Karen Refugees Thankful

Friday, November 19, 2010

An education, a new car and a home some would say it's the definition of the "American Dream." For a 25-year old woman who has spent her entire life in a refugee camp at the hands of a war-torn country, it is an inconceivable thought and signified all that would never be until today.

Sah Lay Lay Wah was born in Thailand to Karen parents in a camp called Hway K'lot which housed thousands of refugees from Burma. Her father was a soldier stationed at Kaw Moo Ra near the front lines, and her mother worked in a hospital, spending much her time educating other Karen about maintaining healthy families and homes under not so sanitary conditions. Sah and her siblings learned to live and grow within the safer confinements of the refugee camp. The children grew up knowing that leaving the camp meant taking the chance of being captured by the Thai soldiers and put in jail or worse in the case of those raped and murdered. "I don't remember being scared while living in the refugee camps, but we were careful to follow the rules," says Sah. At the age of 14, Sah Lay Lay Wah and her family moved to a second refugee camp (Mae La). She remembers moving because her hame in Hway K'lot was burned by the SPDC, made up of Burmese soldiers and DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). The camp and homes were first burned, and then later the soldiers returned to shoot those that remained at the camp.

Mae La was the home to nearly 40,000 Karen refugees and it was there that Sah's father built their home. He chopped down the bamboo for the walls and constructed the roof out of leaves. There were no telephones, no television and no computers. Cooking was done over open coal and wood fires. Families were afforded electricity for only 2-3 hours a day via a generator, a luxury provided only to a few and for a fee.

Responsible for much of their own food source, the family planted large gardens, which consisted of items like cabbage, sweet potatoes, sugar cane and beans. Their fruits were primarily from wild growing trees such as coconut, banana, mango and papaya. Sah's father hand dug ponds to stock with fish to feed his family. According to Sah, even though most families tried to take care of themselves, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was there to provide the basic necessities such as food, clothing and medicine to those who needed it. As a child and young adult, Sah Lay Lay Wah was able to attend school completing classes comparable to our high school level curriculum. Sah chose to continue her education in the Further Study Program offered by the government, which taught her English and offered additional course work in social studies, science, mathematics and reading and writing. Today, she speaks and translates three languages: Karen, Burmese and English.

Finding employment in Mae La was difficult, but Sah Lay Lay Wah was able to find work as she watched the camp become more and more crowded with refugees searching for a safe haven from the fighting and political scrutiny. Soon there was talk of the opportunity to leave Thailand and relocate to the United States. Sah applied immediately but then waited for an entire year before she and her family were accepted into a relocation camp in Nebraska.

At the age of 23, Sah Lay Lay Wah left her home for the first time, as well as the confines of the refugee camp, and began her trek to the United States. Sah traveled from Mae La to Bangkok and then to Korea. New York City is where she remembers spending her first night on U.S. soil. With her husband, Blue Nay Htoo, and their 8-month-old baby girl, Sar Nay Wah, the journey ended the next day as Sah made a stop in Chicago and then was reunited with her parents who had settled previously in Lincoln, Neb. Her travels took a total of 2-3 days, but the changes she had just begun to experience will no doubt take a lifetime to grasp. She professed, "I never dreamed I would ever come to the United States, but here I am."

With opportunities available and dreams to be followed, the first task at hand was to find a job. Sah's husband, Blue, heard there was work and a place to raise his family in a town called Huron in South Dakota. Sah admitted that she was worried about being able to leave the house and walk around by herself , but she doesn't have that concern here. "I feel safe in Huron," she commented.

Since arriving in Huron, Blue has secured employment with Dakota Provisions and Sah has joined the staff at Dakotaland Federal Credit Union. She translates and interprets for many of her fellow Karen, who have opened accounts, purchased cars or bought homes through the credit union. Sah and her husband have recently been approved to buy their first home. "I am excited for my family to own a house since we were not able to own property when we lived in Thailand," stated Sah. Like many of the Karen people , Sah Lay Lay Wah wants to become a citizen of this country and is willing to work for that privilege. She is currently studying for her GED and will be taking the classes needed to obtain her citizenship. Sah concluded by saying, "My education and freedom are important to me because I know that not everyone in Thailand will be given the chances I have here."

My time with Sah Lay Lay Wah has served as a much needed reminder of how lucky I am to be born an American. As I get up each morning, taking for granted that which I have inherited and have come to believe is my God given right, others are denied and persecuted, based on the flag under which they were born. I may worry about the rising cost of health care, but I don't fear the burning of my home or the slaughter of my children.

How quickly we forget that nearly all of us are descendants of non-English speaking immigrants who once braved poverty, famine, religious persecution and war to board a ship, and who were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty with these kind and gentle words by Emma Lazarus: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

With 100 years passed, and the homesteads of our ancestors standing proud as a reminder, we can rest assured the American dream does live on especially here in Huron, South Dakota.

Dawn Mutchelknaus is vice president of marketing at Dakotaland Federal Credit Union.

Categories: 2010


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