Paw Say Ku

Transcript of Paw Say Ku
Interviewee: Paw Say Ku
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: Chicago, IL.
Date: June 17, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Total Time: 1:02:49

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is June 28, 2014 and I am at the North Shore Baptist Church interviewing Paw Say Ku who comes from Burma. Thank you for allowing us to interview you Paw Say Ku. I’d like to start by asking you about your childhood memories from Burma. Would you like to share with us anything you remember about your brother and sisters, your family?

PK: Sure. Actually I was born near the border of Burma and Thailand. But then during …because of the civil war that happened in Burma, our family had to flee from our villages and cross the border. I was grown up in Thailand refugee camp. It has been….I have grown there for almost thirteen or fourteen years. My brother and sister were also born there. We struggle. I remember we live in a camp filled with people of different ethnic minorities from Burma who were also refugees like me, who fled from villages like me. I still have some of my grandparents and some of my aunts in a refugee camp. I remember when I was younger… we had a small school with teachers… because our school…. In the camp there is no electricity or anything like that. So we go to school. We have a few pencils and books. Our school was built with bamboo and tree. And those memories are still with me. They stay around. (unintelligible)It is very ….my childhood is difficult but we survive.


DN:You said you were born in the refugee camp?

PK: No. I said I was born in the village.

DN:I see. What was the name of the village that you were born in? Do you remember?

PK:Minaplo. Yes, it was Minaplo village (?sp). But after Minaplo was take over by the Burmese military, we had to flee. We couldn’t stay there. I remember my parents tell me the story of how we had to stay in a jungle especially….it was in the rainy season….I do not remember a lot of memories especially because I was young… because I guess I was too young to remember. But my family keep telling the story and also at our school in the camp you also get to learn our history and know what happened to us and why we are independent as well. That’s how my memories still stay with me. I am a refugee. And also I am part of the Karen ethnic minority who were in Burma. I do speak Burmese but I am mainly part of the Karen minority group in Burma.

DN: Did your grandparents live in the same village before you left?

PK: Yes.

DN: So your whole family has roots for many years in that one little village before you had to leave?

PK: Yes, it was a very, very long time ago.

DN: And do you remember…or do you know how old you were when you left the village?

PK:I was one or two….very very young.

DN:You were very young so it would be difficult to remember anything. And you said your memories of the travel from your village to the refugee camp are very… loose and you don’t remember too much?

PK: Yes.


DN: In the refugee camp that you were in – that was at the border of Burma and Thailand? Was it in Thailand?

PK: It was in Thailand at the border…close to at the leg of Burma and Thailand.

DN: And was it very large or small? How many people do you think were in the refugee camp?

PK:Probably four million. The camp I was in was called Mae Licamp. There were four million. And also there are other refugee camps in Thailand.I’m not sure…. There are other camps with different refugees, but mostly from Burma though.

DN:Of the refugees in that camp you were in, were the majority of them Karen?

PK:Yes. Karen, Chin, Ca-Chin, Burmese…. all the minorities you can name from Burma.

DN: You said you learned some of the history of your country in the refugee camp?


DN: Can you share a little bit of why the ethnic minorities were fleeing from Burma

PK: Back in the day the ethnic minorities wanted to have their own freedom and stop discrimination. And especially during those times the Burmese military was in control and had done many many bad things, especially to the villagers. Not only to my Karen people but to other ethnic minority peoples in Burma. A little prejudice from the Burmese military as well.

DN: When you were in the refugee camp with your parents, did you also live in one of the bamboo houses?

PK: Yes I did.

DN: Could you describe that a little bit for us.

PK: Our school is very small. We have the bamboo leaf. Our school is built up with the bamboo …construction with bamboo and tree. The top is built up with the leaf on top. As you can see…you can imagine how small the building with bamboo and tree and the leaf on top. Every time I went to school I got dirty because my feet were always on the floor…on the ground, so always kicking up the dust. And when I come home, my mom say, “Go wash! Are you like an animal?” because you always get dirty when you go to school because our school basicallyhad a bare…dirt …


DN: Dirt floor?

PK: Yeah.

DN: Does your home have a dirt floor too?

PK:Yeah, Yeah. On the first floor.

DN: How many of you were living in the home?

PK: Five. About five.

DN: And when you were eating and preparing food, how did that happen?

PK:So every morning and every evening….so there is no electricity and we have to find our own wood to make a fire and to cook rice on top of the fire. Once we are done cooking we have to put the fire away. And that’s how we do it….every time with soup or rice or anything like that. It’s only for the morning…and in afternoon… I mean in the evening for cooking dinner.


DN: So what would breakfast consist of – a bowl of rice?

PK: Yes. Usually rice with meat and soup and vegetables. All of our meals are very similar – even breakfast lunch and dinner. We eat…it’s very consistent.


DN: Did you help your mother prepare that?

