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Posts Tagged ‘myanmar’

Photo: Jaida Grey Eagle/Sahan Journal.
Remona Htoo, an immigrant from Mynamar (Burma), with her book My Little Legs at Como Lake in St. Paul, MN on January 13th, 2021. (Minnesota in January? She must be freezing!)

Since 2016, I’ve had the privilege of meeting people from vastly different cultures as I volunteer to help teachers in English as a Second Language classes, currently online.

Right now, I’m thinking of one woman who was originally from Myanmar (Burma) and who spent many years in a refugee camp in Thailand. She eventually landed in Rhode Island with her husband and children. It was there that I met her.

Myanmar is unfortunately known mostly for brutal military rule and suppression of rights activists and minorities. Among those minorities are the Karen people. I knew a little about them, but had not met any until the ESL class. There is good reason to believe that their language and culture are in danger of being lost, particularly as English becomes the primary language for their children.

Andrew Hazzard has a story on a Karen woman who decided to do something about that. The article was published at Sahan Journal, “the only independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit digital newsroom fully dedicated to providing authentic news reporting for and with immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota.”

Hazzard writes, “Remona Htoo didn’t have any children’s books growing up. Now, she’s publishing one of her own. 

“Htoo was born into a Karen family fleeing the civil war in Myanmar. She spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before her family resettled in Idaho, in 2007. At the time, the 12-year-old spoke no English. 

“Refugees don’t choose where in the U.S where they end up. A significant population of Karen people came to Minnesota, but only 20-odd families landed in Idaho, Htoo said. …

“While attending college at a small Christian university, she began taking trips to the Sawtooth Mountains, where she fell in love with the landscapes of mountains, pine trees, and clear lakes. 

“ ‘It was me trying to cope with stress, trying to cope with the trauma I had. It was a healing mechanism for me,’ Htoo said. 

“Ten years ago, she met a young Karen man online who lived in St. Paul: More than 17,000 Karen people live in the city and neighboring Maplewood. The two shared early childhood experiences in the refugee camps and struck up a relationship. Now, the two are married, with a 22-month-old daughter, Emma, and live in St. Paul’s east side. 

“Htoo, 27, began taking her daughter on outdoor adventures: backpacking and camping in the summer; and sledding in the winter. The family goes near and far to experience nature. … In the summer, the family hits the road to visit national parks like Glacier, in Montana. Emma has already seen 10 national parks — more than many adults. …

“ ‘After I became a mom, I realized there are no children’s books in Karen,’ she said. ‘I wanted to read a book in Karen for my daughter.’ 

“So, Htoo took action. She wrote and self-published My Little Legs, a book she said is about ‘being outdoors and what your little legs can do.’  Emma, her daughter, served as inspiration for the main character. She wears a traditional Karen shirt in the illustrations, created by local artist Mikayla Johnson. The book is bilingual, with English and Karen script. 

“There are very few children’s books, or books in general, published in Karen in the United States, and much of what exists originated in St. Paul. … St. Paul Public Library recognized the need for more Karen language literature. The library system has published three children’s books in Karen since 2015, according to spokesperson Stacy Optiz. The most recent is Children’s Stories, a collection of five traditional Karen folk stories, released in 2021.

My Little Legs targets families with children ages 1–3. In compiling the tale, Htoo looked back at Emma’s own development milestones, like learning to crawl and walk. She also wanted to create an outdoor adventure story that featured southeast Asian characters, and to inspire a curiosity about the Karen people for other American readers. 

“ ‘I don’t think people think we are the outdoor type,’ Htoo said. 

“People of color make up about 20 percent of Minnesota’s population, but only 5 percent of state park users, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources data. Many Minnesotans of color feel isolated in outdoor spaces. In response, groups like BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities emerged, where people can find diverse friends to hit the trails or go fishing.” 

Readers can order Htoo’s book by emailing NawHaChu@gmail.com. More at Sahan Journal, here.

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Image: Mayyu Khan/Mohammed Rezuwan.
“The Blind Mother,” an illustration by Mayyu Khan, a Rohingya artist living in a Bangladesh refugee camp, from Rohingya Folk Tales, by Mohammed Rezuwan. 

While we’re on the subject of saving languages (see yesterday’s post), let’s look into how preserving folk tales can help keep a threatened culture from disappearing.

Few cultures are more threatened than that of the Rohingya of Myanmar, and today’s article is about a young folklorist in a Bangladesh refugee camp who is determined to do something about that.

Stephen Snyder has the report at Public Radio International’s The World. “Mohammed Rezuwan is on a rescue mission: The 24-year-old who lives in Cox’s Bazar — the world’s largest refugee camp — is working to save Rohingya traditional stories before a generation of storytellers dies off.

