The thought of my people being abolished haunts me.
If I told you I was Karen, would you know what it means? Do you know of the ignominy the Karen people have endured? The kind of people we are?
Let me take you to Southeast Asia, to the Shangri-La of the Karen people. Imagine living in a flourishing jungle, replete with tall green trees and grasses, surrounded by majestic mountains. The temperature is close to perfect year-round. The Karen people are known for their friendliness and generosity. They have thrived in this bountiful land for thousands of years. But no longer.
For more than half a century, the Karen people have been fighting for their independence from a ruthless Burmese rule. The brutality imposed on my people by the government is the reason so many Burmese have fled the country and many have come to America. More than 140,000 Karen people now live in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border and many thousands more live in other camps throughout the world. Even though Burma ended military rule in 2015 by electing its first non-military leader since the military coup in 1962, the government continues to move aggressively against our land and my people continue to resist.
The Kayin (Karen) state is located southeast of Burma, along the Dawna range and close to the border of Thailand. The advantageous geographical location between the two countries is at the root of the problem – two countries fighting for control of a strategic region. It is the perfect spot for new commerce; the Burmese government would love to destroy our land and put in highways, factories and even tourism if they could. Both of the neighboring countries could benefit from it economically, if the government were able to take the land.
Being a Karen in my homeland isn't easy. People must constantly run, scared, and abandon their homes because the soldiers of the Burma Army are attacking their town. When these soldiers start to ambush, there is no option to think twice – you run, literally run for your life. And if you are caught, there is no thought of getting released. History has shown that the Karen people are not considered as human beings to their enemies. When women are caught, they are often forcefully raped in front of their families, choking and crying out in pain. Captured Karen men are beaten, tortured and walked on like a doormat. There are videos profiling the inhumane treatment. It’s disgusting, de-humanizing and reprehensible.
My family fled the Karen state 11 years ago. When my mother and grandfather evacuated their hometown, they felt that a part of them was ripped in two. It was their home, where my mom and her siblings grew up, they knew all their neighbors, all their friends lived close by, and they had to leave everything behind without hesitation. They could’ve stayed and fought, but that would’ve been suicide.
Along the way, crossing the border from Burma to Thailand, my grandmother died. She had gotten so sick, until her body was too weak to move. They knew my grandmother was slowly dying, but they had no resources to help her. When they arrived at the nearest riverbank, my grandfather buried her. My mom and grandfather had no time to mourn. They had to keep moving.
When they arrived in Thailand, they were placed in the Tham Hin camp. There were no houses for the refugees. My grandfather made his home out of bamboo, even though he had no degree in construction. The houses had little to no space in between them, and at times you could see what your neighbors were doing. It was a crowded place, but despite the inadequacies, they made it work. Everyone in the camp knew each other. For example, if you ran away with someone else’s daughter, that gossip would go through the entire camp, even before the crack of dawn.
Time went by, and my father met my mother. I was born in 1999. Living in camp was demeaning. We didn’t have all the necessities and safety we needed. We had no running water and had to bring it in buckets back and forth from the river. The houses were made out of bamboo, and the walls had little cracks in between them so the weather invaded us constantly. The house we lived in wasn’t a secure place for us to settle, because at any moment we might have to flee. We didn’t have many things most people take for granted – deodorant, shampoo, electricity. We even used an alternative for toothpaste: charcoal. My grandfather rubbed it on his teeth and brushed with his two fingers. To rinse it off, he used river water.
In 2002, when the Burmese-Karen confrontation had reached international notoriety, celebrity Angelina Jolie came to visit us at the Tham Hin Camp. She handed out footballs to the kids in the village, and greeted almost everyone with which she came in contact. She was so generous to us, and made us feel like we mattered. Although we had someone as big as Jolie in our refugee camp, most people around the world still didn’t know about our dilemma.
Coming to America wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. When we arrived in Dallas, we had no friends or family. It wasn’t until we went to a church service at Gaston Oaks Baptist Church that my parents figured out there were other people like us. We didn’t stay in Dallas for long. There was an existing Burmese and Karen population in Amarillo, and my grandfather was re-locating to the Panhandle, so we moved to the Yellow City about a year later.
When we settled in Amarillo, we knew a few people from my dad’s side of the family. He has a step-sister that had lived in Amarillo for a while, and she helped us settle into our new home with the money my dad made from working in Dallas. When we finally got accustomed to life in Amarillo, we noticed how accepting the community was to us. The churches were welcoming, and the people were so kind.
Living in Amarillo has not been without its challenges. Because English was not my first language, I was quiet in school, often scared to speak out for fear I would say something stupid. One of the many reasons why we moved to Amarillo was for jobs to support the family. In Amarillo, it was easy to find a job. With the lack of education and no English, companies like Tyson hired many immigrants – people like us. Even though my father spoke minimal English, he started to learn the language with his new friends at work. They not only helped him get better at English, they also taught him slang words. And for a while at home, my father would repeat those slang words like it was a song. We eventually fit in and made this home. Amarillo has made us feel whole again. We are safe, have a home that is secure, and freedom actually means freedom.
Over time, I have learned much about my family’s struggles in Burma and their journey to America. I discovered for the first time how my proud ancestry was in danger. I recently spoke with Zoya Phan, a leading expert and political activist for the Karen people in Burma. Phan is the voice for the Karen people, and has been part of many informational campaigns including the human rights organization, Burma Campaign UK. Phan also wrote the best-selling book, “Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma”.
Phan says there are still a wide range of human rights problems where the government has not taken action and not made any commitments to take action. And although Burma now has a civilian-led government, the human rights situation in the country remains very grave.
The Karen people find each day a challenge: Food is scarce, marauding armies burn camps and kill the inhabitants. There is no medical care. They live every day not knowing when it will be their last time to call their land home.
The Burmese government has been trying to take over the Karen people's land, from one generation to the next, making it the longest ongoing civil war in the world. This is a war that cannot be tamed or finished because the Karen people are proud and will not easily relinquish their land, culture or history. Many innocent lives have been lost, but it never seems to change. And for the Karen people, it is a war to be freed from the burdens of yesterday, and to find the peace of a new future.
I cannot stand the thought of losing my people. I would feel terrible if I did nothing. So I relay the horrors that have been inflicted on them. I have talked to family members who fled this regime. I have spoken to relatives who still endure this war. They know the feeling of hopelessness. They have no hands. They have no support system that can help them.
No one knows us. We are dying. At the pace this war is going, where will the Karen state be in a few years? Tomorrow? Where will my people stand? Will we simply disappear? Please, walk in the shoes of my people, feel the pain they feel, and tell me how they are not the strongest.
We know the history, we talk about the present, but the mystery lies in the future of the Karen people.
Tha Law is a 17-year-old Karen girl, an immigrant from the war-torn region of Burma in Southeast Asia. She has lived in Amarillo for 11 years and will proudly become an American citizen in May of 2017. Tha Law graduated from North Heights Alternative School in December and will attend West Texas A&M University to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism.