In Struggle and Success, California’s Karen Refugees Remember Their Roots

By Saw Yan Naing 11 June 2015

SAN DIEGO, California — Despite being a world away from their former homes, the Karen youth of San Diego vividly remember the poverty and privation of their childhoods.

The southern Californian city is home to some 1,500 refugees from Burma, most of them ethnic Karen, since a United Nations resettlement plan began in 2006. After fleeing civil war in Burma and years in Thai refugee camps, many are now thriving in their adoptive US home, but many dream of returning and fostering a better life for their Karen brethren.

“After growing up in a place like I did, I wanted to become a nurse,” said Mu Aye, a student at San Diego City College studying social work and nursing. “I wanted to help sick people. I want to travel to refugee camps in Thailand and care for people who cannot afford medication. I always believed that nursing is a career that can help people.”

Mu Aye spent her childhood in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp, 90 kilometers southeast of Mae Sot and home to nearly 20,000 people at its peak. She credits her career choice to the experience of growing up without a reliable water supply and access to medicine.

“Medical care in the camp was not good as it is in America,” she said. “In the camp, we could not be covered if we did not have money to pay for our medication. Many of us became very ill when we were not properly protected from diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and cholera.”

Karen refugees, especially the young, have bright futures in the United States. The prospect of a formal education, university and a career would have been unthinkable had their families remained stuck in refugee camps or displaced in rural Burma. Though many arrived in the US at a young age and speak in a California drawl, members of San Diego’s tightknit Karen community are conscious of their good fortunes, their thoughts dwelling on those who didn’t share their luck.

Eh De Gray, a recent graduate from San Diego’s Crawford High School preparing to enter college for a law degree, told The Irrawaddy he also had aspirations to travel back to his home country and help the Karen community.

“I want to go back there and meet with kids at schools,” he said. “I want to share my knowledge and experiences with them.”

Crucible or Melting Pot?

Many older refugees, who traveled to the US for the sake of their children, have found it more difficult to adjust. The language barrier, the culture shock and a lack of formal schooling have all in many cases impeded their job prospects and rendered them alienated from the wider community.

“We can’t help our children much because we were born in a village and have no education,” said Shae Paw, a mother of five who moved to San Diego in 2010. “In the refugee camp, we couldn’t even imagine what it was like to touch a car. But we moved here to see better opportunities for our children.”

She added that she and her husband still struggle to speak and read English despite their five years in the US. Other parents made abortive efforts to learn before deciding they were too old to grasp a new language.

Gary Weaver, a professor of American University’s School of International Service in Washington DC, told The Irrawaddy that while first generation migrants often struggled with the US education system, an American schooling generally had a profound effect on the children and grandchildren of migrants.

“They become educated and contribute to American society,” he said. “They speak and think like Americans and they sometimes marry Americans rather than members of their own ethnic communities.”

Prodigal Sons

Life in San Diego isn’t always rosy for refugee youth. Many Karen families life in the vicinity of the City Heights neighborhood, which although gentrifying in recent years, remains the site of substantial gang activity. Murder, drug use, robbery and street fights are all common occurrences.

Alarmed by reports of violence and substance abuse among some Karen teenagers community leaders approached former police officer Kevin LaChapelle for help.

“They told me they were concerned many Karen young people were using drugs and alcohol. And they wanted to share some of the politics within the culture to help me understand how to help them,” he told The Irrawaddy.

LaChapelle is the founder of PowerMentor, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing positive support for young San Diego residents at risk of being lured by criminal activity. He recently developed a Karen Leadership Academy, hoping to inspire the refugee youth to resist the negative influences of their neighborhoods, offering assistance where he can to steer his charges towards their goals.

“They had shared with me that they wanted to become nurses, and two wanted to become pilots, and one wanted to become an attorney,” he said. “I happened to have a friend that was a flight instructor, and PowerMentor has a pipeline to a local law school, so I knew this was no coincidence.”

With many of those under his wing hoping to one day return to their birthplaces, LaChapelle has been a strong supporter of their desire to return to Burma and work to improve the communities they left behind.

“I have always told the Karen guys that our desire is to help them accomplish whatever their dreams are, and we wanted them to determine their goals without influence from others,” he said. “We believe in their desire to return to Karen state to offer medical aid after they complete nursing school. My friends who work in health care and I offered our support to one day help them start a clinic in Karen State if they so desire. And that is where we stand now.”

Irrawaddy reporter Saw Yan Naing is currently on a US fellowship program with Alfred Friendly Press Partners and interning at Jewish Journal in Los Angeles.