Visiting a Karen Refugee Camp (A Story About the Myanmar Conflict)

I woke up to a cat pawing at my fingers through my mosquito net. The morning air glided gently through the room, poking at my toes and tickling my ears. Outside, I heard dogs trotting around on the wet gravel pavement, and students completing their early morning chores. I grabbed my phone and clicked it on as the cat watched intently. 7:42 am.

To my left, my roommate was jotting notes into a leatherbound journal. I listened intently for a few minutes, as the scratch of his pen mixed with the soft patter of the morning drizzle and the soothing to-and-fro of the outside world. I could hear Mia, one of the local student workers who had probably been awake for several hours now, hanging laundry onto a clothesline that was pulled taut between two huts. I comfortably put my head back onto my pillow and began thinking through the day ahead. Following my example, the cat rested its head on its paws and purred gently.

We were in a small town named Mae Sariang, along the Thailand-Myanmar border. I was on a community service trip, and we were lodged in our organization’s local children’s home. I had first signed on to join Rustic Pathways’ volunteer team to Thailand because I was interested in working with the locals to leave a lasting communal impact.

Our trip itinerary was divided into two weeks. The first week, which we had just completed, involved working with students and their families both in and out of the classroom. Our week culminated in a day-long construction project at the local school, when we put the finishing touches on a community kitchen. Our second week, which was about to begin, had our group splitting up and traveling to different parts of the country to work on other projects—I would be traveling to Phitsanulok Province to work with elephants.

Learning About the Karen-Myanmar Conflict

But before we split up, the final activity on our agenda was a trip to a Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) refugee camp near Myanmar. Several families from in town, including Mia’s, worked at the children’s home, and were often awake at first light. Many of these families identified as Burmese, or ‘Myanmarese’; a few of them identified with these Karen tribes, a people traditionally based in Myanmar itself.

I knew very little of the Karen people when I joined Rustic Pathways as a volunteer. I had never even heard of the Karen tribes, and was mainly interested in teaching English at local elementary schools. Truthfully, I was oblivious to a great part of the Karen struggle, which I was about to learn.

Stretching my limbs, I slowly rose from my mattress and turned to my roommate. “Ready to head out, Zeke?” He stretched and nodded in response. Today, we had a meeting with a local Karen refugee, to prepare us for the trip to a refugee camp the day after. A Karen student, who went by the name James, was scheduled to speak to us about the history of his people. Our meeting was at 8:00 am, so we stood up, grabbed our toothbrushes, and slowly lumbered out to the yard with our cat in tow. Mia waved at us happily, the purple threads of her traditional Karen clothing shaking in the morning mist.

After brushing our teeth, we made our way towards the mess hall—an open-walled hut lined with cafeteria tables. The rest of our group was already sitting around a single table towards the back, eating pancakes and rambutan, a popular breakfast fruit that’s sweet and sour like a grape. We sat down amidst a chorus of “hello” and “Sa wat dee,” a typical Thai greeting. To our left, I could see an unfamiliar man—presumably James—dressed in a dark blue and black tunic.

We ate boisterously for a few minutes, talking excitedly about the day to come, when James stood up and joined our table. He walked over proudly in his oversized shirt and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Sa wat dee, my friends! Thank you for having me.” We smiled and greeted him back in turn.

James pulled a chair over and sat down with an audible sigh of relief. “I hope you are all excited to come to our camp! It is called Mae Ra Moe, and we are very excited to have you. The children are preparing your bracelets right now. We will all have a lot of fun. But before we go, you should know more about the Karen people and the Karen struggle.” We all turned towards him eagerly. “Please don’t stop eating!” he said politely, “I won’t speak a lot. Are you ready?” Our group nodded collectively.

“I am one of the Karen. We have been in civil war with the Burmese government for as long as I can remember.”

The Karen conflict is an ongoing, internal military struggle in Myanmar between the Karen Nationalist Movement and the Burmese Tatmadaw (military). It has often been described as one of the world’s longest running civil wars, and its casualties have had lasting repercussions on the southern/southeastern Asian continent. Millions of Karen people have been internally displaced within Burma itself; millions more, like Mia’s family, have had to take refuge in neighboring countries, most notably in Thailand.

