Karen Refugees in Oglethorpe County

 Photo by Richard Hamm

Photo by Richard Hamm

I thought the other day that I had never published anything longer than about 2,500 words, meaning, I'd never really dabbled in longform of any kind (though I think my editors would disagree). But I remember a three-part series I wrote in 2012 about refugees from Myanmar living in Madison and Oglethorpe counties. Together, all three stories total close to 5,000, which to me is the short end of longform. I've been thinking of Eh Kaw Htoo and his family lately since the International Rescue Committee is opening a refugee resettlement office in Athens. He was on my mind so much that I texted him early last Sunday morning. I'm talking 7 a.m. here. Eh Kaw and his family and friends are such interesting subjects, and amazing people and I hope to get to write more about them soon. 

I hope you won't mind my publishing their three-part story here as one long thing, just to see if it works.

It’s early October in Madison County, and the oak leaves have barely begun their transformation from green to yellow to red to brown.

At best, a slight jonquil hue has emerged in every other tall timber surrounding a treeless patch of land off Highway 22 just outside of Comer.

But it’s enough for Eh Kaw Htoo to build a simile.

“In the fall, the leaves are like different people, just like the U.S.,” said Eh Kaw, a refugee from Myanmar (formerly Burma), who will celebrate his fifth year living in the U.S. this February.

He pointed at the distant tree line, remarking on the cultural diversity found in America as he leaned on the trunk of the car that drove him and two journalists down the gravel road that leads to The Neighbor’s Field, a plot of arable land farmed by refugees from Myanmar living in Madison and Oglethorpe counties.

After 20 years living in refugee camps in Thailand along the Myanmar border, and seven years before that dodging the guns of a military dictatorship in his home country, life in America, even rural America, offers all the culture he’ll need from now on.

“I don’t feel like I have to go to Japan to see Japanese people,” he said. “Or to Africa to see Africans.”

Eh Kaw and his family — a wife and three children — as well as his father, mother and his two brothers’ families, are part of a refugee community living in Madison and Oglethorpe counties that numbers at least 100.

At The Neighbor’s Field, the community grows its own food and raises its own goats and chickens, and builds structures from felled and foraged trees.

In rural Georgia, Eh Kaw has replicated the rural existence he would have lived if not for 50 years of oppressive military dictatorship.

On a recent Saturday morning, two generations of refugees harvested slim hot peppers, roselle and young daikon radishes — integral vegetables in the Myanmarese diet. Some drove all the way from Clarkston, the DeKalb County city that’s home to thousands of refugees from all over the world. The pepper plants came up chest-high to the teens walking among them. At The Neighbor’s Field, more food grows than the part-time farmers who tend it ever could eat.

Eh Kaw’s people farm this way for a reason: to feed friends and strangers, anyone in need.

Just over the tree tops is Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian community whose mission includes welcoming newly arrived refugees, and the place that first housed Eh Kaw and his family when they moved to Comer from the Atlanta apartment that aid agencies had provided. The Neighbor’s Field sits on Jubilee’s land.

Refugees from Myanmar are found in all 50 states, especially Georgia. Outside of metro Atlanta, no county has welcomed more refugees than Madison.

In Oglethorpe County, refugees congregate at Vesta Baptist Church, attending English morning services with locals and praying as a people in the afternoon.

A faithful community in place. A job at a chicken processing plant. Neighbors he can trust. Eh Kaw now knows well the “free and safe society” he’d hoped to find in the U.S.

“I never had a home. I never had a country,” he said when asked how he now explains his identity. “I always had to flee. I feel like I’m not a citizen of any country.”

If anything, he said, “I’m American.”

A FORGOTTEN STORY, A ‘SECRET GENOCIDE’

Eh Kaw is Karen, a now predominantly Christian people in a country of 135 distinct ethnicities. For the past 50 years, the Karen have fought a losing battle against a brutal dictatorship run by the majority Burman ethnic group. Although the Karen were British allies during World War II, once the imperial power left the country, the Burman usurped total control in a coup.

