Saturday, April 14, 2007


KARENS CONSIDER HAMILTON 'A GRAND CITY' Hamilton, ON, Spectator: 14-09-06His own life has been so fraught with difficulty and strife that Ler Moo Hsa never let an opportunity go by that might improve the fortunes of his wife and four youngsters. An orphan from the age of four, Hsa (pronounced "Saw") had to flee his native Burmese village as a young man when a major offensive was launched by the Burmese army, driving thousands of ethnic minority Karen people to refugee camps over the Thai border.A nursing student before winding up in the camp in 1995, Hsa landed a paying job as a nurse with a German aid agency working in the camp. He even took short-term training in addictions therapy and mental-health nursing when the opportunities arose. "I want my children to reach a higher position than me," Hsa, 34, said yesterday through an interpreter.Added Wah Lu, his wife, also 34, "Most of all, I want my children to grow up with a good education, to meet the level of the people here." The family includes daughters K'prue Lwe ("kuh-PROO loo-WAY"), 11, K'tray Say ("kuh-TRAY SAY"), 9, K'tray Soe ("SEW"), 6, and K'prue Soe, 4.They are the first of 100 Burmese refugees bound for Hamilton between now and next year. They're part of a group of 810 minority ethnic Karen people destined for points throughout Canada under a streamlined refugee relocation plan.The Karen, a mainly Christian minority in Buddhist Burma, were forced out of their homeland by the rul-ing military junta. Relocated to the refugee camp, they live on meagre rations and struggle to dodge infection by tuberculosis and malaria. Suicide is common.Although the camp had schools for the children, classes would be suspended any time there was trouble along the border, halting school for days or weeks at a time.Sporting a tiny maple leaf pin on his T-shirt, Hsa recalled how his mother died giving birth to his younger brother. Not long after, his father was taken from their village by rebel soldiers. Years later, he would learn from a doctor at the refugee camp that his father died of heart failure not long after.Paid employment is even more scarce in refugee camps than the rations. Hsa earned the equivalent of $9 a month. In the latter years, his salary rose to $42 per month. It was never enough to properly feed his family, but that didn't stop him from buying tea, milk and sugar for some of the patients he treated in hospital as well as meat for the camp's elderly and infirm.After a breakfast yesterday at Tim Hortons, the Hsa family was taken to Settlement and Integration Ser-vices Organization (SISO) to complete some paperwork, then shown around the downtown core by SISO counsellor Gordon Ajak.For the Hsas, tour highlights included practising pushing elevator buttons at the Arrival Inn, where they are staying, and mastering the difference between the "walk" and "don't walk" symbols on the street outside. It took K'prue Soe three tries but, clutching the plush tiger cat he was given when his family arrived in Steeltown, he eventually jumped the gap from the elevator to the main floor lobby. "Everything we've seen -- the buildings, the roads, the streets -- it's all so grand," said Wah Lu who had never seen a city before flying out of Bangkok this week. "But the most pleasurable has been to meet people here who are very generous and polite and helpful."The long journey to Hamilton* By road: The Burmese refugees travelled from a refugee camp near Mae Hong Son city in northern Thailand to Bangkok by vehicle, a journey of 14 hours.* By air: They travelled from Bangkok to Hong Kong, a three-hour flight.* By air: They travelled from Hong Kong to Toronto, a 15-hour flight* By road: They travelled from Toronto to Hamilton by bus, arriving at 1 a.m. yesterday.

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