Introducing: the Karen People

*Disclaimer, this post is speaking generally and does not reflect the experience of all Karen people in Myanmar. I am by no means an expert, and my knowledge is based almost purely on discussions with refugees in Thailand.

Ever heard of the Karen people? Nope, me neither.

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Beautiful scenery in MRM refugee camp

One of the ways that we try to keep our costs down whilst backpacking is by getting involved in volunteering projects that offer food and lodgings in exchange for a few hours work a week. We stumbled upon Project Kare on Workaway.info and thought that this would be an incredible opportunity to give back and extend our thinking whilst swanning around the world on our ‘gap yeahhr‘. Through Project Kare we organised to spend two weeks volunteering in Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp in Thailand, about 6 hours from Chiang Mai. After a lovely three-way Skype chat with Ron where he filled us in on the real-life practicalities of being in a refugee camp, we officially signed up to teach in Bible School (third-level education, the students are studying to receive a Bachelor’s in Theology). Ron kept in touch in the 6 weeks before we arrived, letting us know all and any steps that we needed to take, and putting us in touch with the other volunteers we would be arriving with as well as some past volunteers who could give us hints and tips.

Quick history lesson for you: the Karen people are one of the largest ethnic tribes in South East Asia – about 5-7 million. They hail from Karen State, (Kawthooli in Karen) in Myanmar and have been at war with the Burmese government since 1949. Yup, it’s one of the longest standing civil wars in history, and most of us have never heard of it. Over 150,000 Karen have left Myanmar and are now in refugee camps in Thailand and further afield. And have been. FOR SIXTY YEARS.

What’s the war about? Well, the Karen People want Karen State to be an independent nation. I have to be fully honest here: I do not understand the full extent of the development of the conflict. Despite all my googling and reading, everything is a little fuzzy. Some of this is due to a lack of reliable information – even when trying to establish the population of Karen people in Myanmar, one link suggested the last reliable census was taken in 1931. We did however have the distinct pleasure of meeting the lovely Steph, a politics major based in Washington University who has spent a lot of time in Mae Ra Moe and was able to help us with a few of the details. What I do know is that the Karen are persecuted in their own country, denied education and jobs. Many of the children in the camps are there with no family in order to receive an education.

 

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Professional Development Centre students preparing debates about the cost of education.

But the Karen people are so much more than their refugee status. They are resilient. Despite everything they have been through in Myanmar, when you speak to them they have a distinct sense of hope, and determination to end the conflict. We taught English in a Bible school to students from 17+ in their first year of further education. These classes were both hysterical and eye-opening in equal measure. Many students were so driven to learn English in order to emigrate to the USA, fuelling our hatred of President Trump as new laws stopped students who previously would have been reunited with their parents and siblings from having this opportunity. Others wanted to return to Karen State to join the KNU (Karen Nationalist Union who also have an armed wing) and fight for their nation, while others still just wanted to join a missionary to share their truth with the world. What about this was hysterical? The conversations we had, the terrible, terrible Scottish ceilidh dancing and teaching the conditional tense through many, many rounds of ‘Would you rather?’ Not a day went by in that classroom where we weren’t in stitches laughing at least once.

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Receiving our gifts on our last day.

They are generous. The Karen in Mae Ra Moe treated myself and Kerry like queens. We were escorted everywhere, students insisting on carrying our bags; cooked for (despite our begging them to please let us help, they were probably well aware we would be far more of a hinderance than a help, having very limited experience cooking over an open flame!) and cleaned up after; if they noticed we bought ourselves something, they would make sure they had it for us the following day as well. It’s not just foreigners that are treated this way; but all guests. Two guest Karen Theology teachers working in the camp for two months received the same generosity and respect.

Their generosity does not just extend to food and hospitality. We met one amazing woman who, as it turns out, did not need to relocate to a refugee camp. Her husband came to work on a church missionary, and they decided as a family that they wanted to do more for their people, despite the obvious upheaval for them and their children. They both work to educate the students, teaching them English and theology and are now unable to freely and safely return home to visit friends and family as they would be persecuted.

