Saturday, April 14, 2007


KAREN REFUGEES WELCOMED EN MASSE Winnipeg: Joe Friesen: Globe & Mail: 12-09-06

Canada is a promised land of freedom and vanilla ice cream for Kayseng, a 57-year-old former teacher who arrived in Winnipeg with her family last month after 11 years in a refugee camp. Kayseng, her husband, Minnseng, and their three daughters were among the first of 810 people from the Mae La Oon camp in Northern Thailand to come to Canada under a new system for processing refugee applications. The change provides for the acceptance of large groups of displaced people en masse, which the government says will cut down on the time needed to assess applications and create a ready-made support network for new arrivals.

Yesterday, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg met with Kayseng and Minnseng, and their friends, Tunu and Shamlaw, who arrived last week with five young children. The two families are from Myanmar, formerly Burma, and were forced from their homes in 1995 after the ruling military junta attacked members of the Karen ethnic group. Although the mere mention of politics makes her apprehensive, Kayseng wasted no time presenting her agenda to Mr. Solberg. She asked whether it would be possible to have her sister, who is one of more than 13,000 people still in the refugee camp, join her in Winnipeg.

Mr. Solberg looked around and motioned for an aide to intervene. The aide offered to take down the name of Kayseng's sister. Kayseng said afterward she was worried about asking her question. "I felt nervous because I am only from the grassroots. But I had to stick up for my sister," she said. "My sister called me and asked, 'How is life in Canada?' I said we have ice cream every day. She was very excited to join us."

Speaking to reporters later, Mr. Solberg was sympathetic. "People are coming from some very tough situations," he said. "We have to find the right balance between making sure we bring people in under family reunification but also having a stream for skilled workers as well. If you've got a finite number of people you bring in, that means that sometimes people are disappointed, particularly in the short term."

Twenty ethnic Karens settled in Saskatoon last month, and 100 more will arrive in Regina by mid-October. They follow earlier mass migrations of 780 Sudanese and Somalis from a refugee camp in Kenya, and about 1,000 Afghans from camps in Central Asia in 2004. Refugees who arrive under the new system are evaluated with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Immigration officials could not say how many of the 810 Karens would be placed in the Prairie provinces. But Mr. Solberg said making sure they're well looked after is more important than achieving regional balance. "We want more people coming to the Prairies, obviously, but I think the first priority is to find a community equipped to handle them," he said.

Settlement workers say Kayseng and her family have adapted to life in Canada remarkably quickly, thanks in large part to the English they picked up from aid workers in the camp. Kayseng's two elder daughters are enrolled at the University of Winnipeg, studying social sciences; her third daughter is in high school. Shamlaw, 37, his wife Tunu and their children are adapting more slowly. On Sunday night, Kayseng found them cowering in the dark just after nightfall. Shamlaw explained that he had heard sirens and was afraid the police were coming to arrest them. He turned off the lights and told his family to hide. When he goes for walks, Shamlaw carries a piece of chalk to mark the trees along the route, which allows him to find his way back. He's startled by the different kinds of people on the street, black and white, aboriginal and Asian. The government has given him a loan of $11,000 -- the equivalent of six years of wages in Myanmar. He's never had a debt, and worries he will not be able to pay it back.

The 20 ethnic Karens in Saskatoon are settling well, said Ivanka Didjusto, supervisor for settlement at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. They've even learned enough of local real estate to ask why they can't live on the city's East side. But Ms. Didjusto said they are in a good neighbourhood on the West side. Joseph Garcea, a professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said the families have every chance of succeeding on the Prairies. Earlier refugee migrations, from Chile, Vietnam and Sudan have been able to integrate very well, he said.

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