“We have been fighting for our own state for more than fifty years now. We deserve our own state because we are our own people. We live where the Burmese live, but we are Karen.”

Historically, the Karen people—along with other ethnic minorities within the country—had been woefully ignored in Burma, and their sentiments were often disregarded by the larger Burmese ethnic power. The Karen’s affiliations with the British colonialists was a source of tension that led to clashes with the anti-imperialist Burmese nationalist movement.

When World War II began and the Japanese army invaded Burma in 1942, the interethnic clash between the Burmese and the Karen escalated heavily. The Japanese allowed Burma to form the Burmese Independence Army in 1942, giving them great political and military might. The BIA marked the first time in history that the Burmese had their own national army. This development sparked a newfound Burmese nationalism that would guide the movement’s actions for years to come.

In addition, the rise of a central Burmese power also instigated a widespread fear among the ethnic minorities—who comprised approximately 25% of the population—of the country. During and before World War II, the Karen people were often recruited by the British government into the armed forces because of their local knowledge and skills.

When the war reached Burma, the Allies viewed the Karen favorably as a loyal guerilla militia, and the Karen, in turn, benefited from British presence with regards to literacy, education, and religion. Thus, during the war, the Karen remained loyal to the British, for the most part. These conflicting ideologies and affiliations laid a foundation for severe ethnic clash in the future. When World War II ended in 1945, the Burmese Independence Army emerged as one of the state’s strongest parties; on the other hand, many Karen imagined that they would receive their own state because of their war efforts.

When the war finally ended, the nation of Burma was granted its independence on January 4, 1948. The Karen people—who comprised a sizable ethnic minority within Burma’s boundaries, and who never accepted Burmese authority—understandably expected their own nationhood to be recognized, as well.

Rather than receiving sovereignty after World War II however, the Karen people were subsumed into the Burmese state. Not long after, the Karen National Union declared war against the Burmese government on January 31, 1949. Hostilities and warfare have persisted since.

“Because of this war, many of us have had to move into camps, like the one you’ll visit tomorrow. Our people are hungry and jobless, and we bathe in the river in our camp. Our roofs have holes. And we are always watched.”

The Karen people suffer from incredibly inhumane living conditions. Each of the government camps they are forced to live in is filled far beyond capacity, resulting in a shortage of beds, mosquito nets, and medicine. Malnutrition is extremely widespread and the Karen people have to subsist on rice, salt, and fish paste.

They are constantly under surveillance by the Burmese Tatmadaw and are rarely allowed to leave their camps for employment. Even within the camp itself, employment opportunities are rare, and basic education and educational materials are often unavailable. Perhaps the most unjust aspect of their situation is how criminally overlooked their crisis has become.

My lack of knowledge at that time is, unfortunately, reflective of a broader unawareness of the injustice propagated against the Karen peoples—their struggle is often untold and unreported, and it deserves the world’s consideration as a significant breach of the human rights of millions of Karen people.

Visiting Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp

After meeting James and hearing his story, I went to visit Mae Ra Moe, one of the refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. I can recall many stories from my trip to the camp, but one has stood out to me in particular—hopefully, this story can help expose the level of suffering and hardship the Karen people experience on a daily basis.

After hearing James’ story at the children’s home, I felt much more equipped to meet the refugees at Mae Ra Moe that night. Yet, regardless of the knowledge I gained then, I was completely unprepared for the stories I would hear—truly, no level of understanding of any human rights conflict can prepare someone to hear first-hand accounts of the horrors of war.

We stepped into the dimly lit hut and peeled our wet shoes off on the welcome mat. I wadded my drenched socks into balls and stuffed them into my boots before looking around the room. The musty hut smelled faintly of rice, and the hard drops of rain echoed loudly off the wood and fronds that constituted the roof. I could barely see the room’s far end, but could make out several beds—some made and some in disarray—lining each wall. The room was lit only from the candles held by the refugees who greeted us passionately.

“Sa wat dee!” they exclaimed in Thai. The Burmese refugees, both young and old, held my hands, gripped my arms, and patted my shoulders excitedly. The students who were staying with us at the children’s home—Mia and James—laughed fondly to my right, and began to push me into the room. The floor creaked gently as they pulled us warmly into the crowd, and I soon found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor with a dozen refugee boys and girls staring at me curiously. I was quickly surprised by their English, which was very strong.