“Rohingya people have lived in the region for over a thousand years, but Myanmar’s government considers them foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh. Over the last four years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven out of Myanmar by government troops and local militias. Many now live in dozens of refugee camps.

” ‘We, Rohingya people, have our own culture, tradition. We are on the brink of losing all of them, unfortunately,’ Rezuwan said in a WhatsApp voice message from Kutupalong, one of more than two dozen encampments in Cox’s Bazar, on the coast of Bangladesh.

“The crowded area accommodates families who live in tents and shelters along narrow alleyways. United Nations figures put the exile population in the camp at nearly a million — four times the number of Rohingya still living in Myanmar.

“Rezuwan lives in a bamboo shelter with his wife, his mother, a brother and a sister. The family fled their home in Maung Daw, in the Rakhine district of Myanmar, on Aug. 25, 2017, as their village was set ablaze in a campaign that has forced most Rohingya out of Rakhine.

“ ‘I remember the gunshots ringing out like thunderclaps, the bullets strafing the sky like clouds of hungry locusts,’ Rezuwan wrote in the author’s note of his book, Rohingya Folktales: Stories from Arakan, as told by Rohingya refugees.

“ ‘On that terrible day, my family and I ran to a nearby mountain where we hid for three days before we decided to cross the border to Bangladesh.’

“In 2020, after several years at Cox’s Bazar, he took on the role of folklorist — recording stories passed along in the oral tradition by Rohingya elders.

“ ‘Folk tales are used by Rohingya people to teach morals and lessons to their youngsters,’ he said. ‘I, myself, decided to make a book.’

“Rezuwan speaks his native Rohingya and learned to speak and write Burmese in school, but his English is largely self-taught. He spent a year collecting material for his English-language book, and the online version now includes 19 stories from storytellers in several of Cox’s Bazar’s camps.

Research was no easy task. Rezuwan doesn’t have a car or bike, so he walked, sometimes up to five miles, to meet with each storyteller and record his or her story on the phone. …

“ ‘The hardest part is finding and meeting the people from different sorts of camps,’ Rezuwan said. ‘After all, not everyone has the same talents to remember the stories — just because they are uneducated — and so, finding the right person to tell the story was finding a gem from the ocean.’

“The Rohingya language is primarily spoken, without a standardized written script. Rezuwan translated the stories by playing back his recordings and, word by word, constructing English versions of the tales. He then pasted them into WhatsApp and sent them to his editor and friend, Alex Ebsary, in Buffalo, New York, who corrected grammar and word usage. Ebsary said he intentionally edited the stories with a light touch.

“ ‘Folktales are not a universal language,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘You know, if you read these folktales, some of them are quirky. They’re kind of not even the morals that I would think of when thinking of a folktale.’ …

“Rezuwan said his mother used to tell him the story known as ‘A Hunter and a Flock of Heron.’ The version he collected from Rashid Ahmod, a 60-year-old resident of Kutapalong, was essentially the same story he heard as a boy, he said.

“The story is about a hunter who catches a group of beautiful herons in his net. The herons all try to escape by flying around in all directions, Ebsary explained. Rezuwan said the moral of the story is that birds — and people — can’t manage to go anywhere until they cooperate. …

“​​Since coming to Kutupalong, Rezuwan has organized an educational network where Rohingya children — unable to attend schools — can follow the same curriculum taught in Myanmar. He also works with humanitarian groups as a guide and interpreter.”

Read more here.

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rare-myanmar-turtles-bred-in-captivity-released-into-the-wild

Photo: NewsBeat Social/Youtube
“Seven years after conservation groups started a breeding program to save the Myanmar Roofed Turtle, 60 were released into the country’s river system,” says
Science Times.

Anytime a creature thought to be extinct makes a comeback, it gives one hope that other things can come back. We really shouldn’t minimize the importance of, say, the little fish called the snail darter that was the focus of a big fight. We never know what aspect of a biodiverse world will benefit us in the future. And, besides, we need metaphors.

I loved this story about a comeback for a rare turtle in Myanmar.

Liz Kimbrough reports at Mongabay, “Once considered extinct, the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) was brought back from the brink by an ambitious conservation program.

“Now, almost 30 years after its rediscovery in the wild, scientists have [published] photos and descriptions of hatchlings and eggs, as well as some background information about the conservation of the species [in] the journal Zootaxa by scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Myanmar, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Global Wildlife Conservation, and Georgetown University.

“The Burmese roofed turtle is the second-most critically endangered turtle in the world. Once abundant, hunting and overexploitation of eggs has driven the population to near-extinction, with only five or six adult females and two adult males known to exist in the wild today.

“The species was presumed extinct until 2001, when researchers found the shell of a recently killed turtle in a village along the Dokhtawady River in Myanmar. Shortly after, a U.S. turtle collector found a living turtle at a wildlife market in China.

