Saturday, September 29, 2007

Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

Kate Heartfield . The power of volunteerism
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa CitizenPublished: Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The most powerful force for good on the planet is the inclination to act on a simple idea.
Why not volunteer? Why not compost? Why not offer your unused land to somebody who can use it?
That last one is the idea that came to Roger Stone a few months ago. He'd read one of my columns about the Karen refugees, people who have been living for years in camps on the border between Thailand and Burma. Canada is resettling hundreds of the refugees, and more than 100 have already come to Ottawa.

Roger Stone, centre, has given a group of Karen refugees in Ottawa, including Lah Say, left, and Way Thaw, use of several acres of formerly fallow farmland on the edge of Kanata's suburban growth so they can grow food.

Mr. Stone lives in a farmhouse that's more than a century old, in a rural area that seems doomed to be swallowed up by suburban Kanata South. A stone's throw from the strip malls and parking lots, Mr. Stone and his wife Margaret live with their border collies and the flowers and birds, a few outbuildings and some lovely old trees. They moved there as newlyweds nearly 40 years ago.
Part of their land has been sitting fallow for years. Mr. Stone thought the newly arrived refugees might be able to use it, for picnics or barbecues. So he got in touch with Nimrod Andrew and Colleen Scott, who have been working tirelessly to help the newcomers adjust to life in Ottawa.
Ms. Scott told him that what the Karens really wanted was a place to grow crops. So Mr. Stone, an engineer, mowed about an acre of his land.
"They took one look at it and said, we'll take the whole field," Mr. Stone says cheerfully. "That's when I started to think about water."
He found a guy with a rototiller who could help clean up the field. "Within about a week from a standing start, we were ready to go," he says, surprised himself at how smoothly it happened.
The Karens are now using about three or four acres. Their rows of tomatoes, eggplant, coriander, corn, lettuces, onions, squash, cabbages, dill and peppers stretch across the field, dotted with rain barrels and a few young oaks planted by jays or squirrels.
Mr. Stone hasn't just made his land available; he's become a friend to the community. He keeps a curious eye on the crops and talks with the farmers, across the barriers of culture and language. He gives them advice about growing in this climate, about the need for water and weeding -- although he admits to some embarrassment on the water score, since our summer so far has been downright tropical.
OC Transpo does have a route that goes fairly close to Mr. Stone's place, although it can't be a very convenient trip. So some of the refugees stay overnight on the weekends, making use of a trailer on the grounds or Mr. Stone's homemade indoor squash court (he's always trying to find partners.) The kids swim in his pool.
There's more work to be done: He wants to create a shelter so the farmers can grow from seed next year instead of buying seedlings. As long as the Stones are on the land, it looks as if it will be available for the Karens.
The crops look fantastic: when I was there, the tomato plants were heavy with green fruit and the Karens were harvesting the lettuces and cabbages.
They might not have experience with the Canadian climate, but they do have experience with farming. Many of the refugees grew food in the camps, and before that, when they were living in Burma and being persecuted by the military. In March, I interviewed a woman named Say Blue, who spent 14 years in the camps. She told me she'd like to have a place to grow vegetables: now she does.

These refugees have been in this alien culture for less than a year and most of them don't speak fluent English or French. Despite that, despite all the difficulties they face, they get on the bus and spend their weekends growing food. It's the simplest way people can provide for their families, and a universal joy.
And it started with a very simple idea: if you don't need something and your neighbour does, you lend it out. It's a country idea, as beautiful and old-fashioned as Mr. Stone's house. And just like Mr. Stone's country house, I hope it survives.
I think it will: I know of many other Ottawans who have helped the Karens in their own ways. Anyone who'd like to help at harvest time or on special projects at the farm can e-mail me and I'll put them in touch with the Karen community.

Kate Heartfield writes for the Citizen's editorial board. Blog:

