Crossing borders

March 24-30
VOL 124 NO. 11
Crossing borders
By Kelly Rodoski/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
CAZENOVIA — As a young enlisted member of the army in Burma, Stone Saw learned first-hand the consequences of not following the strict orders of the military leadership.

Saw was told by his officer to cross the Thai border and steal. Saw refused, and, fearing reprisal, ran away from the army and crossed into Thailand as a refugee. A friend helped Saw, his wife and young daughter to Bangkok, and last September the young family moved to Syracuse. Saw works at Stickley Co., a furniture manufacturer in Manlius, and he, his wife Emily and 3-year-old daughter Emmy have found a sense of normalcy here in Syracuse, far from the civil war and military dictatorship that have ravaged their homeland.

Saw and his family, members of the Karen ethnic group from Burma, were among about 100 people who came together March 12 at St. James in Cazenovia to educate, or to learn, about the Karen refugees. There are currently about 500 Karen refugees in Central New York, including 200 in Utica, 100 in Ithaca and 50 in the Syracuse area. For the past year, the St. James parish community has been offering support to a Karen family in Syracuse.

The keynote presenter for the event was Dr. Merdin Myat Kyaw, former head of the foreign affairs department for the Karen National Union and secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the Democratic Alliance of Burma.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a country of about 48 million in Southeast Asia, bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Ninety percent of the country is Buddhist, about 5 percent Christian and about 4 percent Muslim. Burma, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, is made up of eight major ethnic groups: Arakan, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan.

Burma was under British rule until 1948 when a new Union of Burma was formed. Independence never came to fruition, though, as the country was almost immediately thrown into ethnic and civil wars. The Burmese Army seized power in 1962 and continues to hold control to this day. The ethnic fighting, along with human rights violations that take place in the country, have caused hundreds of thousands of Burmese people to seek refuge in neighboring countries, and in far away countries like the U.S.

Dr. Kyaw was a university student in 1962. He took to the streets in protest and witnessed the killings of many of his friends and fellow students. After earning his medical degree and working as a surgeon for seven years, Kyaw joined the Karen National Union (KNU), where he served as head of the KNU’s Health and Welfare Department and created a mobile health care system for internally displaced persons. He became a refugee in 1997 and has lived in the U.S. since 2000.

Dr. Kyaw said that Burma used to be considered one of the most prosperous countries in the world. In 1987, the United Nations listed it as one of the least developed.

“The military is definitely not going to return the state power to people willingly, and the authorities’ cancerous corruption and human rights abuses and other bad practices are being passed on to the younger generation who grow up hearing and knowing nothing but the lies and unkept promises of those who are in power,” Dr. Kyaw said. “Only time and a new generation that grows up far away from the military influence will be able to guide the country to a brighter future, and sadly this will take time.”

Dr. Kyaw says that resettlement programs are an investment because they are a humanitarian accomplishment. “It is an investment in the way that these refugees or their children will become peace-loving citizens, and some can assume leadership roles and become a blessing to their adopted countries and hopefully rebuilders of peace, democracy and prosperity of the country they left behind,” he says.

“If one out of 1,000 refugees or their children will one day become involved in remedying the corrupt political system back in their country and the restoration of human rights and good governance to their country of origin, then it will be a worthwhile investment,” Dr. Kyaw says.

In addition to the story shared by Stone Saw, the event included a video on a Thai medical clinic run by Dr. Cynthia Maung, a native Karen, that serves refugees from Burma; dialogue with Dr. Myaw and his wife, Cho Thien; and a Christian song performed by Karen refugees from Utica. The event concluded with the sharing of a meal of traditional Karen and Thai food.

Although refugees who settle in the United States are not facing such corruption and human rights abuses, their lives here can be challenging due to the language barrier, culture shock and lack of education. That’s why help, such as what St. James and other individuals and organizations in the community have offered, has been so vitally important both to the local Karen refugees and Karen refugees abroad.

Claire Winewisser, a parishioner of St. James, is a member of the parish group who signed up to sponsor a Karen family in Syracuse last year. Just before the family arrived, the parish sponsored a “Shower of Love,” in which parish members bought and donated household items and other necessities. Even after the family was settled, the support has continued, Winewisser said, from assistance with shopping trips to coming together for holiday celebrations.

While there are organizations and individuals in Central New York committed to helping refugees from Burma, there still is a great need. For more information on how to help, contact the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program at (315) 474-7428 or the InterReligious Council Refugee Program at (315) 474-1261.

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