“Bruno Mars!” the kids laughed, pointing at me, a dark-skinned Filipino who may have looked vaguely like the celebrity singer. I laughed along, undoubtedly burning red in the face.

“Welcome, everyone!” boomed a voice from the dark end of the room. The voices quickly quieted, as if on command. A large Karen man dressed in a loose-fitting suit and tie stepped into the circle of candlelight. The floor creaked loudly behind him. “Thank you for visiting us today. We always love having visitors over.” His voice rang with a strong accent, much like the children’s, but he spoke as if with years of experience. I listened closely, as his words echoed over the heavy rain.

“You made a long trip out to our camp today and I hope it was safe. I know you are all very tired, but before we take you to your rooms, it is important that you know our story.” The man paused, and several students—many of whom looked to be in their late teens—stepped out from the crowd and approached the individual members of the Rustic Pathways team.

Mia came to sit next to me and grabbed my hand warmly. I looked to her as she began tying a knot of gnarled cloth around my wrist. She smiled and showed me her wrist, adorned with the same bracelet. I remembered back to that morning when James said that we would be receiving bracelets. I looked fondly at mine—a band of orange and white thread—and smiled warmly at Mia.

“To you, we are Karen. We are your friends. To the world, and to the Tatmadaw, we are all refugees. We did not have this choice. Our lives have been decided for us. We live in this camp because we needed to leave our homes. Our homes were not safe. Even here, we are not safe. But we did not have this choice. Our lives have been decided for us.” Mia finished tying the bracelet and looked up earnestly at the speaking man.

“My name is Champo. My life was decided for me.” Champo looked around the room and smiled a toothy grin at his audience. I couldn’t help but smile—everyone else in the room did too. “My name means ‘He who is friendly’. I take after my father, but he is not with us. Our lives were decided for us. But I only have mine because he gave his. I only have hope because he had hope.”

He continued, “My father was a farmer in Myanmar. Like everyone, he grew rice. Growing up, I always thought I would grow rice too. It is important! And my mother did our laundry every day and she cooked all our food and did all the cleaning. She was the real worker. Right, mom?” Champo pointed at his mother and erupted in booming laughter, sending the room into a fit of happiness too. Champo’s mother smiled and urged him to go on.

“‘She was the real worker,’ my father always said. He always said that. He worked all day on every day of the week, but he never complained. After school, my father would always walk me home and carry my bag for me while I ran in the mud or played with the dogs. He would always help me with my homework, even though he didn’t remember much from school. His shirt had holes because he used the fabric from it to patch mine.

He took a short, solemn pause before saying, “I miss him a lot. I think it is very natural to miss your father. I knew him for twelve years, but that is not enough. Every day I miss him.” Champo smiled at us again, somberly.

“The day I turned thirteen, my father was pushed off the back of a moving truck. I was with him. We were in a truck on the way to this camp. One of the soldiers in the back of our van pushed him as he gave me his shirt to wear. No explanation. No words. I watched as he fell over the side of the road and down into the trees. He had no seatbelt and he sat on the end of the car. His feet were inches off the ground. They didn’t even bother to find his body. I don’t even remember where he died.”

Champo still smiled, but I watched as a tear fell slowly down his cheek. Mia grabbed my hand warmly, and I saw that she was crying too.

“I miss my father. His life was decided for him. His life ended on the anniversary of the day I came into this world.” Champo stood in silence for a few moments before continuing. “But, we all have hope because of the sacrifices people like my father made. We have exposure, because students and people like you visit us. Maybe you can go back to your countries and tell the world about us. Do not forget us. Do not let my father’s story go unheard. We have given each of you something to remember us by.”

At this moment, Mia held my hand up and smiled widely. Around the room, I watched as refugees placed their candles on the ground and raised their arms proudly in the air. The candlelight glowed across our bodies and the fabric on each of our wrists.

“Those bracelets are taken from our own clothes. Do not forget us. You are our family, and we are yours. Our lives have been decided for us, but we have hope that we can soon decide for ourselves. We love Myanmar and we want to return home. We are refugees, but it was not our choice. We refuse to let the world decide our lives for us.”