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A house in MRM.

They are innovative. So here’s the thing. Typical privileged white girl speaking (or rather, typing) and I have ZERO knowledge of refugee camps. Yes, I have seen the news, the ads for charity and pictures online, but nothing prepared me for this. All we see are starving, dirty children crying next to ramshackle huts. This may be the case in some camps but it is not the case in Mae Ra Moe. Seeing as how the camp has been around for 20+ years and houses 20,000 people (the largest has existed for 60 years and boasts a population of about 60,000), the people have used their skills to build a community. There is a hydroelectric generator for electricity and little wifi huts. The houses are bamboo, but they’re sturdy, and some people have tvs. While Steph was doing her interviews for her thesis one comment stuck out in particular. She asked how the first refugees in MRM build a sense of community, and the man answered ‘There was so much to do. We had to work together to build the village. We didn’t have a choice.’

So, now the scene is set. My English teacher always said that was very important. If you’re reading this Mr. E, let me know how I did. Typed preferably, that handwriting was like cracking a spy’s code…

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Conversation circles at Bible School – a little like pulling teeth at time!

Camp was a HUUUGE culture shock for us. Our contact, Ron (co-founder of Project Kare, a charity to help support the Karen people) had tried to warn us what it would be like. Even after two weeks of backpacking, with our new and significantly lowered standards, it was a shock. We were the lucky owners of a Western toilet! It did still need a pail to be flushed but was very convenient when a certain travel buddy of mine – I won’t name her to try and maintain her dignity- caught a stomach bug. Pail showers were fun. I kept forgetting that due to the painful amount of rain – I swear to God I kept expecting an arc to rock up – the electricity was off and I had to shower in the dark. Refreshing and shocking every time.

We also weren’t quite braced for how religious the Karen people are. While Karen people follow many religions, the majority are Christian. Very Christian. Being asked as a first introduction whether we believed in God and why not, had we read the Bible? never failed to shock us. However it was all well-meaning and led to some very interesting conversations. Interactions between boys and girls are really interesting to watch – even as young adults there is a playful innocence about them. We gave up trying to have male/female partners for ceilidh dancing and there was absolute hysteria when one boy put his arm around our shoulders for a photo on the last day.

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Kerry and I with our Bible School class on our final day.

When we left our students created a beautiful ceremony for us. It involved a speaker announcing in Karen what would be happening (kindly translated by the teacher), songs played on a guitar and sung by individuals and the class, being escorted up and down the room for gifts and speeches – one girl, in tears thanked us for our time and apologised for when they are bad and make us angry, something that never happened! We were given a Karen shirt, necklace and bag, another Karen bag from a different class and one of the girls who took care of us literally hand-weaved a beautiful embroidered traditional shirt for us while we were at work. I can barely even sew a badge on my backpack.

I wish that I could share with you all of the funny stories, experiences and phenomenal characters that we met while in MRM, and maybe over time I will, but for now I will leave you with this:

The Karen people need our help. Those in refugee camps are given provisions by the Thai government but not allowed into Thailand. They cannot even work the field for a few pennies for a local farmer without running the risk of being arrested. And we won’t talk about what happens in Thai prison. Not only are the police dangerous, but the environment. In our time there, three young men went to work at a local farm to earn some money, and took the long route back across the river to avoid being caught. The rain had made the river rapid, and two of them were washed away along with all the money they had worked for. During rainy season, the schools wash away and need repaired, the hospital does not have the provisions it needs and schools struggle to provide even the most basic resources – students must find their own ways to purchase pens and paper. Most staff in the camps are volunteers, working unpaid for their shifts as teachers, doctors and camp management. If you have a few spare minutes please check out Project Kare’s website. If you’ll be in Thailand and would like to volunteer I urge you to – please feel free to hound me with questions via my email or on Instagram if you prefer!

Until next week!

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