PK: Yeah. When I was around eight years old, I was pretty mature. I took care of my brother and my sister. Especially in Thailand, we have to wash our hands. And also especially during the hot season, we have to wait in line – a big line to get water. Each person had to wait in line – to hold their water bottle to get the water– because water was very limited. We had to appreciate the water. And sometimes I had to go up to the hill or also the mountain because the refugee camp there are mountains.We had to get our water from the mountain or sometimes to dig the water from the ground, especially a small river.

DN: Did you do that by yourself or with your brother and sister?

PK: Yeah…and with my parents. And also there is a well. We use the water for cooking and washing clothes and drinking and all that.


DN: Let’s go back to what you would do with your family. Did you play games? Did you tell stories? How did you pass the time besides cooking and going to school and washing clothes and standing in line to get water?

PK: I remember when we were in Thailand; we didn’t really have this storytelling or telling. I mean our mom…my parents would tell… would help me with my homework. Also I would spend time with my brother in the play area before dark. We would play on the ground with other friends and get all dirty. But once it got to be five or six [pm] it was time to go home and do our homework.Sometimes my mom would read us stories before we sleep or stay in bed. Because since we use a candle at night… by eight or nine [pm] we go to sleep. We go to bed very early and we wake up very early and cook and continue our day like that.


DN: You talked about playing some games with your brother. What kind of games would you play – like chase me, or throw a ball?

PK:We have like a…we play a very different game. We play like hide and seek and also running around and catching one another. And we have this ….what do they call it? (Swings arm in a pendulum movement back and forth) We play soccer and also jump rope. Yeah, that was very popular, jump rope. I was able to jump very high but not anymore. (Laughs) And also we pretend to play cooking. When I was younger, my sister and I, we love cooking…because… we light a small fire. We cook rice and some vegetables. We try to pretend we were cooking and (unintelligible)

PK: Because we live very close to the river, in the rainy season when there is a flood, our house would fill with water, the first floor level of the house. Everything would get wet and dirty. And we would see the river because we live very close to the river and we see from the second floor, because my house has two floors. So some pigs were flooded and some people’s house were flooded and some people’s house were damaged because of the tree falling. Because our house is made out of bamboo, so once the rainy season, orthe storm, or when it is raining hard, then everybody’s house were…. Some of the house was damaged. Some of the people houses were flooded. It was very funny.My sister mentioned that we hear the pigs, and chickens and animal like the dog were flooded in the river. It was very funny,


DN: So even life in the refugee camp was very difficult you still have some good memories of sharing with your parents. And it seems to me that you were doing things that people from all over the world do: prepare food with your family; enjoy it, going to school, playing with your siblings and so on.…

PK: Yeah.

DN: That’s great. Now can you tell us a little bit about your journey to the U.S. and to Edgewater. How did that happen? And how old were you when that happened?


PK: So when I came here I was about probably fourteen. I came here six years ago through the U.N. We came here through the United Nations. That’s how we got here. We probably got here… Before we could come to the U. S. we had to apply for the process. It took us about maybe two three years…and that after we pass everything…the training, passed tests, get all the shots before we come here. It take us a few years. And then we came here in 2007.When we came here I did not speak any English at all. And it was very difficult for me as was my family who could not speak, communicate, read, write … We couldn’t do anything at all. We were like beginners. We could not speak…. I mean we could speak a few words but it was very hard to communicate with people.

DN:Do you remember the refugee agency you worked with to come here?

PK: Yes. We came here though was Heartland Alliance.

DN: And do you….? I’m sure the whole process was something that your parents were focused on more than you as a child.But do you remember what the steps might be to share with us? First of all I understand the United Nations declare certain a group of people refugee status. And then after that how do you apply to come to the United States?


PK:We came as refugee status. That’s how we came here.

DN: Through Heartland? So does Heartland go to the camp and identify people or how does it work?

PK: No, No. The U.N. assigns people to different agencies. So if they assign us - some of the refugees were assigned to go to Refugee One, or the Ethiopian Community [Association] or Venture or Pan-African for African people or through Heartland. That’s how different families are distributed. I’m not sure. It could be whether the people on the top find them or they just accept the organization in Chicago, like Heartland. They didn’t go to refugee camp to pick family through the United Nations.All the nations - they work together. They were assigned.

DN: So Heartland picked up your family and then you put on a plane?

PK: No they didn’t pick up our family. Since we were in a camp…. From the camp we rode a bus to Methohl (? SP) and stayed overnight. And then from there we have to go to the Banghok [airport], which is the (unintelligible) city to come here. We have to wait for the plane and then we got on the plane and then we came here. And then that’s how were assigned to Heartland.


DN: So I’d like to go back to how you felt when you left the refugee camp. All these years you are living in the refugee camp. And then you are on the bus, and then you are at this huge airport. Do you remember your feelings about that?


