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Karen refugees adapt to new culture, struggle to find jobs, learn English

By Virginia de Leon

In three years since the first Karen refugees moved to Spokane, the population has grown to more than 300 and the people have learned English, adopted a new culture and are now part of the local community.

Karen Children
Ferris High student Hailey Moon, holding a Karen child, with Ferris High ESL teacher, Victorya Rouse, who is holding her grandson, at the December celebration. Photo by Ted Barnwell

“Everybody likes it in Spokane,” said Moon Light, whose family was the first to seek refuge in the area.  “Our children like school. People around here are friendly.   They help us.”

Although many are still looking for work and adapting to life in the United States, these immigrant families who escaped persecution in their native country of Burma and later persevered in Thailand’s refugee camps feel grateful for the chance to start again.

To give thanks for their survival and to preserve their language and culture in this new land, the Karen families hold fast to their traditions, including the celebration of the New Year.

On Dec. 19, many Karen refugees in Spokane gathered at the East Central Community Center to sing, dance, pray and observe the beginning of the Karen year 2748, which recognizes the migration of the first Karen into their traditional homeland of eastern Burma. 

The Spokane event featured speeches in English and Karen, traditional dances, contemporary songs in their native language and tables filled with food. In their homeland, this celebration marked the completion of the rice harvest and the beginning of a new season.

This was the second time, the Karen community invited members of the local community to its celebration.  Among the guests were families from area churches, volunteers and staff from World Relief, as well as teachers from the Institute for Extended Learning, Ferris High School, Chase Middle School, Sheridan Elementary and other area schools.

“Thank you for coming,” Moon Light and others from the Karen community told guests as they escorted them to tables.  “Welcome, welcome!”

The Karen community found themselves in Spokane as a result of the violence and persecution suffered by their people in Burma.  Since 1962, Burma has been governed by repressive authoritarian regimes, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  Several human rights groups also have accused Burma’s military government of ethnic cleansing and suppression of religious freedom.

Members of the Karen ethnic group have long opposed the Burmese government and have launched several revolts since the late 1940s.  As a result of their efforts to gain autonomy, this minority group has faced discrimination and even death in their own country.

Many Karen tribes people are farmers who were forced to move from their villages in the Kayah and Karen (sometimes known as Kayin) states of southeastern Burma.  After fleeing their homeland, the refugees spent many years in crowded camps in Thailand.  For many school-age children, these refugee camps are the only home they ever knew.  Some have no memory of Burma nor do they identify as Burmese.

Refugees from Burma first resettled in the Spokane area in 2006 through efforts of Pastor Eric Blauer, pastor of a non-denominational Christian community known as Jacob’s Well. 

Eric and his wife, Lee Ella, sponsored the first Karen familes to move to Spokane.  They were first introduced to the plight of the Karen people by Eric’s brother, Matt, who works for nongovernmental organizations in Southeast Asia and creates documentaries that detail the struggle of the Karen and other refugees.

Most of the Karen people who resettled in Spokane are associated with Jacob’s Well.  Eric’s church provides space for Karen families to gather each week for their own Christian services as well as a center where they can find clothing, help with paperwork and other aid. 

These families relocated to Spokane through World Relief, an organization founded by the National Association of Evangelicals in 1944 for relief in Europe after World War II and now working globally to relieve human suffering, hunger and poverty.

According to Linda Unseth, director of World Relief’s Spokane office, 337 Karen have moved to Spokane since 2006.  Other refugees from Burma—186 people from the Chin ethnic group and two Karenni families—also have resettled in the area.

Most are Christian, while some are Muslim or Buddhist. 

Those who speak Chin have found housing in North Spokane and receive support from First Church of the Nazarene on Country Homes Blvd.   Some Chin families and Karen have joined New Vision Lutheran Church in Spokane’s Garland district.

“They’ve been a great blessing to our church,” said the Rev. Doug Wagley, pastor of New Vision.

At Jacob’s Well, the Karen families gather in the sanctuary several times each week for fellowship.  They have their own lay pastors and their services are conducted in Karen.  Members of Jacob’s Well have helped the Karen refugees by offering them weekly English language classes and a clothing bank.

The growth of the Karen population “has been an amazing answer to prayer,” Eric told the crowd at the New Year celebration. “They’ve been a blessing to my life, my family’s life, our church and Spokane. Our city is a better city because of the refugees from Burma.”

The Karen community has helped him and others from Jacob’s Well develop relationships with teachers, doctors, employers, landlords and others in the area.

“I am grateful to the Karen people for helping me connect to the people of my city,” Eric said.

Although they are thankful to be in Spokane, transitioning to life in the United States hasn’t been easy for many Karen families.

Language remains a major obstacle. About 70 percent of the Karen in Burma and Thailand speak S’gaw Karen, the most predominant language among Karen refugees in the Spokane area.  It is also distinct from the other Karen languages. 

Although S’gaw Karen uses Burmese script, the Karen alphabet is significantly different.  While the Burmese alphabet has 33 consonants and 29 vowels and vowel diacritics (for the different tones), S’gaw Karen has only 25 consonants and 11 vowels. 

The alphabet letters have a round appearance because the Karen, Burmese and others in the region have traditionally used palm leaves as a writing material.  In addition to Karen, the children also learned Burmese and Thai in the refugee camps.  These languages, however, are vastly different from English.

Because of the recession, many refugees are struggling to find full-time employment.  Many left Spokane for Minnesota and Nebraska hoping to find jobs in the meat-packing industry.  Last year, Moon Light and some men drove to the Tri-Cities to work.  Other went to Alaska to fish.

“There’s still racism and injustice in the work environment,” said Eric, adding that some employers have taken advantage of the Karen.

In the last few months, however, Moon Light and a few others have been hired by The Spaghetti Factory, whose owners and managers have treated the Karen with respect and fairness, Eric said. Moon Light started as a dishwasher but has received training to cook and do other duties.

“They have embraced, trained and empowered the Karen to learn and not just exist at a certain economic level,” he said.

Doug and others at New Vision also have tried to help the Karen find work. The church provides transportation so 16 Karen can work seasonally at a farm in Montana.

The situation has improved for the new refugees compared to just a year ago, said Moon Light and others.

Since the Karen population has grown, new immigrants now know where to go for help and support.  The Karen community also has established itself and developed relationships in the schools, churches, nonprofits, social services and other organizations.  Many are learning to drive.  One family has bought a home.

“They still need help but they are far more independent now than ever,” Eric said. “Empowerment is happening.”

Those who have worked with the Karen have gained from their friendship, because the Karen value family and friendship, said Jim Carney, a member of Jacob’s Well.  For them, working together is a way of life.

“They’ve taught me to appreciate how we live,” he said.  “We take so much for granted but the Karen people are so kind and so grateful for everything.  They remind me of what it means to be a community member and the value of taking care of others.”

For information, call 535-3858.