Mia took my hand and compared our bracelets. We smiled at each other, and the little children began to giggle yet again at their Bruno Mars.

Reflecting on My Experience

Years have passed since the night I met Champo and received my bracelet from Mia. I still wear it today. It’s a constant reminder not to forget the unheard stories of the Karen refugees and the horrors they have had to suffer.

I still keep in touch with Mia, Champo, and the Mae Ra Moe refugees. Since my visit two summers ago, Mia has graduated from her secondary school. However, she’s had to forego college in order to stay at the camp with her mother and ensure that her family is fed. She’s been out of school for several months now, but she’s constantly reading to make sure her English stays strong. Every time we talk, she makes sure I still have my bracelet.

I look down at my bracelet from the comfort of my bed and I can’t help but marvel at how fortunate I am to have been born within the U.S., into a life far more merciful than Mia’s. I am beyond privileged to be at an institution like Middlebury, where my needs are taken care of and where my worries rarely extend beyond the academic sphere. Mia, Champo, and the refugees in Burma lack the simplest of luxuries that we often take for granted: freedom and choice.

I have looked thoroughly for ways in which I can help the plights of the refugees I met at Mae Ra Moe, and those who have suffered from displacement and civil war. Although I cannot study Karen, as it is not offered at Middlebury, I now work as a refugee tutor for local high schools in Vermont, where I have since met Arab, Palestinian, and even Karen students.

I study Arabic with hopes of traveling to the Middle East and helping the refugees I meet report their own struggles, so that they don’t have to rely wholly on international efforts to achieve positive change. I hope to, someday, help give refugees their own voice and a right to choose who they want to be.

Millions of Karen families have had experiences similar to Champo, and it is criminally unjust to imprison their stories and hope within the few camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. They are refugees, but that is not their choice. Their lives were decided for them.

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I am a freshman at Middlebury College, where I aspire to major in International Studies and Arabic. In the future, I hope to pursue a career in journalism. I have travelled across the world, working with elephants in Burma and singing with elementary choral groups in Argentina. Because of my travels, I hope to someday represent and work with refugees domestically, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. In my spare time, I enjoy playing chess and singing.

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ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

Visiting a Karen Refugee Camp (A Story About the Myanmar Conflict)

I woke up to a cat pawing at my fingers through my mosquito net. The morning air glided gently through the room, poking at my toes and tickling my ears. Outside, I heard dogs trotting around on the wet gravel pavement, and students completing their early morning chores. I grabbed my phone and clicked it on as the cat watched intently. 7:42 am.

To my left, my roommate was jotting notes into a leatherbound journal. I listened intently for a few minutes, as the scratch of his pen mixed with the soft patter of the morning drizzle and the soothing to-and-fro of the outside world. I could hear Mia, one of the local student workers who had probably been awake for several hours now, hanging laundry onto a clothesline that was pulled taut between two huts. I comfortably put my head back onto my pillow and began thinking through the day ahead. Following my example, the cat rested its head on its paws and purred gently.

We were in a small town named Mae Sariang, along the Thailand-Myanmar border. I was on a community service trip, and we were lodged in our organization’s local children’s home. I had first signed on to join Rustic Pathways’ volunteer team to Thailand because I was interested in working with the locals to leave a lasting communal impact.

Our trip itinerary was divided into two weeks. The first week, which we had just completed, involved working with students and their families both in and out of the classroom. Our week culminated in a day-long construction project at the local school, when we put the finishing touches on a community kitchen. Our second week, which was about to begin, had our group splitting up and traveling to different parts of the country to work on other projects—I would be traveling to Phitsanulok Province to work with elephants.

Learning About the Karen-Myanmar Conflict

But before we split up, the final activity on our agenda was a trip to a Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) refugee camp near Myanmar. Several families from in town, including Mia’s, worked at the children’s home, and were often awake at first light. Many of these families identified as Burmese, or ‘Myanmarese’; a few of them identified with these Karen tribes, a people traditionally based in Myanmar itself.