PK: I was very shy and then I was very upset - and somehow heartbreaking but excited at the same time… because my parents – not my parents - grandparents are still in the refugee camp. And then my friends which are left behind. And just the whole memory of getting out from the camp. And getting in the car and seeing the forest. And just…. It was a (unintelligible) memory because it was fourteen years. It is hard to leave a place and go to a new place, but at the same time I was excited to come to the U. S., about the opportunity to come here and have a new life. So I was both excited and sad at the same time.


DN: You got off the plane and then what happened?

PK: Once we got off the plane we had to find the determination. We had to look for people. We didn’t know. So we just followed people who had also got offat Chicago too. They were families from different countries. We were told once we got off the plane to find the agency who would get us to our apartment.

DN: So here you were living in a refugee camp with bamboo walls and bamboo leaves and now in an apartment in Chicago. Was that in the winter or the summer that you arrived?

PK: August.

DN: So the temperature was not so different than Burma?

PK: Yes

DN: And what did you think of this apartment when you got here?


PK: I was very shocked because we came…we didn’t sleep…our sleeping was not simple…. Once we got to the apartment we slept like for a day and a half. We were a little lost. But people came in and they bring us food. It was not what we expected but it was alright.

DN: What was it that you expected?


PK: I don’t know. I was just dreaming. Because in refugee camp we had this hope and dream that we would live like in a suburb. I have never lived in a city before and I was thinking I was going to be placed in a small town. I thought it would be like that. But once I came…in the city… with tall buildings, I was shocked.

DN: It must have been very overwhelming.

PK: Yes

DN: And what food were you able to get the first few days you were living here?

PK: It was chicken and milk and some cereal. But we didn’t know. We hadn’t had anything like that before. So it was very different at first.It took us a little while to get used to the American food.

DN: You must have felt a little lost.


PK: Yes, we were, actually we were, especially our family once we get to the apartment. And even another day and night. We tried to look outside in the U. S. We didn’t see people at all. We thought, “What happened? Where people are?” Because you know in the camp, everybody’s houses are turned off, the lights are off. But here the streets are bright and I’m wondering, “What’s going on here?” I didn’t see nobody. So it’s because I didn’t have time to (unintelligible).


DN: What kinds of things helped to make you feel more settled? I mean you come to this country. You’re in an apartment where you have no expectations about what the way you are living. The food is different. The lights are on at night. You feel sad you miss your friends. You are feeling lost. But little by little you start to feel better about what’s going on.So what kinds of things helped you find better about your life here?

PK: It’s a very interesting question. At first, I just get used to the place. And I think it’s because I guess it’s who I am and **** I feel like becoming part of…and as I start making friends and getting used to this place and as time passes by I start to feel like…. But sometimes I miss this (unintelligible)….

DN: What kinds of help did Heartland give you when you got here? You said they brought you to the apartment and they gave you some food.


PK: They take us to the clinic because we need to get some shots. And also they sent us to school. At first, we didn’t speak any English so I was placed in freshman in high school… and the public school…it was very big. And I was not expecting it. It was a challenge, especially the first year.

DN:What school was it that you went to?

PK:Senn High School.

DN:To Senn High School. And with the students there? Did you feel a stranger?

PK: Yeah.

DN: Could you talk about that a little?


PK: At first I was very…I feel like I was… being made fun of because of my accents and because I couldn’t speak English. I mean, at first I was… from the beginning… because I didn’t speak English, I was in special ESL classes. But of course I had to take other regular classes – like history and other math classes – with other regular English speakers. And it was very challenging for me to communicate and to speak up. Especially during my first year, it was very challenging. I cry so many times in the bathroom. It was…it was very, very hard, yeah.

DN: Did you brother feel the same way or your sister?

PK: No. I think my brother, because he is younger…. go through elementary school and his English is getting… I mean he can speak English very well.

DN: What school did he go to?

PK: Swift School, yeah. But in my case it was different. Since I came here around fourteen or fifteen, so….

DN: You had more connection to Thailand I think.

PK: Yeah, yeah…

DN: But didn’t you say your brother was born here?

PK: No. He was born in the camp.

DN: He was born in the camp. So how old was he when you left?

PK: Five.

DN: Five.So he was five and you were fourteen…and your sister?

PK: My sister was around ten or eleven. Probably eleven.


DN: I think you said North Shore Baptist Church (NSBC) became an important part of your life when you came here. Could you talk about that a little bit?

PK: So when we came here we didn’t know anybody at all. So we know like one or two Karen family who came to the U. S. and then we heard about NSBC… and that there are some Karen family who are at NSBC. I thought that we should go to NSBC because they are a Karen family and we might know them. And we might get to talk and have more people that we can speak in the same language. So that’s how we are very connected to our languages and cultures and our experiences. And once we came to North Shore, then they were very welcoming. And also… it started from there. We came to church every week…mostly every week.

DN: Were you a Baptist when you were at the refugee camp?