The Karen are rural at heart, Eh Kaw said, and don’t think politically; the Burman are more cunning than the Karen.

Among all the ethnicities, the Karen have waged the longest running counterinsurgency, making their civilians targets of junta aggression.

Unlike other refugees who flee to escape becoming collateral damage, the Karen and other ethnicities are targeted as part of a strategic plan by the junta to, at best, quell rebels and, at worst, wipe the Karen out of existence. If you ask Eh Kaw what he thought of the army’s tactics, having lived through what he lived through, it’s impossible not to take it personally.

“Secret genocide,” Eh Kaw said.

Eh Kaw left Myanmar at age 7, fleeing with his family for camps in Thailand. But political geography did little to stop the Burmese Army from chasing refugees like them across the border.

Troops hunted down refugees, burning whatever temporary bamboo structures they found. Eh Kaw recalls never living in the same house, the same camp, for more than three months at a time. The forests provided their only permanent safety, as long as they fled with speed.

“If you are fast enough, you will be safe,” Eh Kaw said. “If you have weak legs, you won’t survive.”

Still, memories from life in Myanmar never fade.

Male villagers would climb trees to keep watch for approaching troops, Eh Kaw remembers. A mere child at the time, he often would play in those trees, swinging from lower branches.

As troops descended upon the village, the sentry cried out.

The warnings sent men scrambling into the forests. At the time, women and children were safe from the troops’ violence — forced labor, imprisonment, death.

Eh Kaw assumes the soldiers saw him drop down from the tree and run back to his mother’s home. As they entered the village, a soldier pulled him aside and stuck a gun barrel to his forehead.

“Why did you warn the others?” he remembers him asking.

Eh Kaw’s mother pushed the soldier down, grabbed her son and convinced the troops to leave them be.

Sitting on the laminate floor in his sparsely furnished rented house in downtown Comer, Eh Kaw and his brother Eh Kae Doh, who lives in Vesta, clearly have more brutal stories to tell. Eh Kaw hints at burned bodies and gruesome deaths. Eh Kae points to his heart and says that’s where his stories will remain — for now.

“Forgive is easy, but forget is not easy,” Eh Kaw said.

If the dictatorship falls, maybe they’ll return home to visit.

Do their memories haunt them?

“No,” Eh Kaw said. “It’s over.”

Transient

Refugees living in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border heard cock crows each morning.

Refugees living in apartments in DeKalb County hear the siren crow of cops and ambulances all night long.

Eh Kaw Htoo’s family, refugees from Myanmar living now in Comer, wake to the rumble of the CSX line that rolls through town just two blocks from their front door.

“Train crow,” Eh Kaw calls the locomotive horn blasts.

On a weekend morning, Eh Kaw’s children watch cartoons on a 20-inch TV, slurping up rice and vegetable broth prepared by their mother, Pa Saw Paw, 31, who is washing metal bowls with her mother.

Pa Saw places a fly-deterring plastic cover over leftovers sitting on the 2-foot-tall circular table they often sup around. Although she mounds clean cookware onto a drying rack, Pa Saw offers breakfast to whomever enters her kitchen. She met Eh Kaw when she was 9, but said she didn’t fall in love until 2000, the same year they married. Two of her children, the oldest boys, were born in refugee camps in Thailand. They are citizens of no country. Jessica, the youngest daughter, was born in Georgia.

If everything goes according to plan, Eh Kaw, Pa Saw and their children will become American citizens early next year.

For someone who calls himself “stateless,” finally attaching a nation, a name, to his identity is life-changing. Without “United States Citizen” printed across his official papers, “they will call us refugees always,” Eh Kaw said.

For Pa Saw, citizenship means earning her GED and eventually becoming a nurse. A jobless life in the camps, she said, was frustrating. But “the hardest part is that I worried for my kids,” she said. How can a mother support, educate and maintain her children’s health when she is waiting in line for bowls of rice? Now Eh Kaw works double shifts at Pilgrim’s Pride, and Pa Saw stays home to raise the kids. Life in America eases her fears.

