Far from an embattled home
Ethnic Karen refugees watch their violence-filled homeland in Myanmar from a distance
The large, red-brick church with white-rimmed Gothic windows and bell tower topped with a simple cross looms above busy Payne Avenue in St. Paul, Minn.
As traffic whizzes by, few passersby may notice that East Immanuel, a Norwegian Lutheran church from 1888, is also home to a second congregation of mostly first-generation immigrants from the opposite side of the world.
Several hundred ethnic Karen with roots in Southeast Asia’s Myanmar (also called Burma) attend services here Sunday afternoons at Shiloh Karen Baptist Church. During the January service I attended, parishioners enthusiastically sang mostly in the Karen language, led by women dressed in colorful, fringed, traditional Karen dresses, accompanied in contrast by electric guitar, drums, and piano.
The guest preacher periodically stopped to translate his sermon into English. Young Sunday school children fidgeted as they trooped to the front of the church to sing. Teens congregated in the left-side pews, many still wearing winter beanies because of subzero outdoor temperatures, occasionally glancing at cell phones, but mostly focused on speakers and singing.
St. Paul is home to the largest population of Karen refugees in the United States—about 20,000. Many resettled here from Thai refugee camps where they’d escaped fighting between Karen armed troops and the Myanmar army, which has been ongoing for more than 70 years. After a peace agreement in 2015, fighting lessened until a year ago when a military coup reignited tensions.
Feb. 1 marks one year since the coup in which the military deposed Myanmar’s elected civilian government and gave power to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Harsh crackdowns on civilian and ethnic protests followed, leading to the army and police killing more than 1,400 people, arresting more than 11,000, and displacing tens of thousands of civilians.
Today, the army continues to commit daily atrocities, create communication disruptions, control trade, and deepen ties with authoritarian powers. Many refugees in St. Paul, who have experienced the cruelty of the Myanmar military firsthand, struggle with how to help those who remain in their homeland while continuing to assimilate to their new home here.
EH TA MOO, 29, originally from Karen state in southeastern Myanmar, knows what it’s like to fear the military in Myanmar. He has lived in America for 10 years, the last six here in St. Paul. It’s a stark difference from the primitive Thai refugee camp he lived in for 12 years after he and his aunt fled the fighting in Karen.
With kind brown eyes and soft-spoken voice, Moo shares his story, periodically glancing away to gather his thoughts. Occasionally he pauses, searching for the right English word.
The year was 1999. The Burmese military, comprised of the majority Bamar ethnic group giving the country its original name, had burned down his village, Jaelo, for a second time. Although villagers rebuilt again, they knew soldiers would return and force villagers to join the army, often killing adults who refused and kidnapping children. Moo’s family wanted the 7-year-old to leave the country and get an education—all the village’s teachers had already run away.
Civil war between Myanmar armed forces—the Tatmadaw—and other ethnic groups throughout the country has been raging since Myanmar gained independence from British rule in 1948. The 2008 constitution divided Myanmar, with its more than 135 ethnic groups, into seven ethnic states, including Karen (also called Kayin).
The states want self-determination, but the Tatmadaw battles for Burmesization, insisting ethnic groups embrace a Burmese identity, stop demanding autonomy, and submit to military control. This has been at the root of much of the ongoing strife.
Moo and his aunt escaped with nothing but a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice. They walked two full days. A teenage boy noticed Moo’s exhaustion, carried him for an hour, and helped him climb into an open truck packed with people, produce, and animals for another day of travel into Thailand. (That Myanmar teen now pastors a church in North Carolina.)
Moo remembers during the journey he feared the Tatmadaw would snatch him, enlisting him to carry weapons or using him for sex trafficking. He said before he left his village, Burmese soldiers tortured his close friend, gouging out his eye. Another friend lost his legs stepping on a land mine. His own baby brother died when the military arrested his mom and forced her to direct them through the overgrown jungle for weeks as she carried her weakened, dying infant.