PK: I was not. But I was grown up in a Christian family and I was baptized in the NSBC.

DN: You said that NSBC was very welcoming to the Karen people. Could you give some examples of how you felt welcomed by them?


PK:I think they… that somehow they treated the people very well. And I mean from what I have experienced I feel they are very good…the hosts… the place is for everyone.It doesn’t matter where you come from. They appreciate the other places, the languages…. If you speak another different language, it doesn’t matter. Yeah….

DN:Were there other groups in Edgewater that helped you feel welcome?

PK: Umm…

DN:Like anything at Senn High School. Were there any teachers there or…?

PK: Yeah. Some of my teachers were very supportive and I was a very hard working student, especially in my high school student. I was in the top ten students. And I made it through. I got mostly I got straight “A”s. The principal was (unintelligible) most of the time, even though I was not able to speak English at first. But as time passed by, I was working hard and my teacher…. I would ask help from my teacher, and they would help me. And they were really nice and they understand what I am going through even though I didn’t tell my whole story to them.

DN: Were there any families in the neighborhood, other than the Karen families who you were living with, that made you feel welcome, or that would reach out to you in any way, even smile when you were walking down the street, or help in any way?


PK: My aunt. We lived in the same building with my aunt. So it was not only our family. So we have cousins to talk to. And it was (unintelligible).

DN: When you were going to high school or Northeastern, have you made any friends outside of the Karen community?

PK: Yeah. I make a few friends. There’s some Spanish….I don’t really make too much friends…a few.

DN: And do they live in the community?

PK:No. They live in a different community. Most of my friends… Some of my friends from high school move, but some of them are still in Chicago in a different community.

DN: I’d like to go back to your Senn High School experience. I know it’s a little sad because you said you were picked on and made fun of, but you did make friends there at the high school. Were they all Burmese or were some of the friends you made from…?


PK: No. They were from other ESL students…. they were immigrant. Some of them were refugee too who were… similarly to my (unintelligible) ….similar to my experiences, so I feel that’s how…. And they are struggling with them as I did. So I feel that I was not alone. And that’s how I made friends, especially with ESL students. Yes.

DN: After Senn, you are going to Northeastern I understand, and doing very well at Northeastern. What hopes do you have for the future – for your career – for your education and your career? What direction do you see your life going in?


PK:Just to study. And get my degree in government. I’m hoping to go to …probably to get a Masters degree in probably Administration or Public Policy, related to government. I would like to work and serve people, just to help people in any way I could… since I have such a struggle. And I feel that whenever I help people,it makes me feel happy. That’s how I like to continue to help people with anything I can do. And I’d like to go through social factor in government or in policy administration or…yeah.

DN: Pastor Carol tells me that you are helping around the church too. Can you describe some of the things you’re doing?


PK: So I’m the … I do help most of the time interpret with families who need help with getting appointments or hospital or social service or food stamp office or anything related to government or other organizations. That’s outside of the church for the refugee families. And in church I practice singing songs with the youth, getting it together mostly every Saturday for the Sunday worship. I also get involved tutoring the youth. Sometimes I sing, but sometimes I do a lot of many different things all over the places in the church and if anyone needs help I try to help them and it’s the best.

DN: With all the different activities you’ve described from translating to singing to filling out forms or whatever, what is there you like the best?


PK:I think that when I help other people who really need help, especially some of the parents… some of the Karen families that didn’t speak English and they are in need of help translating into English, for food stamps or fill out the forms, with the hospital….with them I feel their frustration… and I’m excited… and the smile on their face…. I just feel happy that I am able to help because I know how it feel when you need help and there are people to talk to and just to help you out …. You know, just a little thing … it makes a difference.

DN: We talked a little bit about how your parents are here and grew up most of their lives in Burma and how they don’t speak English too well. You’re the one that speaks English the best, wouldn’t you say….?

PK: Yes.

DN: …and how you’ve helped elderly people at the church, Burmese people at the church. Is the role…is it any different here than if you were in your little village in Burma? The parents, and grandparents, and you all share the same language. Here, you’re in a particular place that’s different because you are the one that is communicating knowledge about this country and the city that you’re living in and the people that are older than you. And that’s a very different role than if you were in Burma.


DN: Could you talk a little bit about that – about what happens when the elderly people don’t speak the same language and the younger people have to help them?


PK:It’s very challenging for adults because since they were the ones who took care of us and helping us and leading us and helping us in any way they could toward our future in any way they could.They work hard to support their family, or other family. They do the same thing. Even though they don’t speak English but they work very very hard at a hard job just to pay their rent and put food on the table. I feel they love their family so much. And when they sit(?) on their children, especially the younger ones now have to do the translation and just step out andhelp out , if I put my shoe in my parents’ shoe….I think, sometimes they feel that …. They [the parents] feel very sad because they didn’t get the chance to have the time to learn and also go through the same process as we did. Because as younger people we have the chance to go to school and we didn’t have to worry about working while we attend high school or elementary school or college. But it was a very different experience for the parent who watched their kids doing paper work or (unintelligible)… very difficult.


