Burmese refugees find place in the Louisville community


Photo By Sam Sims

Words by Harper Carlton

An 11-year-old Eh Ywa sat crying in a bathroom stall at Westport Middle School. Like many students starting sixth grade, she felt scared and lonely, like no one understood. But in her case, Eh Ywa meant this literally — no one could understand her native language.

Eh Ywa is part of an ethnic minority from Burma called the Karen (pronounced KAH-ren). Burma, the former name of the official Union of Myanmar, is located in Southeast Asia and surrounded on the west coast by the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

A junta, a type of government in which the power is shared between military leaders, has been in power since 1962, when it overthrew the post-colonial democracy. In the late ‘80s, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations resulted in less freedom from an insecure and violent regime. The same ruling party officially changed the country’s name in 1989 from Burma to Myanmar. However, because the name change occurred under an unofficially elected government, many parties including the United States, the United Kingdom, and minorities, like the Karen, still use the name Burma.

To some, it might seem strange that after waiting for 10 years in a Thai refugee camp for American citizenship, Eh Ywa chose to cry at that moment. But while she may not have had many belongings, the skeletal bamboo structures of her refugee camp could offer something that America could not: a sense of belonging.

Ywa is not alone. According to Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), in 2014 there were 2,177 refugees in Jefferson County, 574 of those children under 18. Approximately 7.5 percent of new arrivals to Kentucky are Karen who have been forced to flee Burma because of ethnic cleansing. While things in America might be more stable, they aren’t necessarily easier. But with the help of churches, schools, and communities of refugees, things are looking up.

 Sitting Ducks

The Tham Hin Refugee Camp located in Thailand sits approximately six miles from the border of Burma. Eh Ywa said Thai military and security guards surround the perimeter of the camp, armed with assorted weaponry. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 9,000 people, 95 percent of them Karen, live within the 0.02 square mile area that makes up the camp. With more than 2,000 bamboo structures, there is little individual space.

“In the summer it’ll be really hot but the houses have little holes in them from bamboo, so you can feel the air,” Ywa said, who is now a freshman at Spalding University. “We do have doors and locks, but you can see the others in another house, and you can hear people from another room.”

In 1997, when Ywa was barely a year old, her family — which at the time included her father, mother, and two older brothers — was forced to flee from their rural village due to the violence. It took her family at least two months of running through the jungle until they reached some form of safety at the Thai border. They had only what they could carry, with Burmese soldiers close enough behind that the villagers couldn’t build fires at night for fear of being discovered. They had no medicine to treat illnesses, the most common being malaria and tuberculosis.

Eh Ywa’s cousin, Eh Nay Thaw, who is a boy the same age, said that days after the villagers escaped, the Burmese military came in to finish what they had begun.

“They burnt down all the houses and killed the animals that were left,” Thaw said. “All the villagers, my mom said over a hundred, fled together, including small children like me; elderly; pregnant women; sick people; and breastfeeding mothers.”

From the time Ywa and Thaw arrived at Tham Hin until they came to America about 10 years later, they could never leave the camp. Anyone who leaves the camp, even in search of a job, is considered an undocumented person, which in Thailand is a crime punishable by prison time. Therefore, the refugees must find work within the camp, which more often than not comes with low wages. This means that there are limited funds to feed entire families.

Ywa said that Thai people surrounding the camp are sometimes allowed to enter in order to set up what she described as “a little Kroger.” There the merchants sell produce and fish that is old and cannot be sold to Thai people who have more resources. The vegetables and fruits have been in trucks for weeks and the fish have been exposed to harmful chemicals which can make the refugees sick.

Outside groups like the United Nations (UN) provide some rations to refugees inside the camp; unfortunately, the rations are often not enough to sustain each person. One of the luxuries of the Tham Hin refugee camp is the river that flows through it, but that luxury comes at a high price, Ywa said. Because the river is used for anything and everything, the water is not sanitary. The refugees fish and drink out of the same river that is used for bathing, washing clothes, and traveling, which leads to disease.

