This essay is part of the Vocation of Peacemaking series where we asked members and friends of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz to write brief essays on their peacemaking work. The Vocation of Peacemaking stories come from students, activists, teachers, parents, pastors, lay people, and retirees who work for peace in their jobs, their communities, their families, their volunteer time, and their neighborhoods in a wide variety of ways. Each story is a wonderful reminder that there are as many ways to live a life of peace as there are people, and that we can act for peace in real and important ways wherever we find ourselves.
We will be publishing the stories one at a time over the next few weeks and then compiling them into an Issue Monograph. The monograph will be available as a free download from the BPFNA website. Volumes I and II are already available.
Keep checking the Vocation of Peacemaking webpage for more!
Friends, to tell you my story, the story of the Karen people, is not what I love to do, but it’s my responsibility and every Karen person’s responsibility. Why? Not many people in the world know, or have ever heard of, who the Karen people are. Maybe you don’t either, but don’t worry, don’t feel bad, you are not alone. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality and that’s exactly why we are here.
This evening, I want to tell you about the Karen people through one personal experience out of a hundred thousand. Why do I feel like it’s my responsibility to share my story; my Karen people’s story? Because once we all had lives, homes, churches, and schools in Burma. However, we were forced to leave it all behind and flee for our lives because of a brutal dictatorship in Burma.
A former Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council in Burma known as SPDC, General Maung Aye, once said, “One day, if you want to see the Karen people, you’ll have to go and watch at the museum.” (quoted from Texas International Law Journal.) I don’t know what this means to you, or to the rest of the world, but to me it means the deliberate destruction of a racial, political, and cultural group, which we all know is genocide. But guess what? It was a failure because here I am, a Karen person standing in front of you.
I remember the story my mother told me about our life inside Burma before we became refugees. We lived in a peaceful village called “LayKaBlah” which basically mean flat rocks. At that time, I had four family members -my older brother, my parents and me. Life for our family was simple. My mother was a local clinic nurse, and my father was a sailor for fishermen. They never had to worry about earning an income. My mother said the village had a community place or a common house where everyone was welcome. Because villagers farmed, we had good supply of farm produce for everyone in the village to enjoy. Everyone felt safe. We slept well in our home at night with the doors left open or unlocked. There was nothing to fear, because there was no war, no thieves, and everyone trusted everyone else.
But that village life didn’t last.
In the summer of 1997, the Burmese soldiers launched an offensive against the Karen people. Everyone fled the village when the Burmese soldiers got nearby. At the time when we fled, my father wasn’t with us because he was working on the sea and didn’t expect this would happen. So my mother had to carry me along with extra rice, a cooking pot and other necessities. My older brother was only four years old at the time. He had to walk. We left our home with everything that we had and only carried what we could.
A couple days after we left our village, the Burmese military arrived. They burned down all the houses and killed the animals that were left. My mom said over a hundred villagers all fled together including small children like me, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, and sick people. My mom said that we could not walk slow and take a rest. If we walked slow and stopped for a rest, the Burmese military could reach us anytime. So we had to hurry as much as we could. My mom said I was really sick with serious diarrhea. There was no medicine to take and even worse was that clean water was impossible to get. Malaria was the most common sickness because nobody had mosquito nets. We hid in the jungle for days and nights. We couldn’t even have fire at night because we could have been spotted by the Burmese soldiers at anytime.
After a long week of running through the death shadow valley, we finally arrived in Thailand at what they called “temporary camp.” When we arrived, my mother said it was a huge relief although there is sorrow and fear deep inside the heart. There were no more Burmese military following our footsteps. Finally my father came back from the sea and we found each other.
The refugee camp is where I spent my childhood. Even though I went to school there for a decade, I learned nothing about the outside world except adversity and life without hope. But as I grew up, I began to mature. I began to understand the rules of civilization and…I began to understand that my life was missing something, something that every person dreams of.
I had been thinking about it for a long time. I asked myself, what have I missed? Travel around the world? Having a huge house? Driving an expensive car? …. NO!!!! It’s simple. I missed my freedom.
I thought to myself, if I live here in this refugee camp for the rest of my life, I will end up nowhere but in this cage I am in. The longer I lived, the more I felt depressed and that life was almost meaningless.
If you ask a lot of people about their lives inside refugee camps, they would describe it as a bird in the cage because we get fed regularly by the United Nations but we are not able to fly. When the owner comes and releases us, chances are we don’t know how to fly because we did not have to opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a long time; and sometime we don’t even know what it means to fly.
I was like one of a hundred thousand birds inside the cage. Our dreams and hopes had vanished, and we all felt bleak. While living in camp, the international UN decided what they would do with us. In 2006, after living a decade of our desperate lives inside the cage, the countries such as US, Canada, Australia, UK, Sweden, Netherland, and so on, decided to welcome refugees to their homeland. This was a step that really brought back to reality a chance to have hopes and dreams. These countries offered us a real glimmer of hope that we have not had for many years in our Karen peoples’ history.
For me, it was a relief from the hardships that we as refugees had to cope with while in the Thai refugee camp. The designated “temporary” settlement was now no longer our final stage… Of course, our parents would prefer to go back to their home country of Burma, but there was no going back only forward. Resettlement to the third countries for us is the best solution, if not, the most important for our Karen peoples’ step toward entering the real world.
If you ask many parents why they came to United States, they would respond with “I came to America for the sake of my children.” Yes, they don’t what us to go through what they’ve been through. As parents, they want us to live a better life. They want us to practice freedom and, most importantly, they want us to be educated. This is part of our parents’ vision from generation to generation. It is their greater and wiser vision which anticipates our return to Burma with the most powerful weapon - education.
My family said goodbye to the refugee camp on December 18th 2007. Coming to the United States was a huge relief, and yet, another struggle. When we arrived in the US, everything was so new and different and we felt like a new born baby. We all have difficulties adjusting ourselves to the situation. We felt completely blind due to language barriers, the vastly different culture, all the traveling, and the new technologies. However, our struggle is a struggle that will prove to us that we are not just a bird in a cage, but a worthy human being with hope and a future. We have chosen our own destiny for the first time, a destiny in which we can work for humankind.
The Burmese government would like you to believe that our ”Karen book” is closed and that hope is lost. But this is not the ending! It is a new beginning, a beginning in which we all have knowledge, thoughts, a voice, and most important of all.... we have hope! Where there is hope, there is life. Can we end this war? I don’t know. But there is no going back. We must march forward and decide our own path. If we don’t, then who will? Will you?
We must forward our message, a message of a dying people fighting for love, fighting for freedom, fighting to live another day. Some countries may think we are a people without a name – that we are simply refugees - period. But, what they do not know is that before we became refugees, we had our own form of government, schools, church, traditions, flag, national anthem, a strong culture, and we were a stable community. Most important of all, we have a name.
We are Karen!
Eh Nay Thaw is a member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky and a frequent attendee at the BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz Summer Conference. He is a student at Centre College.