Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Support Thailand Burma Border Consortium-Food Program

As the price of rice rises and refugee rations decrease, a vulnerable people will starve
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Sunday, April 27, 2008
While Canada congratulates itself on rescuing a few thousand refugees from the Thailand-Burma border, it seems willing to watch 140,000 starve, as rice prices threaten to shrink their rations to nearly nothing.
What's more, Canada and other resettlement countries are unwittingly making life even more difficult for those left behind in the camps.
Burma is the source of a number of refugee populations throughout Asia. On the Thailand border, many refugees are from the Karen minority. Thailand refuses to allow most refugees to enter mainstream society and find work.
So the Karen families have been stuck in the camps for years, relying on food rations and watching for the Burmese soldiers that are still close enough to shoot.
Over the last couple of years, Canada's resettlement program has had many successes. The faces of the Karen people I've met in Ottawa are still lined with worry, but you can also see relief: their children are safe. The program should continue.
But even good policies can have unintended consequences.
Most of the work in the camps is done by the refugees themselves. Here's the problem: the refugees most likely to choose resettlement to countries such as Canada are the most experienced and educated: the teachers and medical workers.
Jack Dunford is the executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which gets food and blankets into the camps. He estimates that the camps are in the midst of losing 70 per cent of their skilled workers.
In the meantime, the resettlement isn't easing the pressure the way you might think it would. While tens of thousands of refugees are making their way to North America and Europe, about 4,000 babies are born in the camps every year, and another 4,000 or so refugees arrive every year from a civil war in Burma that won't end.
The military government has finally gained much of the territory near the Thai border, and now it's consolidating control. That means a whole spectrum of repression for Karen farmers: from holes in their cooking pots, to land mines, to forced labour, to burned villages, to rape, to shooting on sight.
Donors are tired of feeding refugees from one of the world's longest-running crises. The aid organizations have already cut every "luxury" (i.e., mosquito nets) they can.
Just when it seems things can't get any worse, world food prices go through the roof.
In January, the consortium was paying about $350 Canadian per tonne of rice. On Thursday, the price hit $1,000 a tonne.
Mr. Dunford has been working in the border area since 1984. "We've seen our ups and downs and crises in the past, but this is on a different scale." He compares it to a natural disaster -- that's how fast and how damaging the inflation has been.
With one difference: donor countries are quick to respond to natural disasters. Mr. Dunford was in Ottawa recently, cap in hand, trying to fill this year's funding gap, which will be at least $7 million. He's gone to other donor countries too; Ireland and the Netherlands have pledged a total of about $1.3 million. As I write, he still hasn't got a pledge from Canada's government. (Individuals can donate, too, at
If he doesn't get the money by June, the consortium will start cutting rations.
The current daily ration is 2,126 calories, consisting of rice, beans, fish paste, oil, chilies, salt, sugar and fortified flour. If prices stay where they are now, each refugee will be limited to 944 calories a day, and the rations will consist only of rice and salt. If prices keep increasing, the ration will go to 555 calories a day.
The likely result: malnutrition, starvation and desperate people leaving the camps to make money in Thailand, illegally, any way they can.
Canada is deeply involved in these camps already, through aid support and through the resettlement program. It can't ignore the starvation of the friends and relatives of the new Karen Canadians. And it must come to grips with the fact that there will always be a constant stream of refugees into these camps, so long as Burma is under thug rule.
On May 10, Burma's people will vote -- or will at least appear to vote -- on a new sham constitution that entrenches military rule. It could be the focus for another uprising in Burma, especially given the Olympic spotlight on the military government's big ally, China.
It's also worth remembering the September uprising was sparked by inflation. This food crisis could be enough to set the country alight.
Larry Bagnell, the Liberal member of Parliament for the Yukon, is the chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma. In January, he visited the camps in Thailand, and met with many activists and community leaders.
"Resistance is not dead," he reports. "The September uprising engaged a whole new generation of students."
Mr. Bagnell has a booklet that bears the title The Constitution of the Federal Republic of the Union of Burma (First Draft). Burma's many pro-democracy groups are collaborating on creating an alternative to the generals' constitution. To Mr. Bagnell, such efforts at legal reform represent one more way -- and there are many -- Canada can help the cause of freedom in Burma.
Only when freedom comes will the camps stop filling up. Until then, we have a moral duty to keep alive the people we can't rescue.
Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.
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Update news about Karen people in Ottawa

You read about Karen farm, school and communiy at Ottawa and below is an update. Ottawa Citizen Kate Heartfield has coverd several stories of Karen community.