For basic health care needs, Ywa said residents usually go to pop-up clinics, sponsored by organizations like the UN. Additionally, there is a small hospital on campus where suffering residents receive care for serious health concerns. One of the most dangerous illnesses found within the camp is malaria, which is often fatal. While the Thai government has taken measures toward eliminating the disease, it remains most prevalent near the border with Burma, making nearby Tham Hin particularly vulnerable.

Malaria is a disease that Ywa knows well. In 2006, one year before she came to the United States, it killed her father.

“When I was in the camp my father got malaria, not because of the food, but because of the climate and stuff like that,” Ywa said. “I was only nine years old, and I didn’t know what was going on. I’d never heard of malaria but I hated to see my father like that, just laying down all day.”

Climate alone does not cause malaria; nevertheless, regions like Thailand that are hot, wet, and humid are ideal for the parasitic mosquitoes that spread the disease.

Thaw said life inside a refugee camp is like being a bird bound by a cage. The refugees are regularly fed by UN representatives within the camp, but they are not allowed to fly. When the owner finally comes to release them, they do not know how to. They’ve forgotten after years of not practicing or learning.

Sometimes, he said, they don’t even know what it means to fly.

Observing the Crescent Hill Baptist Church youth group playing elbow tag, four of the youth gather on a wall and laugh. Photo By Sam Sims.
Observing the Crescent Hill Baptist Church youth group playing elbow tag, four of the youth gather on a wall and laugh. Photo By Sam Sims.

 Migrating East

Rays of sunlight filtered through the lifted shades of the youth room in the basement of Crescent Hill Baptist Church on a warm August Sunday. A bag of powdered Hostess Donettes was being passed from person to person, leaving everyone’s fingers covered in white, sticky sugar. With machine-like monotony, each person passed a stack of bibles down the U-shaped table, taking one before he or she passed the stack on.

A blonde woman draped in pastoral robes and stoles cleared her throat at the front of the table, commanding attention.

“What are possessions, and what did Jesus think about them?” asked Youth Minister Brittani Bair.

The question seemed overly simplistic to some, garnering looks of confusion and exasperated “whaaaats?” Then a cacophony of indistinct, rushed answers overwhelmed the room.

The group of students was diverse, ranging from sixth to twelfth grade and hailing from different areas of the city. On either side of the U, each gender congregated — boys on one side, girls on the other.

While the group attempted to reach a consensus, a quartet of girls who appeared to be middle school age whispered and giggled toward the corner of the room. They have similar features: long, shiny, ebony braids; skin the color of iced coffee; and round cheeks.

“Jesus wants us to give away our things but sometimes that’s hard because it’s our stuff and we don’t want to,” one of them called aloud.

Paw Lah Eh Thaw, the bubbly, outspoken sister of Eh Nay Thaw, is in eleventh grade at Doss High School. She, Eh Nay Thaw, and the seven other members of their family had few possessions when they came to the United States in December 2007.

“The first thing I saw when I got to America was the snow,” Paw Lah Eh Thaw said. “It was really tall, and I remember it was freezing cold and wet, soaking our shoes and pants. I’d never seen or felt something like that.”

Paw Lah Eh Thaw was born inside the walls of Tham Hin refugee camp in 1999 at a time when simply being born in Thailand did not grant babies citizenship. Because of this law, Paw Lah Eh Thaw was both without a country and without a home.

Her lack of status changed after the United States approved the Thaws as citizens when she was six years old.

On Dec. 18, 2007, after an approximately 20 hour flight, the Thaws arrived in Louisville. The only belongings they had were several sets of clothes; however, during the journey somewhere, two of their bags were lost.

The Thaws were taken from the airport to an apartment provided by Catholic Charities. When they arrived, the apartment was outfitted with a couch, three twin beds, a refrigerator, a table, and chairs.

“I remember very vividly, my whole family was provided with a gallon of milk, American rice — which was not rice to us, cabbage in the fridge, water, and salt,” Eh Nay Thaw said.

For a few weeks the Thaws had to go to their relatives’ house to eat because they did not have any utensils to cook with. Not having pots, pans, ladles, and a rice cooker proved difficult. They needed help for the most simple tasks, like buying groceries, which required transportation from Catholic Charities.