I knew very little of the Karen people when I joined Rustic Pathways as a volunteer. I had never even heard of the Karen tribes, and was mainly interested in teaching English at local elementary schools. Truthfully, I was oblivious to a great part of the Karen struggle, which I was about to learn.

Stretching my limbs, I slowly rose from my mattress and turned to my roommate. “Ready to head out, Zeke?” He stretched and nodded in response. Today, we had a meeting with a local Karen refugee, to prepare us for the trip to a refugee camp the day after. A Karen student, who went by the name James, was scheduled to speak to us about the history of his people. Our meeting was at 8:00 am, so we stood up, grabbed our toothbrushes, and slowly lumbered out to the yard with our cat in tow. Mia waved at us happily, the purple threads of her traditional Karen clothing shaking in the morning mist.

After brushing our teeth, we made our way towards the mess hall—an open-walled hut lined with cafeteria tables. The rest of our group was already sitting around a single table towards the back, eating pancakes and rambutan, a popular breakfast fruit that’s sweet and sour like a grape. We sat down amidst a chorus of “hello” and “Sa wat dee,” a typical Thai greeting. To our left, I could see an unfamiliar man—presumably James—dressed in a dark blue and black tunic.

We ate boisterously for a few minutes, talking excitedly about the day to come, when James stood up and joined our table. He walked over proudly in his oversized shirt and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Sa wat dee, my friends! Thank you for having me.” We smiled and greeted him back in turn.

James pulled a chair over and sat down with an audible sigh of relief. “I hope you are all excited to come to our camp! It is called Mae Ra Moe, and we are very excited to have you. The children are preparing your bracelets right now. We will all have a lot of fun. But before we go, you should know more about the Karen people and the Karen struggle.” We all turned towards him eagerly. “Please don’t stop eating!” he said politely, “I won’t speak a lot. Are you ready?” Our group nodded collectively.

“I am one of the Karen. We have been in civil war with the Burmese government for as long as I can remember.”

The Karen conflict is an ongoing, internal military struggle in Myanmar between the Karen Nationalist Movement and the Burmese Tatmadaw (military). It has often been described as one of the world’s longest running civil wars, and its casualties have had lasting repercussions on the southern/southeastern Asian continent. Millions of Karen people have been internally displaced within Burma itself; millions more, like Mia’s family, have had to take refuge in neighboring countries, most notably in Thailand.

“We have been fighting for our own state for more than fifty years now. We deserve our own state because we are our own people. We live where the Burmese live, but we are Karen.”

Historically, the Karen people—along with other ethnic minorities within the country—had been woefully ignored in Burma, and their sentiments were often disregarded by the larger Burmese ethnic power. The Karen’s affiliations with the British colonialists was a source of tension that led to clashes with the anti-imperialist Burmese nationalist movement.

When World War II began and the Japanese army invaded Burma in 1942, the interethnic clash between the Burmese and the Karen escalated heavily. The Japanese allowed Burma to form the Burmese Independence Army in 1942, giving them great political and military might. The BIA marked the first time in history that the Burmese had their own national army. This development sparked a newfound Burmese nationalism that would guide the movement’s actions for years to come.

In addition, the rise of a central Burmese power also instigated a widespread fear among the ethnic minorities—who comprised approximately 25% of the population—of the country. During and before World War II, the Karen people were often recruited by the British government into the armed forces because of their local knowledge and skills.

When the war reached Burma, the Allies viewed the Karen favorably as a loyal guerilla militia, and the Karen, in turn, benefited from British presence with regards to literacy, education, and religion. Thus, during the war, the Karen remained loyal to the British, for the most part. These conflicting ideologies and affiliations laid a foundation for severe ethnic clash in the future. When World War II ended in 1945, the Burmese Independence Army emerged as one of the state’s strongest parties; on the other hand, many Karen imagined that they would receive their own state because of their war efforts.

When the war finally ended, the nation of Burma was granted its independence on January 4, 1948. The Karen people—who comprised a sizable ethnic minority within Burma’s boundaries, and who never accepted Burmese authority—understandably expected their own nationhood to be recognized, as well.

Rather than receiving sovereignty after World War II however, the Karen people were subsumed into the Burmese state. Not long after, the Karen National Union declared war against the Burmese government on January 31, 1949. Hostilities and warfare have persisted since.