Students at Comer Elementary School, Jubilee, Jack and Jessica are becoming American, preferring pizza and hamburgers to the turmeric-heavy Karen diet. But Pa Saw hopes they’ll keep the Karen culture close to their heart.

“I want them to be good Americans,” she said, “but still remember their people.”

A HOME RECREATED

The community that Pa Saw, her family and friends are building in Madison and Oglethorpe counties is so distinctly Karen, Pa Saw’s children stand a strong chance of cementing their ethnic identity while growing up in Comer.

Pa Saw’s in-laws live just a 20-minute drive from Comer deep into the unpaved parts of Oglethorpe County. There, Eh Kaw’s mother, father and two brothers live in trailers separated by less than 50 yards of forest. Independent structures built from downed pine trees and deconstructed chicken coops interconnect each family’s trailer. Near Eh Kaw’s youngest brother’s trailer, an arbor of skinny pines stands erect for squash vines to grow up and through. Handmade rabbit and squirrel traps segment a 2-foot-tall fence that runs along a clearing.

Built without power tools, save for the odd chainsaw cut, and seemingly without fasteners, the constructions employ skills the Karen people learned in their childhoods.

“Everyone knows how,” Eh Kaw said.

Even deeper into the forest, nearing a tract of land owned by a member of the Baptist church Eh Kaw’s family attends, a cinderblock foundation is under way for another structure to be built using felled pines and chicken shack parts. Soon, the Karen church, currently in the basement of Vesta Baptist Church, will relocate here.

Eh Kaw said the church’s construction will not cut ties to their fellow American worshippers in Vesta. He envisions a place to keep the Karen language and culture alive — on their terms.

Just 1 mile from Eh Kaw and Pa Saw’s home, foods common in Karen cuisine grow at The Neighbor’s Field, just off the gravel road that leads to Jubilee Partner’s Christian community.

Walking through the field, Eh Kaw explains each crop planted there. Bitter melon. Chinese okra. Asian eggplant. Roselle greens. A reporter jokes that the Karen are even cultivating pokeweed, pointing to a lone plant sticking up near a gate. Eh Kaw, like any smart naturalist, knows he can cook pokeweed’s young greens. He bends down, picking a micro-grass just sprouting out of the soil, one most people would’ve stepped on. He’d cook it, too.

Karens know how to forage, Eh Kaw said. Back in Myanmar and Thailand, the Karen people also are known to spread seed along the forest floor, leaving food for the next wave of refugees fleeing their villages.

Eh Kaw urges the Karens he knows in Clarkston, the DeKalb county city that’s home to refugees from many nations, to drive to Comer to harvest fresh instead of imported food. And he hopes they’ll stay.

“I try to encourage my folks to move out of the city,” he said.

“In America, if you choose to live in the city, it can feel like prison. You don’t own anything. You have no freedom. I prefer the countryside. It is freedom.”

COMING TO AMERICA

Jubilee Partners, the intentional Christian community that owns the land where the refugees farm, helped give Eh Kaw his first taste of American-style freedom.

In 2008, Eh Kaw and his family spent a few months living at Jubilee before returning to Clarkston.

After living off others in rural camps, long-term Jubilee staff member Russ Dyck said refugees arrive in urban settings where they don’t speak the language.

The effect is isolating.

Refugees often are settled with their own people, which is good, Dyck said, but that makes it hard to befriend North Americans and learn the culture.

Refugees come to Jubilee through the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta. Through Jubilee’s rural pace and intensive English language education, refugees get a glimpse of America that’s easier to digest, Dyck said.

“The land is a place where refugees are teachers,” Dyck said, noting all the shepherding and agricultural skills he’s learned from Myanmar refugees. “My hope is that this is a place of healing. It’s been amazing to see how Karen and other refugees connect with this piece of land.”