Four years later, Moo’s family escaped Myanmar to join him in the Thai camp, where they lived in bamboo huts and ate mostly rice and beans. Moo attended the camp’s refugee school with limited curriculum. He contracted malaria multiple times, which led to kidney failure. Today he undergoes three hours of dialysis three times a week as he awaits a new kidney. He tells me he feels good. I find out later from others, as is typical for the Karen, he never complains.
He and his family finally emigrated to the United States in 2011, after the United Nations provided applications. Though Moo desperately wanted to come to America, the move scared him: “In the refugee camp, we had no contact with the outside world—no newspapers, no television. We heard people in the West might use us for animal feed.” And he feared he would never see relatives and friends again.
Although they trusted God, arriving in the U.S. distressed Moo and his family because of the enormous culture shock: “When we saw New York City, we were overwhelmed and sure we’d made a mistake and cried and cried. And prayed a lot.”
AFTER MOO LEFT HIS HOMELAND, fighting continued. Then, in 2015, Myanmar citizens grew hopeful when they elected the first civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. But the military retained control of three key government ministries—Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense—and maintained veto power in the parliament. Violence against ethnic groups escalated, especially against the minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingya since 1982, calling them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Beginning in 2016, after radical Rohingya attacked police posts, Buddhist majority mobs along with the military started openly killing and torturing Rohingya civilians and raping women and girls. More than 700,000 Rohingya, half of them children, fled the country, and UN investigators condemned Myanmar for mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent.”
To the consternation of the United States, Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government did not condemn the genocide. Professor Tun Myint, political science chair at Minnesota’s Carlton College, notes that for decades Western governments and media had not condemned previous military genocides against other ethnic groups, including the Karen.
Even after the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 2020, ethnic groups remained skeptical, says Myint. That’s because Suu Kyi, despite being the face of the new democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, did not appear to support ethnic minorities. Her late father was a Myanmar general considered a hero of Myanmar independence, and she seemed conciliatory toward the military. When Suu Kyi, hailed internationally as a human rights defender, didn’t protect the Rohingya, failed to advance civil liberties, and prosecuted journalists and activists under colonial-era laws, ethnic hopes of a democratic awakening waned.
Ironically, despite Suu Kyi’s prior concessions to the army, the military sentenced her in December to two years in prison for charges of incitement and violating pandemic rules. Other charges could lead to life in prison.
During the year since the coup, cell service and internet are spotty, especially as the military periodically shuts down both and has increased spying and surveillance. Yet, thanks to the still unreliable internet, Moo says, more people, including the majority Burmese, are able to see through some of the military propaganda. Now eyewitnesses to events post their own videos and updates.
Recently, Moo has started talking daily with relatives in Karen and nearby Karenni state with access to Thai or sometimes Myanmar cell service. On Dec. 23-24, the Tatmadaw led three airstrikes in Karen’s Lay Kay Kaw area, displacing tens of thousands more villagers. Many have fled into jungles or Karenni, which the military also started bombing, and into Thailand. Moo’s relatives tell him Thailand has started turning refugees away. They say they are afraid to go anywhere because of nightly bombing and mortar attacks.
Myint says the military is primarily targeting members of the ousted democratic parliament who have been hiding in this region among other civilians. As fighting intensifies, Moo encourages loved ones in Karen to be strong in Christ, including his grandpa who stayed to pastor the Karen. All the Karen I spoke with are frustrated they can’t do more personally to help those back home.
MOO’S FAMILY MEMBERS became Christians in Myanmar, raised in the faith for generations. Adoniram Judson, a Baptist missionary who served in Myanmar (a mostly Buddhist country) for almost 40 years, brought the gospel to the Karen in 1827. Moo’s great-great-grandpa learned about Jesus from Judson. Moo remembers his father telling him in the refugee camp that life on earth is temporary and being rich or poor didn’t matter. What did was being faithful and trusting Jesus.
Today, nearly 20 percent of Karen in Myanmar are Christian. More than 90 percent of the almost quarter of a million Karen in the United States profess to be Christians, most of whom are in the Karen Baptist Church. The Twin Cities have 12 active Karen churches. Each summer, more than 130 Karen Baptist churches throughout the United States sponsor a national youth Bible camp.