To many refugees, acculturation is a laborious task and it is hard to learn how to adapt when you are teaching yourself. Luckily, the Karen community in Louisville has found a place where they can learn and adjust: Crescent Hill Baptist Church (CHBC).

In 2001, several people from Crescent Hill Baptist went to Thailand on a mission trip, where they first found out about the Karen. None of the Karen that the congregation met go to Crescent Hill Baptist now, but it sparked an interest that developed into something much greater.

Steve Clark and Annette Ellard, a married couple who were on the 2001 trip, went back to the Thai refugee camps several times, alone. They gained a knowledge of the conditions and culture which they brought back to Louisville and their church.

“When the refugees first started coming to Louisville, KRM was looking for a Karen interpreter and Steve and Annette knew someone through their trips,” the Youth Minister, Bair, said. “That interpreter was the one who told them that Steve and Annette were at this church and that they were welcome to come.”

Initially, Clark and Ellard were giving the refugees rides from their apartments in the South End of Louisville to CHBC. Now there are so many Karen in the congregation that CHBC has multiple vans to transport them.

“I definitely think that having church support was really critical when they first came,” Bair said. “Not just government people, but actual people who are going to tell you what and where things are. I think a lot of the families now are doing better — they’re more financially stable, some own their own houses — but things can always come up that they’re not prepared to deal with.”

The Thaws and Ywa were raised Baptist within the walls of Tham Hin, so having something familiar during their transition was helpful.

“The big community church was a big part of the refugee camp,” Ywa said. “They were really welcoming, not judgmental.” She found a similar welcome at Crescent Hill Baptist Church.

Karen members of Crescent Hill Baptist Church enjoy a special performance of a Karen singer, Blue, on Oct. 11. Photo By Sam Sims

Singing a New Song

On the corner of 41st and West Market Streets sits a building that looks like an ordinary school. The outside is brick, the walls are white, and orange lockers line the tiled hallways. While the school might not look unusual, the voices that emit from the decorated classrooms are certainly atypical of most Jefferson County schools.

When child migrants arrive in the United States, they are given an English proficiency test to gauge their level of language comprehension that serves as a basis for educational placement. ESL Newcomer Academy (Newcomer) is a public middle and high school for the students who do not score high enough on the test to go to a regular school with only a few English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. More than 15 languages and 20 countries are represented by students from the ages of 11 to 19 who have been in the country for a short time. Every January students are given an English proficiency test scaled from one to six; a score above a two and a half signals that the student has mastered English basics and is ready to move on to a regular school.

“To be a teenager is tumultuous at best,” said Jenni Garmon, Mental Health Counselor at Newcomer. “Life is changing, more expectations, more pressure, there’s physiological changes that cause coping skills to be less than their prime. So your average teenager struggles somewhat at this time. Then you add on top of that coming to a new country. Everything looks, feels, smells, and tastes different. Everything.”

Schools like Newcomer Academy are created to provide a safe environment for immigrants to acclimate to America — culturally, linguistically, and socially.

While ESL programs are available at almost every school in Jefferson County, one or two classes are often not enough for students to master the language.

When Ywa came to the United States in fifth grade, it was a tremendous struggle to handle all the information coming at her. Not only did she have to learn a new language, she had to learn how to function in a school environment, how to interact with American children, and cultural norms. Not to mention, American education is much more comprehensive and difficult than what she had received at her refugee camp.

“I lived in outdoor buildings and houses, but here it’s really completely different,” Ywa said. “So here, whenever I’m in school, I feel like I’m in a cage.”

Eh Nay Thaw was in seventh grade when he came to the United States. Because he didn’t speak any English at first, he went to an ESL school at Shawnee, which later evolved into Newcomer.

“You can’t even really compare the education system here to Thailand because here it’s so much better. I don’t consider what I got in Thailand education,” Eh Nay Thaw said.

Even after refugee children learn English and adjust to their school systems, problems can still exist. One issue that many children face is being more adapted to their new environment than their parents.

“I think they’re forced to grow up a lot faster too because they become their parents’ caretaker often,” said Jane Evans, Mental Health Specialist at KRM. “They learn to speak English a lot faster so then there’s a power dynamic struggle. You find family problems more than emotional problems.”

