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.