easily identified him as Karen. Tension between the Burmese and Karen dates back to the pre-colonial era of Burma. Two hundred years ago, American Baptist missionaries arrived in the region. Many Karen converted quickly and easily from traditional animist and Buddhist systems of belief to the American Baptist church.

Some people, including Pastor Englund, trace the ease with which the Karen converted to Christianity to a legend that states that the Karen had once had a golden book that contained the word of God. They lost the book, but the legend holds that they were promised it would be returned to them. When missionaries arrived in their villages with the Bible, according to Englund, the Karen essentially said, "Thank you for bringing back our book."

The Karen's exposure to Western culture and the English language made them natural allies to British colonizers. "When the British colonized Burma, the Karen were very loyal to the British government," explains Josiah. "More Karen were educated. More Karen were involved in the British government [than Burmese were]. And also more Karen converted to Christianity. During that time, Burma was trying to get its independence. So they started to have conflict with the Karen. After independence, the Karen were more educated, and there was kind of a jealousy from the Burmese people. Also the Burmese are originally Buddhist and the Karen converted to Christianity."

"Since we became Christians," Baw explains, "the Burmese killed our Karen people every day and threw them into the river every day. They accused us of being pro-white because we are Christian."

Some of the Karen who survive flee either into the surrounding jungle or to one of the eight camps in Thailand. "Many people left our village, but one or two families at a time to avoid being found by the Burmese," Ar Say explains. Eventually Mu Gay and Ar Say moved their family to a refugee camp just over the Thai border. At first, they were in a camp, Sho Klo, close to the border. "We were happy there," Mu Gay says, "because we could go out and cut wood and bamboo and sell it. We built our houses out of wood and bamboo and leaves" in the style of traditional Karen houses.

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).

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.'"

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."

"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."

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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