Garmon said that when this shift in the dynamic occurs, guardians often feel like they can no longer suitably parent. Parents get easily frustrated because not only are they overwhelmed by the new American culture, but also overwhelmed by the fact that they’ve lost their power.

“The school system sees their role as telling the parents that they can still parent in this country,” Garmon said.

Paw Lah Eh Thaw noticed that when she began to start speaking English at home with her friends and siblings, her parents appeared to be hurt.

“My parents get kinda mad when I speak too much English because they’re afraid I’m gonna forget where I come from,” she said. “My parents are scared I’m losing my culture because I talk to my sister in English, and we don’t wear the traditional clothes anymore.”

That being said, Bair noticed that, overall, Karen parents are much more hands-off than their American counterparts. She said that the parents don’t necessarily have explicitly stated rules, they just expect their children to do whatever the family needs. Even so, she said the Karen children are still more loyal to their parents than American children, doing all that they can to help them.

People of authority, primarily the police, also present a noticeable cultural difference. Bair said that a few years ago, some of the first Karen children who came to CHBC were detained by the police and the church had to be brought in to explain the situation.

“They come from a place where the police are not good, they’re not there to help you,” Bair said. “So they’re scared but there’s also a language barrier that prevented them from talking to the police. Eye contact and body language signals that someone from our culture might read as suspicious are respectful in other cultures.”

Eh Nay Thaw, who was not involved in that situation, said that learning the differences in body language is an arduous process. He said in Thailand eye contact is considered a challenge or dare, but in the United States it is customary. He had to practice and teach himself how to look people in the eyes — not something he could have learned in school.

While not every refugee is as educationally successful as Ywa and the Thaw siblings, most have learned English and do relatively well in school. In fact, on Wednesdays before youth group, anyone who needs assistance with schoolwork is encouraged to come and bring a friend to receive homework help.

On Wednesdays, students gather around that same U-shaped table used for Sunday school. The students sit around, listening to music on their iPhones, occasionally taking a break from geometry worksheets to text back their friends from school. Once they have finished their homework, they often go upstairs to the church’s recreational center.

The pervasive and unmistakable odor of rubber balls and teenage sweat drifts down the stairwell. Upon entering the mid-size gym, a ball barely missed Paw Lah Eh Thaw’s head. “Watch out!” she cried to no one in particular.

Rag-tag volleyball, soccer, and basketball teams crowd the room, and avoiding getting hit in the head is nearly impossible. Paw Lah Eh Thaw walked toward her normal spot in front of the standard volleyball net and lined up her serve. As she leaned into the shot, boys and girls from across the net engaged her in friendly yet competitive banter. She squinted her eyes, squatted close to the floor, aimed and shot a ball right past her opponents, scoring for her team.

Led by Youth Minister Brittani Bair on Oct. 6, the Crescent Hill Baptist Church youth group engages in prayer at the end of the Wednesday night Bible study. Photo By Sam Sims

Unlocking the Cage

Even though they have faced many challenges while adapting to American culture, education standards, and English, the Thaws and Ywa said they are grateful to have escaped the cage that once held them captive.

“I missed my freedom. Everyone missed their freedom — their rights to act, speak, or even think as one wants without restraint,” Eh Nay Thaw said.

“I thought to myself, if I live here in this refugee camp for the rest of my life, I would end up nowhere but the cage I’m in.”

Eh Nay Thaw is ready to fully exercise his newfound freedom. He is a freshman at Centre College in Danville, Ky. While he doesn’t yet know what he wants to study, he is proud that he’s made it this far in his education and in overcoming language and cultural barriers.

Likewise, after sixth grade, Ywa didn’t cry at school anymore. She said it was sometimes hard, because at first she was alone and felt unwelcome. Later that year, though, her teachers introduced her to two American students, Bridget and Nicolle, whom she is friends with to this day.

“Both of those girls made me feel really happy and I don’t remember crying anymore,” Ywa said.

Ywa is taking general education classes as a freshman at Sullivan with hopes to eventually enter the dental or cosmetic fields.

Story By: Harper Carlton