“Because of this war, many of us have had to move into camps, like the one you’ll visit tomorrow. Our people are hungry and jobless, and we bathe in the river in our camp. Our roofs have holes. And we are always watched.”

The Karen people suffer from incredibly inhumane living conditions. Each of the government camps they are forced to live in is filled far beyond capacity, resulting in a shortage of beds, mosquito nets, and medicine. Malnutrition is extremely widespread and the Karen people have to subsist on rice, salt, and fish paste.

They are constantly under surveillance by the Burmese Tatmadaw and are rarely allowed to leave their camps for employment. Even within the camp itself, employment opportunities are rare, and basic education and educational materials are often unavailable. Perhaps the most unjust aspect of their situation is how criminally overlooked their crisis has become.

My lack of knowledge at that time is, unfortunately, reflective of a broader unawareness of the injustice propagated against the Karen peoples—their struggle is often untold and unreported, and it deserves the world’s consideration as a significant breach of the human rights of millions of Karen people.

Visiting Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp

After meeting James and hearing his story, I went to visit Mae Ra Moe, one of the refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. I can recall many stories from my trip to the camp, but one has stood out to me in particular—hopefully, this story can help expose the level of suffering and hardship the Karen people experience on a daily basis.

After hearing James’ story at the children’s home, I felt much more equipped to meet the refugees at Mae Ra Moe that night. Yet, regardless of the knowledge I gained then, I was completely unprepared for the stories I would hear—truly, no level of understanding of any human rights conflict can prepare someone to hear first-hand accounts of the horrors of war.

We stepped into the dimly lit hut and peeled our wet shoes off on the welcome mat. I wadded my drenched socks into balls and stuffed them into my boots before looking around the room. The musty hut smelled faintly of rice, and the hard drops of rain echoed loudly off the wood and fronds that constituted the roof. I could barely see the room’s far end, but could make out several beds—some made and some in disarray—lining each wall. The room was lit only from the candles held by the refugees who greeted us passionately.

“Sa wat dee!” they exclaimed in Thai. The Burmese refugees, both young and old, held my hands, gripped my arms, and patted my shoulders excitedly. The students who were staying with us at the children’s home—Mia and James—laughed fondly to my right, and began to push me into the room. The floor creaked gently as they pulled us warmly into the crowd, and I soon found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor with a dozen refugee boys and girls staring at me curiously. I was quickly surprised by their English, which was very strong.

“Bruno Mars!” the kids laughed, pointing at me, a dark-skinned Filipino who may have looked vaguely like the celebrity singer. I laughed along, undoubtedly burning red in the face.

“Welcome, everyone!” boomed a voice from the dark end of the room. The voices quickly quieted, as if on command. A large Karen man dressed in a loose-fitting suit and tie stepped into the circle of candlelight. The floor creaked loudly behind him. “Thank you for visiting us today. We always love having visitors over.” His voice rang with a strong accent, much like the children’s, but he spoke as if with years of experience. I listened closely, as his words echoed over the heavy rain.

“You made a long trip out to our camp today and I hope it was safe. I know you are all very tired, but before we take you to your rooms, it is important that you know our story.” The man paused, and several students—many of whom looked to be in their late teens—stepped out from the crowd and approached the individual members of the Rustic Pathways team.

Mia came to sit next to me and grabbed my hand warmly. I looked to her as she began tying a knot of gnarled cloth around my wrist. She smiled and showed me her wrist, adorned with the same bracelet. I remembered back to that morning when James said that we would be receiving bracelets. I looked fondly at mine—a band of orange and white thread—and smiled warmly at Mia.

“To you, we are Karen. We are your friends. To the world, and to the Tatmadaw, we are all refugees. We did not have this choice. Our lives have been decided for us. We live in this camp because we needed to leave our homes. Our homes were not safe. Even here, we are not safe. But we did not have this choice. Our lives have been decided for us.” Mia finished tying the bracelet and looked up earnestly at the speaking man.

“My name is Champo. My life was decided for me.” Champo looked around the room and smiled a toothy grin at his audience. I couldn’t help but smile—everyone else in the room did too. “My name means ‘He who is friendly’. I take after my father, but he is not with us. Our lives were decided for us. But I only have mine because he gave his. I only have hope because he had hope.”

