Karens in Kentucky find new life challenging

Telling the Human Story, 3 February 2012

© G.O.Bugbee
Hsar Say, his wife Ma Ma Sharal and their daughter Hsar Khel gather for breakfast in their Louisville home.

LOUISVILLE, United States, February 3 (UNHCR) One rainy winter day in a working class neighbourhood of Louisville, Kentucky, Hsar Say flipped through the classified ads looking for jobs while his wife cooked a fish curry in the kitchen of their damp basement apartment.

Above his tattered, second-hand sofa, the flag of an ethnic Karen separatist movement hung as a potent reminder of the long journey that brought him to the United States after years stuck in the Umpium Mai refugee camp on Thailand's border with Myanmar.

"We are lucky to be here, but it's not easy," said the 42-year-old Karen, who was a university student when he fled a crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the Myanmar authorities in 1988, living in jungle settlements before making his way to Thailand. In 2008, Hsar Say, his wife, Hsel Ku, and their children Ma Ma Sharal, 11, and Poe Khwa Hsee, aged seven, were accepted for resettlement in Louisville.

But they have faced many challenges adapting to their new life. And it's been the same for some of the other 2,400 refugees from Myanmar who have been resettled in Kentucky since 2006. Most are Karen, an ethnic group in eastern Myanmar that had been in rebellion against the central government for more than 60 years until it signed a ceasefire on January 12.

For Hsar Say, days at Umpium spent fixing his bamboo hut or teaching a class on Karen and English have been replaced by putting in job applications at slaughterhouses and factories; juggling utilities bills, figuring out his children's public school and taking long bus rides in search of discount groceries.

He said he's relieved to finally have full legal residency as a refugee, the freedom to work, access to schools and health care, and a home with indoor plumbing, even if it is in a sprawling, low-income apartment block.

Hsar Say studied biology at university, but many of those resettled to Kentucky are former subsistence farmers with little education, work history or English-language skills. They struggle to navigate bureaucracies, learn how to drive, pay bills and rent and find jobs amid high US unemployment.

"They arrive happy to be where they are, and then reality sets in, they're overwhelmed," said Annette Ellard, who assists the refugees through a local church. "The reality for many of these refugees is they would like to go back home and live life in the traditional way, but they don't have that choice." Many mix with each other as it makes them feel more comfortable.

Ellard often spends 12-hour days helping refugees at schools, clinics, health insurance offices and family homes. She and her local church group attend court appearances and hospital births, and respond to constant emergency calls such as helping the refugee who got lost on the bus network and ended up trying to sleep outside a grocery store.

Refugees in Kentucky receive material assistance, which can be used for rent, bus tickets and furnishings, typically amounting to US$900. The two resettlement agencies that work in Louisville arrange housing, vocational training, English classes and other aid, funded partly by donations. Families can qualify for Medicaid or state financial assistance. Churches also help sponsor them.

Many have put down roots since they started arriving, the first group of teenagers graduated from high school last year. Others have opened businesses or found employment. Thar Tin works at a meatpacking plant. It's a messy but coveted job because it pays well for refugees, who often find work in packaging plants or as truck drivers and restaurant staff.

© G.O.Bugbee
Hsar Say and his family came from this camp, Umpium Mai, one of nine established in Thailand since the 1980s for refugees from Myanmar.

As his wife served up bowls of coconut rice pudding, Thar Tin, wearing a traditional longyi, explained that he'd fled his homeland to escape forced labour for the military. He spent nine years in refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Louisville nearly four years ago.

"There was no good education in Burma [Myanmar] or in camp, here they have good schools and good jobs," he said, noting his children learned English quickly from teachers, TV and other children.

But Ka Waw, a 38-year-old former rice farmer, is still looking for work a year after coming to Kentucky. He speaks English, which should help, but said he worries about the future. "Who will take care of my family if something happens to me?," he asked.

Meantime, Hsar Say keeps in touch with his relatives back in Myanmar and the refugee camps. They talk on cell phones and send money, dreaming of the warm tropical climate, friendly tea shops and family.

Recently, unable to find enough translation work or a full-time job, Hsar Say went hundreds of miles south to Alabama to work in a meat-packing plant. He had no idea when he would be able to return to Louisville.

Meanwhile, there have been significant political developments in recent months back in Myanmar, with top opposition figures released from prison and other moves towards democratization. But Hsar Say remains skeptical and isn't counting on returning home soon. After years on the move, he said, it sometimes feels like "there is no home anymore."

This article was written for UNHCR by Chris Kenning, a journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States

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