The Ottawa Citizen: Karens learn to deal with freedom - Kate Heartfield

Tue 13 Mar 2007

When I ask the Karen refugees what they like about living in Ottawa, they say they like being free, that they like not having to deal with harassment from soldiers.It’s an obvious answer, but it hits me in the gut anyway. I expect them to say they like the stores or the washing machines or the snow. All that stuff is incidental to them. They don’t talk about the weather or shopping unless I ask. Even then, they’re unlikely to answer with much more than a smile.
They’ve only been here a few months. Their old life is still fresh: refugee camps in remote parts of Thailand, and before that, villages in Burma (officially Myanmar). Burma is ruled by a junta that persecutes the Karen people and other minorities.
The soldiers came and burned the villages; the refugees fled. There are about 140,000 refugees in those camps near the border. Many of them have been there almost 20 years.
The federal government recently resettled about 800 Karen refugees from those camps across Canada, almost 100 of which came to Ottawa. The government plans to bring about 1,850 more refugees from the camps to Canada over the next two years, starting in May. Some of them will come to Ottawa to join the little but rapidly growing Karen community.
Say Blue, a small woman with a sweet but serious face, spent 14 years in the camps, before she came to Ottawa with her husband, her 17-year-old daughter, Say Gay, and her nine-year-old son. In Burma, she had a farm. There were pigs and chickens. She grew rice, cucumbers and beans. That was before the soldiers came, burning the crops and putting holes in the cooking pots.
Now, Say Blue is learning to cook with an electric rice cooker on a countertop, instead of on a charcoal fire in a bamboo hut. Everything’s different in her life. She doesn’t know much yet about workplaces in Ottawa. She isn’t sure what kind of a job she might have. She’d like to have a place to grow vegetables. The first thing she says to me is that she’s very lucky because she isn’t on the run.
She’s finding English difficult to learn. All the recent Karen refugees spoke with me through an interpreter, Nimrod Andrew, a young Karen man who’s lived in Ottawa for a few years.
“We believe that as long as we have rice we will survive,” he jokes, as we talk to Say Blue about cooking in her new home.
Way Thaw was a businessman in his village. He traded in cows and produce. He tries not to think about the time when the soldiers burned his village. During his 15 years in the camps, he felt guilty because he was getting food without working for it. And he felt deeply the lack of freedom. Thailand does not allow the refugees to leave the camps, unless they’re being resettled to another country such as Canada.
He found the Ottawa February difficult because he has asthma. But he’s still happy to be here because there’s no war. There’s freedom. His children and grandchildren will have better lives and the chance to be hard-working people.
Colleen Scott, an Ottawa woman who’s spent time with the Karen in the camps, is helping the fledgling Karen community here. She’s been teaching them about bank machines and buses and helping them get to appointments. She says she learns as much from them as they do from her.
“It’s a terrifying journey, and an unbelievably brave thing that they are doing,” she says.
One of the challenges they’re facing, she says, is that many have never had chances to make decisions for themselves. Autonomy is unfamiliar. The young people, such as Say Gay, have known nothing but camps. They don’t even remember Burma.
Way Thaw’s son, Htoo Htoo, is also 17. Like Say Gay, he’s going to Woodroffe High School, learning English and a few other subjects. He’s been skating, on an expedition led by Ms. Scott, but he still hasn’t been to a movie. He enjoys playing guitar, basketball and soccer. He would like to be a doctor, although he’s embarrassed to say so.
In January, I wrote a column about the obstacles these Karen refugees might face in Ottawa. Ms. Scott says Ottawa’s reception of the newcomers hasn’t been perfect. Few people here have even heard of the Karen people, or know that they’re a distinct ethnic group within Burma. It’s still a struggle for people such as Ms. Scott and Mr. Andrew to help the refugees get around town and learn about their new home.
“It’s an overload situation, with a group of people nobody knows anything about,” says Ms. Scott, her frustration evident.
Nonetheless, I’m impressed with what this little community has accomplished so far. They’ve set up a school in the Karen language so the children won’t lose their heritage. The ability to understand English is starting to come, especially for the youth. Some are able to speak a little English, too.
I’m glad the pioneers, including Way Thaw and Say Blue and their families, will be here for the next group.
But there’s more the rest of us could do to make the transition easier for the Karen refugees. For example, aboriginal people in the Ottawa area might be able to talk with the Karen families about ways to maintain their cultural values of self-sufficiency and respect for nature in an urbanized society.
There are all kinds of possibilities. As the Karen people have reminded me, all possibilities begin with freedom. Everything else is secondary.
Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board.


Karen Refugees arrive in Canada
Nimrod Andrew

Burma Action

The Karen Canadian Community is asking people around the world, of all faith groups, to pray for Burma this weekend. The Karens will be praying in Canadian churches on Sunday, Sept. 30. There's a vigil planned on Sunday night (Sept. 30) at the Bromley Road Baptist Church Ottawa, with communities from Burma, from 8:15 to 8:45 pm. The church is at 1900 Lauder Drive, near Carling and Maitland.