DN: In traditional Asian cultures, there’s a great deal of respect for older people, and older people are to be shown that respect at all times. In the United States there is a little different feeling about it.


DN: Does that come into clash? Do you see any clash happening with Burmese people who have grown up here rather than in Burma that have spent so much time in the United States. Does that influence them in their relationships with their parents?

PK: Yes, they do.

DN: Could you talk about that a little?


PK: So back in Thailand refugee [camp] I would say many, many …most of the kids and younger ones…. Especially in Asia, we respected elders and teachers and anyone who is older – anyone who just part of the culture. That’s how we grew up, not talking back and just do what is said and listeningto what…and even to punish us to show love. We would accept and we are not allowed to talk back to teachers or to elders. But since I been talking to children who grew up in…. some of the children who grew up in the United States or in Chicago, who…I think is all depends on the environment in which they grew up and which they were disciplined. It all influence a child. Because if children are being yelled or being a minority….they know children who grew up here. They know how the culture work. They talk. They speak out their opinion. They are not afraid anymore. Back in Thailand we were afraid to speak our opinion, to express our feeling and all that. They were not as free as much here where they…. Most of them know the law. They have the right.

So it is hard for the parents to discipline them the way in the camp. So because the parents need to understand the culture here and how the law work and everything and how it can affect the children. Parents need to teach them a certain way or in a way that Americans teach their children. I think that has influenced the kids. It’s very hard for the parents to discipline their kids because now they hold back their parents because their parents do not speak English. And they use the language to manipulate, or have the power to….


DN: You were talking about the generational gap that didn’t exist in Burma. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing or both? How do you see that influencing the dynamics of the family and what could be done about it?

PK:What do you mean “generation gap”?

DN:Well the fact that many of the children here don’t give the respect to their parents. They tell them, “You can’t do this because it‘s against the law,” and how that makes the parents feel ad what that does to the relation of the family?

PK: First of all in the camp, it was very different. The discipline was very strict. We have to respect our parents, our teachers, our elders, and people that was older than me. If I see someone who is older than me, I have to call them, “Elder.” We were not even supposed to call their name. Even our teachers. We were not supposed to call their names. Call them “Teacher” to show respect. And whenever we see an Elder sitting in front of us, we don’t go straight. We have to bow down. And then we have to bow our heads and we have to go around them like that. (Making a circular, sideways motion on the table)We have to show respect. It’s part of the culture. And how we learn to respect the Elders and people who are older and above me.


And when I came to the U.S.,I see things have changed especially the refugee family and other people who came from the refugee camp to the U. S. It’s not that unusual. It’s very common now because the parents of the children came here at different age…a different age especially for the kids who went to school and learned about the culture and the history, different things, and know about the history and the law and their rights and all those things at school. And their friends. And see how they talk to their teacher and now express their feelings and their opinions and talk back to their teachers. Those things seem to be very normal here. But back in the camp it was very different. We were not able to talk back to our teacher or speak in a way to seem to be speaking back to a teacher. It’s just not happening there.

But here, I think that some of the children, because of the language barrier that their parents have to face, they grew up here and they see the culture and are trying… They see the culture here… but still forgetting the fact that we are our parents’ children and to use our power because we speak English and we need to help our parents. Maybe to go to the hospital or to help in any way that we could, because they do not speak English. And for the children who speak English…for some of the children in this place who are still respecting of their family and they all influence the children who react or how they act with their friends, or their families, or with adults. It’s all children or young adults or anybody I think. However, from what I’ve seen, children who speak English whose parents don’t speak English, they use their language to…sometimes they’re in power, to manipulate their parents because they know better. They will use the phrase, “You don’t know.” And they will go through. So now it is getting harder and harder for the refugee family who don’t speak English to communicate with their children. Their teacher. Just to have a conversation with their children is very… it’s becoming distant. The family and their children don’t have their relationship at all because everybody know is generational and it’s getting harder and harder for the parents to relate to that.


DN: What role do you see the church playing in that? Because I’ve seen at Pastor Roger’s services young adults and children. So do you think that could have an impact on the relationships here?

PK: Yes, a little bit. Because I see every Saturday we practice singing wand the youth and young people come and also we play roles in the Worship. Once a month we lead the Worship so the children are not at home or doing other things. The children are at church and can be part of the family. Also every Friday youth are meeting at church here and they come together and talk and have conversation and so they belong to a place where they can share what they worry. They are part of the family. And I think instead of going out somewhere else they are in a safe place and also there is Sunday School as well and the Karen people go to the Karen worship,


DN: I’d like to talk about ethnic food.Do you still enjoy Burmese food? Is that your primary food?

