The largely untold story: The Karen ethnic group has been victim to decades of abuse, persecution

I was the first one to get the bad news. On a Sunday morning in September, I got a Facebook message from my cousin in Australia. My uncle—my mom’s brother— had died.

We hadn’t seen him since we were together in a refugee camp in Thailand eight years ago. The memory of that refugee camp in Thailand got me thinking about current stories of Muslim people, tens of thousands of them, fleeing abuse and oppression at the hands of the Myanmar army—fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand. The images are on the TV news almost every week.

It made me wonder, “Why aren’t there stories about my people?”

My family is from Myanmar, too. We’re Karen, not Muslim. But we too fled from decades of abuse and persecution in what used to be called Burma. Lots of people here in America don’t know the story of Karen refugees. I want to tell that largely untold story.

The Karen people have faced human rights violations, such as forced relocation and forced labor, for more than 70 years. Those abuses are still going on.

Naw Htoo, my mom, experienced the civil war in Burma when she was younger. When she turned 15, she ran for her life.

“If you didn’t run away, the soldiers would kill you,” Htoo said.

When the soldiers came to her village, they destroyed houses and farms and killed the farm animals. The soldiers also took men for forced labor and raped many women, Htoo said. The government’s objective was to get rid of the Karen minority, one way or another.

Htoo left her village in 2000 with her two children. In 2005, she made it to Mae Ra Moe refugee camp in Thailand, along with her brother and his family. Eventually, she 
built a little bamboo house for her family—which by then included me and two older siblings.

Around 2009, my uncle left our family in the Thai refugee camp
and immigrated to Australia. Then, our family was invited to move to the United States. Htoo was afraid to go to the U.S—a strange place 10,000 miles from home. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be accepted in a strange culture. She didn’t know English, she had only two years of schooling, and she knew it would be a hard life.

Naw Htoo
Naw Htoo experienced the civil war between the Karen and the Burmese soldiers and immigrated to the United States for a better life. She’s the writer’s mother. (Pay Poe/ThreeSixty Journalism)

However, after a conversation with a woman from the refugee agency, Htoo signed up to go
 to the U.S. The counselor told her she would get “all the help you need” and that she would have more job opportunities for herself and a better education for her children.

Living in the U.S was difficult for our family at first because of the new language, new people and the strange environment.

We didn’t know who to connect with or how to do it. We
 also didn’t know how to use the technology—something as small as turning on the air conditioning—because we’d never had such things before.

However, we learned and adapted. Htoo got a job with FedEx. Now she says it was “a blessing” that she made the decision to come to the U.S. Her life has changed for the better, she says. She no longer has to run for her life—unlike her sister, who still lives in Myanmar.

I’m glad, too, that she made that decision. We live in a comfortable, if modest, apartment. I’m in my last year at a good high school. I’m planning to go to college.

And I’m glad that I’ve had a chance to tell the story of at least one Karen refugee family—mine.