Home free
The first Karen refugees arrived in Ottawa about a year ago. All at once these 'pioneers' are go-to experts for those who've just arrived
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, April 13, 2008
Scott La Htoo is a brawny, cheerful baby who doesn't, as the folksy expression has it, "make strange." That's just one idiom his mother has had to learn, along with how to move a stroller through snow and what a caesarian section is. She learned the last one the hard way.
His mother is Say Blue, one of about 200 people who recently left refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border to make new, safer homes in Ottawa. They're members of the Karen ethnic group, which has long been persecuted by Burma's dictators and displaced by its interminable civil war.
Canada began a program of resettlement for the Karens in 2006. About 2,000 have arrived in Canadian communities during the past year and a half, and another 1,000 expected this year.
I met Say Blue a year ago when I was writing about the newly arrived Karen families. At the time, she struck me as shy but determined. She wanted, she said, to grow vegetables.
Thanks to the generous spirit of Roger Stone, who owns a little land in the Stittsville area, Say Blue and other Karen refugees planted crops and benefited from an abundant harvest last fall. She hopes to be out there again this summer.
In the year since we last spoke, her English has improved. She's a little more settled. She's learned a lot about Canada. And, to her surprise, she's had a baby.
She's 38 and her husband, Saw Htoo, is 44. The last time Say Blue gave birth was in 1997, to Eh Hser Htee, Scott's brother. For years the couple wanted another baby, but perhaps because of the stress of camp life it just didn't happen. Soon after the move to Ottawa, Say Blue was feeling suspiciously unwell. Scott La Htoo was born Nov. 21, 2007 -- about a year after they arrived.
Coleen Scott, a Canadian who's spent time working in the refugee camps, is now a pillar of support to Ottawa's Karen community. She helped Say Blue understand the hospital system, including showing a video that explained the c-section. And Ms. Scott was given the honour of helping to name the little boy.
Most of the adult Karens spent more than a decade in the dangerous limbo of the camps before coming here. About 140,000 other refugees -- including many relatives of the Karens here -- are still in camps, waiting.
But as Ottawa's Karen community grows, a few family members will be reunited. Newcomers enter a community full of support and energy.
Another pillar of the community is Nimrod Andrew, a Karen man who lived in Ottawa before the resettlement. In just a few years, he's helped a nearly non-existent community transform into a thriving cultural force.
Mr. Andrew says that with every arrival the Karen community feels more complete.
On Saturday mornings, about 35 Karen children go to Cambridge Street Community Public School for classes in their mother tongue. They're learning to read and write the Karen alphabet. Perhaps more importantly, they're speaking a minority language that could otherwise disappear in Ottawa.
The children are picking up English quickly, and they already treat French as a secret language they can speak without their parents understanding.
At Cambridge, they start the day in the gym where they sing the Canadian anthem, along with the children of five other language schools. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board runs an international language program in 43 languages at 17 sites across Ottawa. Last year, the Karen language was added to the curriculum.
Tha Gay, a smiling 25-year-old man who's only been here for five months, teaches the youngest kids. He spent 19 years in refugee camps before coming to Ottawa. He's a natural teacher, but he has also taken teacher training and is studying English and political science at Carleton University.
The older students study with Wah Paw Ler, 25. This is her first year in Ottawa, too. The day I visit, Tha Gay leads the little ones in a Karen song that translates as "Clever students." Next door, the older children play traditional percussion instruments.
The relationship between the pioneers and the newcomers is reciprocal. The pioneers, especially the youngest, teach newcomers about Canadian culture. In return, the newest arrivals, such as Tha Gay and Wah Paw Ler, keep the Karen community in touch with the camps they left behind and with their native Burma.
So far, the children seem happy to talk about their refugee status with their Canadian classmates. They are taking on a new, Canadian identity. It is hard to predict whether the refugee part of their identity will survive. It's even harder to determine whether it should.
Little Scott La Htoo will grow up without ever having known Thai camps or Burmese villages. I ask Say Blue if she wants Scott to go to Burma one day. She says yes, but there's a sad expression on her face. We both know she doesn't want her son to return to the violent Burma she left behind.
Nimrod Andrew and I met with a group of Karen teenagers recently at Woodroffe High School, where they're part of the English-language learners program. There are numerous languages spoken at Woodroffe, which might help explain why the Karen students seem to have found so much support there.
They're comfortable enough that they've been heard singing Karen songs with each other in the hallways. Still, high school isn't easy. In addition to learning about science and geography and the rest, they've had to figure out timetables, bus schedules, how to dress and how to participate in a Canadian classroom. They have found mentors in other students at the school, though, and the Karen teenagers who have been here the longest are helping the newcomers figure things out.
Susan Carlton teaches a class of 15 students, nine of whom are Karen. "Their work ethic is contagious," she says. "It's changed the dynamic in there." Ms. Carlton describes one of her students, Paw K'Mwee Eh Kay, as "liquid energy."
Paw is 16 "and a half." She lives, with her three younger brothers and their parents, just down the street from Say Blue. Many of the Karen families live in Centretown or Westboro.
Paw's brothers are among a group of Karen boys who play hockey at Dovercourt. So does Eh Hser Htee, Scott La Htoo's older brother. Many of the Karen children like to skate and even braved the canal this winter. Soon it will be soccer season.
Like Say Blue, Paw and her family came to Ottawa in the fall of 2006, which makes them pioneers. I ask what advice they'd offer newcomers. "I would tell them we have to work
really hard and we have to try our best," Paw replies.
It is hard work, being a new Canadian. You can see it in Say Blue's face.
For many of the Karen pioneers in Ottawa, financial support from the government is running out.
Their lives are filled with small stresses. A call from a telemarketer is annoying enough for the average Canadian. For a new refugee, it's a test of skill.
Ehamoorah Kay, Paw's 38-year-old mother, admits she doesn't have the energy to answer the phone some days.
The adults have had some success finding jobs, particularly in landscaping. For many, their experiences in the Canadian job market have only heightened their desire to learn English as quickly as possible.
Ehamoorah Kay and her husband, 40-year-old Ter Kay, have picked up quite a bit of English in recent months. Their household is typical, though, in that it's the teenagers and children who are the most fluent.
When I ask about the differences between life in the camps and life in Ottawa, Paw translates for her parents: "In their country, they have to worry about the Burmese army.
"Here, they have to learn the language."
Online: Read Kate Heartfield's blog at