PK: Karen food.

DN: Karen food. I’m sorry. I stand corrected. Is that what you usually eat at home?

PK: Yes. For the first three or four years, up to now, we have been eating our own food. It’s rice, meat and fish and soup, but the ingredient is a little bit different from the original. It is mostly rice.

DN: How would you describe the cooking? Is it similar to Chinese or Thai or less spicy, more spicy?

PK: More spicy. Similar to Thai food. All these food are very common.

DN: Years ago I was talking to some Hmong people from Cambodia and they feltthat it was not a good thing to ever eat a dead animal. It is better to kill the animal and have the chicken or have the fish fresh the same way. Is that part of Karen culture?


PK: I don’t believe. There are some who might. Back in Thailand we would kill the chicken and eat right away. But here it is a different solution and it is a different environment.And it’s rare to have a live chicken or anything alive and eat it. Because you know the time and other issues too. So we eat everything.

DN: And I know that in Asian cultures, what you eat is considered medicine. You should eat the right food for your body.That there’s the idea of hot and cold and which herbs to use. Is that true for Karen?

PK: Yeah. We mostly…yeah. Sometimes my parents or my grandparents…. Back in Thailand we would use that herbs and a tree, a root…something…nature medicine…for the cold, ginger or something because back in Thailand we have nature medicine and stuff.

DN:Where would you go now in Edgewater to buy that kind of stuff?


PK:I haven’t been sick, really, really sick. Thankfully I didn’t get sick at all for the past few years. But sometime we would go to an Asian market, or a Thai market, to get medicine from where I live.

DN: I also notice when I was at the Karen worship some of the beautiful fabrics. Is that something that women are still making here or does it come from…?

PK:Some are still making it, but not everybody because you need all the (unintelligible). There are still families who do that in the U. S. and other states as well.


DN: I wanted to ask you how you feel about your identity now. Do you feel at home in the United States now that you’ve been here awhile? Or do you feel like you still have one foot in Burma or in Thailand? If someone asked you if you feel like an American or you feel like you’re Burmese, how would you respond?


PK:I don’t feel American at all because of where I grew up for such a long period of time. I came here six years ago. I feel part of the Karen people from Burma. I do feel very strong because of the experience I have go through. I just cannot think…throw that away. It is always with me. Sometimes I see in the news that what happen to my Karen people begging their relation because there are still problems that the Karen people, the minority people, have to face in Burma. They are still very active; me, I’m still very active. When you ask me I would say that I’m Karen from Burma, from ethnic Burma. But maybe in the future my children, they will feel they are American. But not right now. I don’t have the… I cannot say I’m American yet because I don’t feel that I’m American yet. Even though I’m becoming an American citizen. Because I have an accent and I speak my language. So…

DN: Because your heart is still with your people.

PK: Yeah.

(38: 44)

DN: We talked about what your future plans and goals might be in public policy administration. Do you see yourself as an advocate for the Karen people doing that specifically? Or do you just see yourself working with people from all over?

KP: Once I have my education and also a little more experience in the real world, then I would love to be an advocate for not only the Karen people, but also other people who have faced problems, or who have to struggle with their lives. I love helping people, not only my Karen people but I have seen people from other country who have to face similar issue that relate to so….I love to help, not justthe Karen people but other people as well.


DN: What do you see the issues as being important that refugees have to face that are different than someone who was born here?

PK:For the refugee, mostly we came from a very…we have been through a struggle. Refugee people did not have the choice to stay in their village or their home town. We were forced to leave. If we didn’t….we had no choice to decide. If you don’t want to die, you have to leave. If you want to die, you can stay. So we didn’t have a choice. So I think that refugee people are different from immigrants. Immigrant people have the opportunity. It’s more about their option of finding a job, a good job, their safety and they are considered…they are a citizen of somewhere or some place.


But refugees…when I was in Thailand I was not considered Thai or a citizen or a Burmese citizen. I was nothing. I was nothing. And the same with other people who are born in Thailand even in the camp. Even though they are born in camp, they are not Thai citizens. They have no identity. So we were considered having no citizenship at all. So it was very different for the refugee life than the people who were born here. People who were born in the U.S. …once they are born here, there is the greatest opportunity. They have been …. They receive American citizenship right away. It’s granted once they are born here. It’s very different for a refugee. Somehow it’s a war…in a war….it’s a struggle.


DN: What do you see the particular needs of refugees and immigrants being that you can help address?

PK:The refugee…language barrier is the first one. And also the culture here is another major one. Most of the refugee and immigrant… At first they… the refugee have to face the shock. Like in my case, I was grown up in the camp. And it was a big shock to come to the big city and learn the language and the culture and everything. But moreover, I think that understand the culture and also how to protect yourself from the danger and the violence and especially the children get involved in violence and stuff like that.