He continued, “My father was a farmer in Myanmar. Like everyone, he grew rice. Growing up, I always thought I would grow rice too. It is important! And my mother did our laundry every day and she cooked all our food and did all the cleaning. She was the real worker. Right, mom?” Champo pointed at his mother and erupted in booming laughter, sending the room into a fit of happiness too. Champo’s mother smiled and urged him to go on.

“‘She was the real worker,’ my father always said. He always said that. He worked all day on every day of the week, but he never complained. After school, my father would always walk me home and carry my bag for me while I ran in the mud or played with the dogs. He would always help me with my homework, even though he didn’t remember much from school. His shirt had holes because he used the fabric from it to patch mine.

He took a short, solemn pause before saying, “I miss him a lot. I think it is very natural to miss your father. I knew him for twelve years, but that is not enough. Every day I miss him.” Champo smiled at us again, somberly.

“The day I turned thirteen, my father was pushed off the back of a moving truck. I was with him. We were in a truck on the way to this camp. One of the soldiers in the back of our van pushed him as he gave me his shirt to wear. No explanation. No words. I watched as he fell over the side of the road and down into the trees. He had no seatbelt and he sat on the end of the car. His feet were inches off the ground. They didn’t even bother to find his body. I don’t even remember where he died.”

Champo still smiled, but I watched as a tear fell slowly down his cheek. Mia grabbed my hand warmly, and I saw that she was crying too.

“I miss my father. His life was decided for him. His life ended on the anniversary of the day I came into this world.” Champo stood in silence for a few moments before continuing. “But, we all have hope because of the sacrifices people like my father made. We have exposure, because students and people like you visit us. Maybe you can go back to your countries and tell the world about us. Do not forget us. Do not let my father’s story go unheard. We have given each of you something to remember us by.”

At this moment, Mia held my hand up and smiled widely. Around the room, I watched as refugees placed their candles on the ground and raised their arms proudly in the air. The candlelight glowed across our bodies and the fabric on each of our wrists.

“Those bracelets are taken from our own clothes. Do not forget us. You are our family, and we are yours. Our lives have been decided for us, but we have hope that we can soon decide for ourselves. We love Myanmar and we want to return home. We are refugees, but it was not our choice. We refuse to let the world decide our lives for us.”

Mia took my hand and compared our bracelets. We smiled at each other, and the little children began to giggle yet again at their Bruno Mars.

Reflecting on My Experience

Years have passed since the night I met Champo and received my bracelet from Mia. I still wear it today. It’s a constant reminder not to forget the unheard stories of the Karen refugees and the horrors they have had to suffer.

I still keep in touch with Mia, Champo, and the Mae Ra Moe refugees. Since my visit two summers ago, Mia has graduated from her secondary school. However, she’s had to forego college in order to stay at the camp with her mother and ensure that her family is fed. She’s been out of school for several months now, but she’s constantly reading to make sure her English stays strong. Every time we talk, she makes sure I still have my bracelet.

I look down at my bracelet from the comfort of my bed and I can’t help but marvel at how fortunate I am to have been born within the U.S., into a life far more merciful than Mia’s. I am beyond privileged to be at an institution like Middlebury, where my needs are taken care of and where my worries rarely extend beyond the academic sphere. Mia, Champo, and the refugees in Burma lack the simplest of luxuries that we often take for granted: freedom and choice.

I have looked thoroughly for ways in which I can help the plights of the refugees I met at Mae Ra Moe, and those who have suffered from displacement and civil war. Although I cannot study Karen, as it is not offered at Middlebury, I now work as a refugee tutor for local high schools in Vermont, where I have since met Arab, Palestinian, and even Karen students.

I study Arabic with hopes of traveling to the Middle East and helping the refugees I meet report their own struggles, so that they don’t have to rely wholly on international efforts to achieve positive change. I hope to, someday, help give refugees their own voice and a right to choose who they want to be.

Millions of Karen families have had experiences similar to Champo, and it is criminally unjust to imprison their stories and hope within the few camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. They are refugees, but that is not their choice. Their lives were decided for them.

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