At Jubilee, refugees garden, raise and kill goats and practice other traditional skills. Dyck can’t count how many times he’s heard guests say, “This place reminds me of my village.”

From Comer, the typical Jubilee graduate, after a stay of two months or so, returns to Atlanta to live in an apartment and find a job.

Atypical is how he describes Eh Kaw and his brood moving to Comer in 2009.

Eh Kaw and his brother, Eh Kae Doh, have spearheaded the Karen’s integration into the Northeast Georgia community. Eh Kaw possesses strong language skills, making him a valuable go-between with English speakers. Eh Kae pioneered the Karen’s employment at Pilgrim’s Pride in January of this year, which has led to many jobs for Karen who live in Madison County and metro Atlanta. Eh Kaw plays cultural historian for his new bosses, teaching anyone willing to listen about a refugee’s struggle.

The U.S. has everything, Eh Kaw said. You can work hard and get it. But its people lack the “fruit of the spirit,” he said. They are kind, they know the world, but not their neighbors.

“We are very blessed from God,” he said. “We have a lot of American friends.”

Transient

The Rev. Russell Bruce didn’t find it odd to show off a rental house across the street from Vesta Baptist Church where he pastors. The landlords attend his church when in the area, but spend most of the year in Michigan. So he unlocks the door whenever a possible tenant calls.

It’s your typical white siding rural Southern home. A small porch. Black shutters. But not a columned majestic estate. Bruce knew it wasn’t the nicest inside either.

So when the voice on the other end of a broken English conversation he had with a potential renter turned out to be Eh Kaw Htoo, a Karen refugee from Myanmar speaking for an extended family of 15, Bruce couldn’t believe that many people could fit into a 1,400-square-foot home.

But it wouldn’t be the last time the Karen people would surprise Bruce.

“Of all the places in the world,” he said. “They come here.”

Eh Kaw remembers at least 25 Karen living in the New Hope Vesta Road house. It was their first home in the U.S., a place to themselves — no aid, no agencies.

When word spread through Bruce’s congregation of the church’s new neighbors, the community extended its hand of support via clothes, house repairs and food.

Three years have passed since Bruce first met Eh Kaw, and he remembers vividly the early days of their cultural exchange.

Karen attended services at Vesta Baptist as soon as they moved in, befriending quickly their new American friends. Karen weaved their colorful traditional garments as gifts for their American benefactors. As they approached their first Thanksgiving in Northeast Georgia, the Karen prepared a massive feast of Myanmarese cuisine.

Three years on, Eh Kaw and the Karen community still are thankful for their acceptance into the Vesta church. But Bruce said it’s his congregation who are indebted to the Karen.

“We think that we have problems,” Bruce said. He and every American at Vesta listened to Karen stories of land mines, scavenging and forced labor.

To think of all they’ve suffered, Bruce said, all they’ve been through, and never has their faith or belief in mankind faltered.

“It’s been a blessing to our people,” Bruce said, “to see these people and how God has blessed them.”

KEEPING THE FAITH

God’s children don’t drink. That message is tattooed in the Sgaw Karen language across Eh Kaw’s father’s arm. In the back pew of Vesta Baptist during an October Sunday service, Kyaw Myint sits next to his wife, Htoo Htoo, Eh Kaw’s mother, who graces high registers as she sings gospel songs in English.

“Standing on the promises that cannot fail/When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,” Htoo sings from Russell K. Carter’s “Standing on the Promises.”

About two dozen other Karen churchgoers sit in folding chairs just behind Kyaw and Htoo in an overflow room. Not everyone sings. That is until Bruce calls up a Karen choir to sing a hymn. The overflow room empties out, and Karen voices of all ages give praise in song.

Later, as church elders walk down rows with tithing baskets, Htoo slips a dollar into a reporter’s hand so he’ll have something to contribute.

After the service, the congregation lets out, everyone shaking Bruce’s hand as they head for their cars. The Karen wind around back to the church’s banquet hall, stopping a few moments on a concrete patio, a brief recess so that children can swing and shoot baskets before entering another hour of worship.

