This is a photo from St Paul, Minnesota. Did you know that June 20 is a World Refugee Day? St Paul has become home to thousands of refugees. One of the ethnic groups settled in MN are Karen people from Burma (Myanmar). There are estimated 10,000 Karen in Minnesota and St. Paul currently has the largest and fastest-growing Karen populations in the U.S. Other communities in Minnesota with a large Karen population include Worthington, Willmar, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault.
I never imagined that my life would be connected to this story that links places so distant and different from each other. When I see women or men with a traditional Karen shoulder bag walking down the street in Roseville or West St Paul, I think to myself “This is a long way from the villages and farms and jungle trails in mountains of Karen State in Burma.” It is also a long way from the refugee camps on Thailand – Burma border.
I have one of those bags and I love to see the smile on people’s faces when they ask me, “Where did you get this? What?! You have been to Mae La refugee camp? When? Why?” I explain about our former work in the migrant schools, about teaching English and our many many friendships. I love to talk about the beautiful Karen dances and songs and crafts. And the food but not the fish paste! Anything but the fish paste.
We went to this year’s World Refugee Day celebration in St Paul. It was a treat to see traditional Karen dances and hear the songs and also listen to the stories. These young people were very grateful for the opportunities and freedom they have in their new home country and also were proud to introduce others to their beautiful, rich culture and history.
It have mixed feelings as there is always a sense of homesickness. It makes me think of all the Latvians and other Europeans who came to Minnesota as refugees after World War II. I have heard stories from people who had Latvian neighbors or friends and husbands. Stories about all the good Latvia food, all the Latvian dances and songs and, of course, all the partying. (Unfortunately Latvians were known for the large amounts of alcohol they could consume)
One of the guys I know is named John. He is very much an Irish American but his best friend while growing up in North Minneapolis was a Latvian guy. And John got the special treatment from Latvian community because of his name. “Jānis” is the Latvian version of John and it used to be one of the most popular names in Latvia. (You walk in a room and say “Jānis” and see how many guys will turn their head!)
Making a new home in a far away land is not easy, but it is a part of our human story through the ages. Wars happen. Lives get destroyed. We get up-rooted and then we go and put our roots in a new place. It makes a big difference if the new place is welcoming and open. I am very grateful to know so many people in Minnesota who have opened their hearts and lives to give shelter and refugee to people who have had to flee their beloved countries and homes and farms and families. Thank you, Minnesota!