CHICAGO, Ill. — Every Sunday, Ehklu Htoo drives a van to bring members of the community to his church’s worship services, plays guitar with the church youth choir and attends the regular service. After the regular service, he joins fellow Burmese Karen individuals in an additional Burmese worship, and translates from Burmese to the Karen language for his friends. He attends North Shore Baptist Church, a multicultural church in Chicago with services in English, Spanish, Japanese and Karen.
Reverend Carol McVetty, the English Congregation Pastor, says the Karen community adds something special to the church.
“The Karen bring energy and vitality to our community,” she says. “They inspire us with their courage, determination and deep faith. They bring a rich tradition of music that adds to our worship.”
Htoo says he finds a sense of community and belonging at North Shore that he lacked much of his life. Now 29, he moved to the United States from the Umpiem Mae Refugee Camp in Thailand when he was 23, and before that lived in Burma.
The Karen are an ethnic group from Burma who have faced immense religious and ethnic persecution by the Burmese government. Many have fled Burma and around 140,000 refugees from Burma now live in refugee camps like Umpiem near the Burma-Thailand border. Most Karen people practice Buddhism, but about 15 percent are Christian, like Htoo.
Htoo’s family, as Karen, was heavily discriminated against in many aspects of their lives – where they worked, where they lived, how they got educated. In fact, Htoo was barred from any education in the country, because the cost of school for Karen was hiked up exorbitant amounts. Instead of class, he spent his days playing with the other children in his community in the fields where his parents farmed.
When he reached the age when he would normally be entering middle school, the village next to his own village of Pawnermoo was burned down by Burmese military. That was when his parents decided they must pack the family up and move to a refugee camp outside of Burma.
Life inside Umpiem was better in some ways, but heavily restricted. The refugees were given food and proper educational programs, but Htoo said he felt trapped.
“We [didn’t] have a chance to learn something new,” he says, “because we cannot go outside [the camps] and we don’t even know what is outside of the world. We don’t have news, it’s like we are a very different world.”
Htoo’s parents applied to come to the Un.S. in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they were finally approved to come. Htoo says the application process is difficult, and many of his Burmese relatives and friends couldn’t get approved.
Yet, the difficulties weren’t over upon coming to the Un.S. Htoo didn’t know English, and American culture was a lot to adjust to. But, he says he has found a home here.
“This is my new home,” he says. “I got my education, I got my job, I got a place to live. It’s like freedom. Nobody pushing me, nobody controlling me, nobody treating me like a slave.”
He was happy to find a community both at North Shore and at Refugee 1, where he started volunteering two months ago. He works as a translator, and guides others through culture shock. Mostly, he’s excited to be able to help other newcomers to the U.S.
“When I came in [to the U.S.],” he says, “I was in the darkness. These people are my own people so I really like it because I get a chance to help them.”
Not just the Karen people benefit from the community at North Shore. McVetty says she’s learned a few things from them as well.
“I have gained a lot of humility,” she says, “from needing to wade into a brand new culture, not knowing the language, and finding ways to get to know the people and be a bridge between them and American society.”
Sources: Karen.org, North Shore Baptist Church, Pastor Carol McVetty, Ehklu Htoo