“Encouraged by these findings, researchers conducted field surveys to find the wild populations. After following locals’ descriptions of ‘duck-sized eggs,’ the researchers found living turtles in two separate rivers in Myanmar. However, the population had collapsed to a whisper. …

‘The biggest threat is that there are so few left in the wild and so if there’s an accident we’ve lost a big chunk of the population,’ Steven Platt, first author of the study and WCS associate conservation herpetologist for Southeast Asia, told Mongabay.

“ ‘Otherwise its mostly fishing. I worry about them getting entangled in fishing gear and drowning. And if we didn’t monitor, the eggs would be collected.’

“More than half of the world’s turtle and tortoise species are now threatened with extinction. Loss of habitat is their biggest threat globally, but turtles also face dangers from the pet trade, overconsumption for food and medicine, fishing, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

“In an effort to bring the Burmese roofed turtle back from the brink of extinction, WCS and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in collaboration with the Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry began a program to ‘headstart’ the species in 2007. Researchers and technicians collected eggs from wild turtles for a captive-breeding program. …

“The captive population is now approaching 1,000 turtles, and the species appears to be in little danger of biological extinction. The goal is to eventually release them back into their wild habitat in the Chindwin River.

“In 2015, WCS and TSA reintroduced some male turtles back to the wild, but reintroduced turtles can be hard to follow and locate in the river when the wet season rolls in, Platt says. For now, the team is trying a different strategy, keeping some of the turtles in floating cages in the river as a ‘soft release’ of sorts. The hope is that once the turtles become acclimated to the area they can be released and won’t stray too far.

“ ‘River turtle conservation is really difficult,’ Platt said. ‘Tortoises can move about a kilometer, or, normally just stay within a few hectares of where we release them, but these turtles, once they’re in the river, they can go up or down for several hundred miles if they just keep swimming.’ ”

Read more at Mongabay, here. And hope for other comebacks.

Photo: Myo Min Win/WCS Myanmar
Burmese roofed turtle shown moments after emerging from an egg collected from a sandbank along the Chindwin River and incubated at a facility in Limpha village, Sagaing region, Myanmar. See Platt et al.

burmese-roofed-turtle-hatchling3-credit-myo-min-winwcs-myanmar-1306x1536-1

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refugee-moo-paw-with-vegetables
Photo: Sean Powers
Karen refugee Moo Paw shows the vegetables she’s grown at the Neighbor’s Field in North Carolina.

I’m always interested in what Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) are doing as they adjust to new lives in the United States — especially as I know Mia, a Karen woman in one of the Rhode Island English classes where I volunteer.

At the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), there’s an interesting Karen farming story from producer Sean Powers of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Bitter Southerner podcast.

“BOBBY BASCOMB [LOE managing producer]: The United States has long been a place for political refugees to seek safety and put down roots, in some cases literally. In Comer, Georgia, a community garden called the Neighbor’s Field is helping refugees work through their trauma by working the land. …

“POWERS: It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Comer, Georgia. Moo Paw is feeding her chickens, hens, goats, and ducks. There’s even a donkey. You could say they’re kind of like her babies. She is one of the many refugees at the Neighbor’s Field, who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. That’s the country formerly known as Burma. …

“She says Burmese soldiers kidnapped her father, and used him as a porter to carry food for them. After leaving Myanmar, Moo Paw lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the United States with her husband and children. They relocated to the Atlanta area, before settling here in Comer. Her son, Tahay Than, says moving to Comer was to satisfy Moo Paw’s green thumb.

“TAHAY: My mom, where she lived in Burma or Thailand, she always liked to plant. You know, working the farm. So, when she farms, that makes her feel like she is home or something, like in a home country, mother country or something. So that’s why she moved to Comer. …

“PAW: My garden. Here vegetables. Here grass. Me planted the cucumbers this year. Here sweet potato. Very beautiful.

“POWERS: It’s that beauty that takes Moo Paw back to memories of her family. She and her son Tahay say in Myanmar, farming for their family was a way of life.

“PAW: My grandmother planted rice, peanuts. Chili, corn.

“TAHAY: Most of the time, everybody who lived in Burma, they would plant in order to survive.

“POWERS: And that makes this garden all the more meaningful. The vegetables growing here, they don’t look like your typical produce that you would find at most supermarkets in the United States. That’s because the seeds come from Myanmar and Thailand. …

“POWERS: The flavors growing in Moo Paw’s soil are just a small part of the pie. There are two-dozen plots of land at the Neighbor’s Field that are being rented by refugees from Myanmar. For a large plot, it’s a hundred dollars a year. Rebecca Smith [who versees the day-to-day operations at the Neighbor’s Field], says it’s been incredible to see how working the farm helps build community. …

“SMITH: They’re just amazing foragers, they can figure out how to cook everything and make it taste good, and it’s just stuff that we think are weeds. Like sometimes people will be out here just butchering a pig for a celebration or Moo Paw’s out here feeding her chickens and people in the garden and you just feel like you’re in a different world, not Comer, Georgia.”