From New York, Moo and his family moved to San Diego for six months where he went to high school and endured bullying. Moo defended himself when hit but was afraid he might be deported, so he and his siblings mostly tried to stay invisible and work hard in school. His parents learned housekeeping and factory skills.
A contact of Moo’s helped his parents find work cutting up chickens in a poultry factory in Columbia, S.C. The owner had learned that the Karen work hard and never complain. After school and during summers in South Carolina, Moo washed dishes in a Japanese restaurant and soon rose to sushi chef.
But Moo wanted to serve the Lord as a pastor. He finished his Bible degree and with his family moved to St. Paul in 2015 because of the thriving Karen population and job opportunities—including an assistant pastor position—he found through church contacts.
His parents moved to rural Willmar, Minn., with a strong Karen church community. His dad works at a chicken farm while his mom stays home with Moo’s 8-year-old brother. They grow vegetables at the house they’ve bought, and Moo visits monthly. He and his other siblings recently pooled their savings and bought a three-bedroom home in St. Paul where they work full time.
JESSE PHENOW, 29, founder of the Urban Village, a Karen and Karenni community space a few miles away from Moo’s church, became passionate about Karen refugees as a college student, befriending and learning from many. He and a Karen family with seven boys now share a duplex. Since the junta takeover, he has personally smuggled food supplies into Myanmar for displaced Karen and is planning another clandestine trip soon, funded by supporters around the globe.
Phenow says he does these risky trips because “this [Karen] community has loved me and cared for me … and this is one way I try to give back.”
Myint, the political science professor, says Karen self-determination depends on democracy prevailing. He hopes the international community follows through on its promises to establish no-fly zones to prevent airstrikes, increase targeted sanctions, and leverage an arms embargo on China and Russia who are supplying weapons and training to the Myanmar military. He knows U.S. support is crucial for world democracies to recognize Myanmar’s National Unity Government—the government in exile formed by elected parliament members ousted in the coup.
Moo is earnest when he says he loves democracy. He says he’s living the American dream and has come full circle: He graduated from college in the United States, has started another degree program, and works at Community School of Excellence helping immigrant children. In July, he married Synthia, a woman he met years ago in the refugee camp who, after emigrating to North Carolina, wound up in St. Paul.
His pastor performed the ceremony in the beautiful historic Swedish church on Payne Avenue where Moo is assistant pastor. Moo tells me, “I want this freedom and joy for my homeland.”
Keeping Karen traditions alive
On Jan. 1, thousands of Karen flocked into a St. Paul public school auditorium to watch and participate in a traditional Karen New Year ceremony, singing competition, and culture show. One little girl sat cross-legged in her pink Karen dress, watching competitors as she munched Cheetos with orange-stained fingers. From long tables lining the room’s back, Karen of all ages—some dressed in traditional garb, others in blue jeans and puffer coats—picked up Karen foods like rice, cucumbers, curried meat, and chili paste.
Saw Kwah, Eh Ta Moo’s pastor, appreciates these events. He tries to bequeath Karen traditions and language to his own children and those in the church so they understand and value their heritage and faith, while staying aware of their country’s ongoing conflict.
When Kwah himself was 13, he joined the Karenni Army for four years to fight the Tatmadaw, who had killed his father. His mother was already dead.
He somberly recounts army life as a young teen: He rarely had enough food and often felt hopeless, unable to play with friends or see siblings. He had to shoot Burmese soldiers when they threatened Karen villages. Kwah’s right hand still bears a self-needled faint purple tattoo—a constant reminder of those years in the jungle.
He became a bodyguard for a general in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand then attended the camp’s Bible school. He started teaching and pastoring in the nearby Karenni camp. For 14 years, he lived in camps before emigrating, first to Texas, then Minnesota.
Kwah worries not only for his homeland but for his children growing up here. He focuses on teaching respect and kindness because, he says, at school they learn bad habits: “We want Americans to know we love and serve God and recognize our language is given by God. We want others to value us. We want our children to remember these things.” —S.D.
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