And for the parents, I think they have to face a struggle to find a job because of their lack of education and knowledge and as well their language problems, it’s very difficult for them to find a job and to work. So without a job it’s very hard for a family to live comfortably, at least to pay the rent and have food to put on the table and have clothes. So those are the things…. I think it’s very difficult for a refugee to face. And still we have been here six or five six years; there are people who have to face the problem like getting food and a job and raising their family. And also I would like to say that education is very difficult for parents to assist their children with their future. And if the student is not being corrected or very active, it’s very hard to succeed. But if students are working hard and also active and corrective in the community and in school, the parent would be at ease and they would not have to worry as much as other parents would do. Yeah.


DN: Do you think it’s important that Karen people still communicate their heritage to their grandchildren and their great grandchildren?

PK: I think it’s very, very important because if we lose our language, then who do we become? Our language, our culture and our history are very important. Because once we lose that, then even if we say that we are Karen and don’t know our culture and our history, then we will be lost by the next generation. There will be no more Karen if nobody speak Karen, if nobody know about the Karen people, if there is no language, if they lost their culture, their language, their history, they will lose… Their generation will become like all the other people. There will be no more Karen. It is very important that we keep our culture. We should respect the other cultures, the American culture. Everybody should keep their own culture, their own identity. Because it is our past and part of us. Our past tells us who we are and what we are today…our Karen history…I think we need to keep that especially in the future. Because children who are born here, it is very difficult for them to speak their own language because they speak English at school and everywhere.


DN: So you think that it’s important that Karen people don’t assimilate into American culture. They can be Americans, but they need to keep their Karen identity. They need to preserve their heritage. They need to understand their history. They need to speak Karen. Because that’s a way to keep their heritage alive.

KP: I think it can be both as long as they understand. They can identify as Americans, but they can still be Karen, but American – Karen or Karen- Americanbut since some of them grew up in the U.S. it’s impossible to deny America because if you are born in America you are American. But understanding in your blood, or in your history and your past, or in your family relation, you are Karen. If you don’t keep up with that, then it’s going to be lost.


DN: I wanted to go back to when you said you felt like a stranger when you first came? Do you feel like a stranger now?

PK: No. Because I think I -one – it’s language as well as people -how you are being treated based on all levels,your appearance and who you are because somebody might say nobody’s racist. But I feel that sometimes people would treat you if only because of who are, or maybe your class or your gender, or your race or your language, all those things. But I don’t feel treated like that anymore because I’m proud of who I am and even though what I have gone through in my past experience and everything, I feel I keep my identity. I’m not scared. I’m not scared to say who I am anymore.

DN:You talk about made fun of or being picked on because of your gender, your race, and those are issues of social justice. And those issues of social justice exist in the United States regardless if you are an immigrant or a refugee. But are there special issues of social justice for refugees?


PK: That’s a good question. I have to think. There may be some, but it’s because we are new to the country. And so far we are getting assistance from the government and I think that is good. But there are students who might be bullied because they are being called “refugee.” They came here because they are refugee and some of them, they couldn’t speak English and end up being bullied.And also other issues for refugee people because we are…. especially some of the Karen and some of the other refugees. We are very quiet people and we like peace and we don’t like to fight. So mostly if some of the people who speak English fluently in a job…We would do anything because we like peace. Because sometimes we might be manipulated by those in power…and some of them might be treated unfairly by other people because of the language barrier. And some of them might be cheated by the system because we don’t know the rule and the law. And if we say we know, sometimes if we sign something, and if we cannot read the whole thing we are signing, so how are we going to be knowing what we are signing? Sometimes I think refugee people have to face many, many injustice and some of them because of the lack of education and knowledge and understanding, I think there are a lot of issues…that I’m sure there will be more to be discovered, but for now…


DN: Is there anything else you would like to share with us because this is your story?

PK: I think that I’m so lucky that I made it here. Because before I didn’t have any dreams. I was in a camp. Because our life was like… We just finish day by day. I didn’t dream like I do now, because of the opportunity to go to school and study and also educate myself and trying to help other people now and in the future. I think my perspective and also my knowledge has grown because of that. And I’m excited just to keep doing what I am doing. One day I would love to travel back in Burma or Thailand or other country to help people who are going through the same struggle…. I think it is important to not forget where we came from as a refugee because I think if we are afraid to tell who we are and where we came from, then our past… I’m not afraid to say that anymore. Yeah. Thank you

DN: Thank you very much.

** Part 2 **

Interviewee: Paw Ku
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: North Shore Baptist Church
Date: August 9, 2015
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Total time: 10 minutes 39 seconds

DN: Today is August 9 and I’m at the North Shore Baptist Church with Paw Ku again interviewing her about the social justice issues that her people [Karen] face. Paw, what are the most important ones and how do you think we can deal with them?