More at Living on Earth, here. In North Carolina, too, there are Karen refugees working on farms. Read this at Transplanting Traditions.

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There are so many interesting cultures in the world! For example, when I was editor of a magazine about lower-income issues in New England, I heard for the first time about the Karen from Burma (Myanmar). Who? Soon after, I managed to acquire an article on Karen refugees in Waterbury, Connecticut, so I was able to learn something along with my readers.

Recently, I heard of another new-to-me minority, members of which are being resettled in Massachusetts. They are called Mandeans, and their pacifist religious beliefs had subjected them to persecution in Iraq and Iran for millennia.

Here is what Brian MacQuarrie writes about them at the Boston Globe.

“The Mandaeans have found safety and acceptance since they began arriving [in Worcester] in 2008, freely practicing a monotheistic religion that predates Christianity and Islam. But they still do not have a temple — a ‘mandi’ for baptisms, marriages, and birth and death rituals — and whether one is built could determine if they continue to call Worcester home.

” ‘Work is not the anchor, living in an apartment is not an anchor, the mandi is the anchor,’ said Wisam Breegi, a leader of the Mandaean community. …

” ‘It really is a culture that is in danger of disappearing,’ said Marianne Sarkis, an anthropology professor at Clark University. ‘If you don’t have a way of preserving the culture and traditions and even the language’ of Aramaic — what a temple helps provide — ‘it is not going to survive very long.’ …

“ ‘We really don’t have the expertise, the know-how, the connections,’ said Breegi, who also has founded a scientific firm that is developing a low-cost, disposable, neonatal incubator for use in developing countries.

“To help forge the religious connections, Breegi and Sarkis are preparing an application for a nonprofit organization to help raise money for the temple. Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said in an interview he is willing to help the project where he can.

“ ‘They’re all doing what everyone else is trying to do — working hard and getting their kids a good education.’ …

” ‘It’ll just help make Worcester stronger in the long run,’ Petty said of his city’s embrace of Mandaeans and other immigrants. ‘You can’t build walls between people.’ ”

Worcester held a ceremony of welcome in April that “represented the first time — anywhere, at any time — that Mandaeans had been recognized as a valued, important minority group, Sarkis said.” Wow.

More here.

Photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
The Kalmashy family (left to right) Lilo, and her husband Mahdi and their daughters and Sura and Sahar, shared lunch at their home in Worcester.

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One place that refugees are making a life for themselves is in Kansas City, Kansas, where some are bridging their current and former lives through farming.

Oluwakemi Aladesuyi reports at National Public Radio, “In the midst of boxy yellow and brown public housing, beyond the highway and past empty grain elevators, sits Juniper Farm. It’s spread over nine acres on the Kansas side of Kansas City.

“As their children play on the grassy knoll behind us, four women sit at a plastic picnic table speaking in Karen, a language spoken in parts of Myanmar [Burma].

“They’re students at a program called New Roots for Refugees. The program aims to teach the basics and business of farming [in America] to refugees over the course of four years. At the end, many of the graduates are ready to start farms of their own.

“It’s a joint effort between Catholic Charities and Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit that encourages locally grown food and urban agriculture. …

“Many of the men and women at New Roots come from Myanmar or Bhutan. Some were farmers in their homelands. But farming on the outskirts of Kansas City is different: the land, the crops and even the weather. …

“Many who’ve come here are happy to have escaped violence. But adapting to life in a new country, with a different language and customs, is still difficult. Many refugees struggle economically. …

“August Gaw [is] 25 years old and often translates for her mother, Beh paw Gaw, who graduated from New Roots a few years ago. …

“August used to come here to help her mother. But now Beh paw has her own 3-acre farm which she runs with her sister. Last year the operation made more than $10,000. The potential to make money is important; many refugee families live below the poverty level.” More here.

Read the story if you have time. One striking aspect: farm manager and adviser Sam Davis, an African American, experienced real intolerance when moving to Kansas from Arkansas, but to one of the Karen women, who had seen extreme isolation of different ethnic groups in Myanmar, America seems prejudice-free.

You might also be interested in this article on Karen people who were relocated to Waterbury, Connecticut. Written by John Giammatteo, it appeared in Communities & Banking magazine in 2012.

Photo: Oluwakemi Aladesuyi/NPR
Beh paw Gaw is a New Roots graduate and a Karen refugee from Myanmar. Now she has her own three acre farm which she runs with her sister.

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