Compared to an American Baptist service, a Karen sermon is subdued. An older assistant reverend delivers a modest, low-toned message. Acoustic guitars and Karen voices repeat the same chords and lyrics heard minutes earlier in the main chapel.

One thing, though, is cross-cultural: Children squirm through hours of preaching.

Jessica, Eh Kaw’s daughter, hops back and forth between her father’s and mother’s laps. She fidgets, but otherwise sits quiet.

Earlier, before Karen service, the Moravek family — Mike, Dawn and Mike Jr. — waited around to talk with their refugee friends. Dawn runs Vesta Baptist’s youth group, which has become 60 percent Karen. She handed over bags of donated clothes to Karen families.

Mike Moravek said he’s felt like part of the Karen family since he first walked into that rental house three years ago.

“We felt responsible,” he said, to aid their adaptation to life in America. Moravek helps refugees navigate government institutions and its reams of paperwork. He fixes machinery: cars, lawnmowers, 20th-century contraptions unfamiliar to the Karen before they moved to the U.S.

Karen have a nickname for Mike: McGyver.

But Dawn Moravek said the refugees are the community’s blessing by teaching their children to appreciate modern conveniences and safety.

“You just know that if you needed something they would go to the ends of the earth,” she said.

Most of all, the Moraveks admire the Karen’s faith: To be so thankful to God after everything, Dawn said. “They never blame him.”

A MOVEABLE FEAST

Sunday meals after church at Eh Kaw and Pa Saw’s home aren’t extravagant. The kids munch on uncooked noodles. The parents cook Thai ramen with a bit of spice.

But one Saturday, as two journalists and friends from Jubilee Partners, the refugee-aiding Christian community just down the road from Pa Saw’s home, hung around her kitchen, Pa Saw and her mother whipped up a traditional Karen meal featuring backyard vegetables and produce from The Neighbor’s Field — a plot of arable land where Karen refugees farm.

At the table, American influence has crept into the cuisine.

All in metal bowls: bitter melon and American-style sausage in a yellow sauce; Chinese okra and chopped hot dogs in a yellow sauce; Asian eggplants split down the middle, cooked with dried fish and onion; purple hyacinth bean pods quartered and fried with eggs from chickens clucking outside; and roselle, a bitter green cooked down into a sweet, tangy paste.

Turmeric is the most well-employed ingredient of Karen food, which explains the common hue. The other is monosodium glutamate.

“The Karen use MSG a lot,” Pa Saw said.

Rice is heaped onto metal plates, and fingers break up the glutens oozing between the grains. Spoons transfer each item onto the rice bed. Hands become shovels, and everyone slides bites into their mouths.

It’s serving after serving after serving. Then diners wash their hands and drink water.

Eh Kaw pulls out his American roommate’s laptop to show off a movie he made after moving to the area. He wanted to use video to explain the Karen story to Americans.

It starts with clips from a BBC history program detailing post-colonial, post-World War II life in Myanmar — the genesis of the Karen struggle.

Home videos shot by Eh Kaw over the years begin to snap into the timeline: massive Thai camps filled with 50,000 refugees, bamboo huts creeping up hillsides; car rides through Atlanta; services at Episcopal churches; and Jubilee Partners — his journey visualized.

But footage recorded during Eh Kaw and his mother’s last trip into Myanmar before their move to the U.S. is rather compelling.

Htoo Htoo regularly snuck across to the Thailand-Myanmar border to minister to Karen still living in their homeland.

Eh Kaw’s video of their last mission shows dozens of children kneeling on benches, bent over bowls of Christmas dinner as adults mill about. He pans around the bamboo and thatch-roof village, pointing out members of his extended family, and the camera follows the subjects into their temporary church. Htoo Htoo’s voice is heard sermonizing.

It’s Christmas, Eh Kaw said. Maybe 2006. That February, Burman troops burned the entire village. But the Karen survived.

“Almost all of them are in America,” Eh Kaw said.