Friday, February 5, 2010

Deportations to Burma; Connections Half Way Across the World

Maia over at the Jizo Chronicles posted the following article about Thai government efforts to deport Karen refugees back to Burma. This is just the latest for the Karen, an ethnic minority group that has been long been persecuted in their native Burma. Their story, as well as the stories of other ethnic minorities of Burma, tend to get lost in all the general coverage about the Burmese dictatorship's crackdown on Buddhist monks, as well as the nearly two decades long house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Karen communities, for example, were hard hit during a cyclone that hit in spring 2008. That cyclone killed over 200,000 overall, and left over 1 million people homeless. And the Burmese dictatorship's efforts to keep out international aid was a horror for all those involved, but especially for ethnic minority groups already living under layers of oppression and threats to their lives few of us living in countries like the U.S. have any concept of.

I have a deeply personal connection to the Karen. Over the past three years, the majority of my English as a Second Language students have been Karen. I have had the privilege of learning about their lives, attending their New Years' celebrations, meeting their families, and making fumbling efforts at learning their language. A group of women in my classroom have taken to feeding me nearly everyday, as I have written about on this blog in the past. And for various reasons, I have found myself more touched, more connected, and more drawn to these people and their lives, personal stories, and history than any other group I have worked with over the years. I can think of students from countries all over the world that have been amazing members of my classroom, and who have entered my life and become teachers to me, as I have been a teacher for them.

But for some reason, my connection with the Karen has gone beyond individuals, even as it has been individuals who have made that connection possible. Kind of an interesting paradox. You only truly learn about any group through individuals of that group.

I still remember the day we had a discussion about religion in class. Although a mixed group in terms of spiritual beliefs, including indigenous traditions, Buddhists, and Christians, the vast majority of my Karen students have been Baptists (most 3rd to 5th generation of the original converts). Their perceptions, as I was to come to find out, were that white Americans were mostly Christian, so my "coming out" as a practicing Buddhist was something of a surprise to them. It might have been especially a surprise given that the majority of my co-workers are Christian, including have a dozen School Sisters of Notre Dame who speak freely about their faith.

We had an interesting discussion that day, one which reminded me religion and spirituality differences need not be the roadblocks we often make them into to. In fact, one of the women who seemed to be most surprised by my Buddhist practice later looked me straight in the eyes and told me, when I said I meditate almost everyday, "You meditate everyday. Everyday! Ok?" She'd be a good Zen teacher, don't you think?

I wish there were an easy solution for the remaining Karen refugees in Thailand, but I don't think there is. And the Thai government, over the past decade, has made it increasingly clear that their goals are in favor of ending refugee camps, and sending people on their way. Moving beyond refugee camps is probably something most people, in principle, can agree on. But what that looks like, and what it means for those who live in them currently, is a completely different issue.

Forced repatriation to countries where ethnic cleansing and terrorist campaigns are going on certainly isn't the answer, and this is unfortunately what the Thai government has started to do, both with the Karen and Hmong refugees in camps on the other side of Thailand.

May enough hearts and minds shift to bring about a compassionate solution for all.

*The photo above is from the birthday party my class gave me last year. The Karen woman in the photo, Mi Mi, is a long standing student of mine. She's short, sweet, and sometimes really giggly. She was a medical lab technician in her refugee camp in Thailand, and someday hopes to get back into the health field here in Minnesota.

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