Christian Karen are a persecuted minority and driven from their homeland.. Many of the ethnic cultures from Myanmar refer to their country as Burma. The US Dept of State uses Myanmar and Burma interchangeably.
Htee's story is tragic and beautiful all at the same time. During our conversation, I took a cautious path asking Htee about her experiences in the camp. You have to be sensitive to tread lightly and follow the interviewee's lead. Most camp residents have experienced horrors too heavy to bear, let alone voice. Trauma is a given. Yet Htee graciously pulled back the curtain and allowed us an inside peek into the realities of living in a refugee camp.
I was curious to learn more about the Karen ethnic group from Burma. I found a fantastic website from the Karen Organization of Minnesota. I'd like to read you a little of their history that will serve you well as you listen to Htee's story. "The Karen people began to inhabit what eventually became Burma about two thousand years ago. They traveled from Tibet and China and settled largely in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region of Burma. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Burmese also began migrating to the area north of what is now the Karen state. Ethnic groups around this region included the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese and Karen. When the British colonized Burma in 1886, these groups all became part of Burma.With the arrival of the British colonists to Burma, the Karen people hoped to escape oppressive rule under the Burmese. Tensions between the two groups reached a high point during World War II when the Karen sided with the British allies and the Burmese fought with the Japanese. Burma achieved independence from the British in 1948, but the Karen people were not granted rights to their own land, and the Burmese once again became the dominant ethnic groupThe military regime established in 1962 continues to oppress the Karen and other ethnic groups in Burma today. Burmese soldiers terrorize Karen villages every dry season by burning their villages, killing or torturing civilians, and raping women and girls.many Karen must flee across the border to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. Life in the refugee camps is difficult and uncertain. The Thai government can reduce funding for or simply shut down refugee camps at its will, leaving the refugees with very few options. Refugees are not allowed to venture outside the crowded camps, and can be arrested by Thai police if caught. They must instead try to work and support themselves inside the camps while applying for resettlement to another country, which can take many years." 70% of Karen are Buddhist, Buddhist-animist, or animist. About 20% to 30% are Christian. In Htee's case, her parents converted to Christianity which forced them to flee over the border for their lives.
Meeting Htee left a profound impact on me. The thing that has stayed with me since this interview was her lack of self pity for the circumstances in her life. She accepts what is, makes the most of, chooses to stay strong, and moves forward. Not only Htee, but her whole Karen community has also chosen this path and to encourage one another in it. It's as if she speaks for the group when she speaks for herself. She's living proof that everything can go wrong for you in life, yet you can still choose joy every day, you can still choose to get up and do your best even when you have to work twice as hard for your basic needs, you can still fight cancer even though it's not fair because you only just got a fair chance at life outside a refugee camp. That is a type of character I don't have, yet yearn for. That is a strength from deep inside that comes from having overcome obstacle after obstacle in life and lived to tell about it. That type of will power comes from knowing you're not alone, that your community and family stand with you and that there's strength surrounding you at all times. The Dalai Lama says, "It is worth remembering that the time of greatest gain in terms of wisdom and inner strength is often that of greatest difficulty." This is the secret to Htee's success. May we all choose to look for wisdom in the midst of our difficult moments in life, as Htee has.
Htee's Quote: Treat everybody the way that you treat yourself.