PK: As a former refugee, there are many many issues and concerns that refugees and immigrants have to face. It’s discrimination and the way people will be treated because of where we came from and from lack of education in English. A lot of people are struggling just to survive day to day life. Some people are trying to do as much as they can just for their family. Most of the children are at the lowest level because of their lack of education that they had not gotten before [in the refugee camps]. Once they get here, they are trying to work and trying to support their family. Sometimes some of the people on top or just in general…..

They don’t speak the language. If they are being treated unfairly or if they are being treated meanly, they won’t be able to speak out because they are afraid to speak out.


Then for immigrants, if they don’t have many people workers support and if they are mistreated or they are being assaulted or anything like that, they wouldn’t be able to say or to speak out what they have faced because they are afraid they might be deported.


When I went to Mexico and the Texas border with the American Baptist Peace group The experience of learning about immigration at the border many of the immigrants from Mexico or other countries like San Salvador….. There are different people who come to this country not only for a job but they are facing Civil War or they are facing violence at home and their lives are in danger. That’s why people came here to seek safety and freedom and peace. Sometimes when they came here they have hope for their future. But most of the time, they have lost hope because they are just trying to survive. Most of the people here do not understand refugee life and the trauma and the experiences do they have to cross. Mexicans and other South Americans have to cross the border and that is dangerous. If you would really understand, if you would hear their personal experiences…they didn’t come here solely for a job.


Some people came here to be united with their family. Some people are being threatened by drug lords or drug cartels or domestic violence at home. They came here to see peace and freedom and all those things. Sometimes we do not think outside the box. We think people come here to…..

DN: get a hand out?

PK: Yes a handout, but really people came here for more than that reason.


DN: You are coming from a refugee camp that you were how old when you left?

PK: Fourteen.

DN: What kind of educational opportunities are there in the refugee camp to learn skills or to learn English?

PK: Very basic. Actually in a refugee camp there are not that many resources ….tools or trades that we can get because we are in a refugee camp. We are in a cage, like chickens in a cage, where we cannot go outside of the camp, where we cannot travel. We do not have so much freedom because we are refugees. We are not even recognized. Some people who were born in the camp, they are not even citizens of Thailand or citizens of Burma. We are nobody, you know. Thankfully we have the basic education, learning how to read and write our own languages, learn English skills. But we are not able to use that education to get a better future because it’s so basic.


DN: What kind of discrimination have you felt since you’ve come here? Or if not personally what are issues that refugees face when they come to the United States?

PK: When they come to the United States, I think they feel the trauma the people have experienced….that they have experienced in the war. When they come here they have a different experience because they are not able to adapt to this culture [American] ­ the rules and laws. The children are able to learn the language faster than the adults so many families are facing problems within their own family. Then they are trying to survive and pay rent, electric and other basic things. Most of the refugees do not have the experience of how to deal with these basic things when they come here. They have to face another challenge, not only the language but the culture and the people. And they need to learn a whole new life. So many are struggling to just be able to survive.


DN: Are there some problems that women face particularly in dealing with this culture?

PK: Well for a woman there are not that many opportunities. Many men and women come here who do not have an education. Usually men have to work to support the household and women have to support their families with housework and look after their children. Some are able to work; some are not because of their family issues. Some of them want to learn the language but it’s too late.

DN: I would think it would be hard to learn the language if you are home cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children and don’t have the opportunity to go to school.

PK: Um hum.


DN: For The male breadwinner, it could be difficult because if he is working, what time does he have to take classes?

PK: Um hum. Never. (Shaking her head)


DN: Are there are other issues from this workshop you were just at that you talked about?

PK: We talked about how you shouldn’t be strangers to your neighbor. That was the main thing. We shouldn’t be strangers to our neighbors and to people we haven’t met - people who might be speaking different languages, people of a different culture or background, of a different age or race. We shouldn’t be strangers to them. We are all people. We are all humans. We should be treating each other with human dignity. We shouldn’t be separating ourselves because once we separate ourselves… If we say, “I am Asian. You are white," then how do we get to know another person’s story if that border prevents us from crossing it to another level? Then we wouldn’t be able to know the other person’s experiences, what they have to go through? How can we create a neighborhood or society where everybody lives in unity no matter what color they are, no matter what age they are, no matter where they come from? So I think it’s very important to be very open-minded and to hear and listen to the other person’s story and try to learn. That way you won’t be all by yourself.


We come here and we live. What is the purpose of living in this society? What is the purpose of living our life? Are we just here on Earth to work and ignore other people because we are good and everything is fine? No. Everything is not fine. We need to hear the other human being as a human being no matter what religion you are, no matter what color, no matter what cultures. You need to open up and cross the border to whatever prevents us from learning about the other person, from whatever prevents us from getting to know deep into why people come to the U.S, to why people come here. People come here just for jobs? That’s not true. People come here for different reasons.

DN: Thank you. I’m going to stop the interview because I think you’ve covered a lot of territory and given people a lot to think about. Thank you.