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Two Refugees from Burma Settle in Nelson

Bill Metcalfe
By Bill Metcalfe
June 18th, 2012

Two women from a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border are now living in Nelson after having been granted refugee status by the Canadian government. The Nelson Refugee Committee is sponsoring them here and is committed to supporting the two women for one year. 

The refugees belong to the Karen ethnic indigenous group that has been persecuted and harassed by Burma’s military government for decades.

“They have spent their lives behind barbed wire in a refugee camp on the Burma-Thailand border,” says Randy Janzen, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Refugee Committee. “They are people without citizenship. It is illegal for them to leave the refugee camp because they are not recognized as Burmese or Thai.”

The Nelson Refugee Committee has found an apartment for the two women, and is assisting them daily in their adjustment to all aspects of life in Canada.

More detail on the background to their stay in Nelson can be found in a previous story posted at The Nelson Daily on March 18, 2012.

Htoo Paw, in her late 20s, was born in Burma. Her village was burned in 2000 and has been living in a refugee camp ever since. She has a good level of education, having completed high school and a special personal development course that taught English, computer literacy, and life skills. Her work experience includes teaching, childcare, care for the elderly and care for individuals with special needs.

Hsa Moo was born and raised in the camp more than 25 years ago. She is vice-president and programmer for the Karen Student Networking Group, is the producer of the Karen language Radio Free Asia in Mae La Oo Refugee Camp and is working as a social worker in her camp village. Hsa Moo has completed high school and a leadership and management course, and has recently received a diploma from the Australia Catholic University.

The two had been in Nelson just eight days when they sat down with The Nelson Daily to tell their story.

How did you end up living in a refugee camp?

Htoo Paw: When I lived in Burma, my village was in the conflict area, and the Burmese troops came into the village and arrested people and they tortured them. I was afraid—we knew that when the troops came we were going to be in danger.  I did not think this was wrong, I thought it was normal life. They would grab anyone they could get and ask them to go with them to carry their things or their ammunition or their food, and I thought this was normal because I did not know about the outside world.  

But then our house was burned down, I was 13 or 14, but I still thought, they can do this.

I did not witness this but we heard in the village that women were raped, and we were scared, and my friends had to marry military men because they came into the village and if they liked the girl, they would just take them, so my mother was very worried for us, and she said there is a refugee camp. So I came with other young women to the border to a refugee camp. I did not know, I had never known, there was a refugee camp. Then I found out more about refugee camps. In the refugee camp I found the women’s organization and I was able to attend training about human rights and democracy.

Hsa Moo: I was born in a refugee camp. My parents were from Burma and because of the fighting they could not stay there there and fled and came to the refugee camp and got married. When I was in the refugee camp the Burmese army came and burned down our house. I was only 8 years old. We had to flee and could not find each other, I stayed at home and could not find anyone, and the army came and they said, where are your parents, and I was really hungry and I asked for a snack and they said no. In the night-time they burned down our house. I was the only one left. But after two or three days we found each other, my parents came back. 

What is life like in a refugee camp?

Htoo Paw: The camp I came from is not close to a Thai city, it is about 3 hours away in a mountainous area. The camp is just a camp. We have small houses, we call it our home, but they are made of bamboo and the roofs are made of leaves. Each family has their own home but it is very close, we can hear each other very clearly. We are not allowed to go outside the camp, the Thai authorities don’t let you. There is a school provided by an international NGO and a hospital, not a proper one, just basic health care education. People do not have a chance to go out and work. Because there are schools and hospitals, some people work as teachers and medics. But for young people there is no more chance for them to continue their education because there is only high school, and then after high school there is a program for two years and then it is the end of their future, they have no opportunity to discover more. 

When was the first time you realized something had to be done, and you were going to take a leadership role?

Htoo Paw: After I joined the women’s organization I attended training for four months and then I thought, what we have is a dictatorship. Before that I did not know it was a dictatorship, and what they did to our village is not right, and so we have to do something to change this.

Hsa Moo: Since I started working with the student groups. But when I was young my mother told me about the Burmese torturing my grandfather and killing him. So I always, in my heart, felt I have to do something for my people. I am not like my other siblings. They didn’t get involved.

Can you describe the work you have been doing?

Hsa Moo: In the camp we have student groups and I was a student leader, and we are also working with some international NGOs. We were doing drama, publication, and KSNG radio, and kids programs. We found some funding for this group inside Karen state in Burma, and we have students there and we have leadership and management training for the students in the camps. We give media training to students, how to present, how to write a program, how to run the program. They have to be careful not to be too political because the Thai government might shut them down. Everything is related to politics. I have been a journalist reporting on the situation. 

In our community there are not many journalists. Things happened a lot but no one reported it for us, so I thought I had to do some reporting about my community to let others know. 

Htoo Paw: There are many community-based organizations and mine is a women’s group. We provide services for women, like literacy programs, because there are so many women, especially women in the refugee camps, who are illiterate. They had no chance to go to school, so we set up the program for them. The program is for children too, we have a nursery school because we want the women to be able to have skills in community work. In the refugee camp the families are so big. Each each family average is four children, so for the women, if we want to encourage them to work in the community, we need to provide a service that helps them to get out of the house, so we have the nursery school. 

We have other activities like sewing training, and other vocational training, because there are no jobs, so we provide that training so they can make some money. And we have a program called income generation. It is where we provide women training and we provide materials for them and we sell for them. They can get clothes and food for their family. Because in a refugee camp there only rice, fish paste (one of the main foods the Karen eat), chili, and beans provided by the international NGOs, but no other food. To get meat and vegetables they need more money so with the training they can weave and they can get a small of amount of money. So my organization has been working to support women in order to do things for their community and their family, not just stay at home.

What are your plans now?

Htoo Paw: We know it will not be easy, we thought about this before we left, because we already heard the stories from other people who came to Canada— they said we will  have to work hard to survive. And we have to adjust to another culture and this is what we are going to do, so the first year will be easier because we have the support group, but after a year we will have to work very hard and we will find opportunities to work part time and we want more education, so we will work hard and seek opportunities to study.

KSNG Radio has a website here.  And click here for a video about the station.

The photos below show Hsa Moo teaching journalism in a refugee camp, and in the KSNG radio station.

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