Karen family finds freedom in Hamilton

Over sixty years of torture, rape, murder, forced labour and village burning by the Burmese military resulted in over 140,000 Karen people successfully fleeing to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Eight refugee camps have been established along the border, which are filled with people who survived the dangerous and long journey through the jungle that separates the two countries.

In 1981, when Lway Say was 15 years old, he was hiding in the jungle from the Burmese Army making the journey to Thailand. To his dismay, a poisonous snake bit his ankle. With no medical attention or doctor available, the foot became swollen and after one month turned rotten and fell off. “The pain lasted a long time”, said Say(translated from Karen). “I couldn’t walk for two years. It is still very painful to walk – even today I cannot walk for more than five minutes at a time.”

May Paw is Say’s wife. They came to Hamilton in 2009 with their two children as part of the Government-Assisted Refugee Program which has brought 350 Karen refugees to Hamilton.

Paw and Say recall the refugee camp(s) to be “like a prison.” There, they had “no right to work” as they were under the control of the Thai authorities. To this day, the Burmese army often crosses the border and invades the camps, killing people at random and setting housing on fire. The Thai authorities have neglected to set up security or military troops to protect the refugees, even though the camps are only five kilometres away from the Burmese military camps. Refugees are legally confined to the camps and not able to leave for work or for travel.

There is no stability in the refugee camps as families live in constant fear. Often situated in valleys, natural disasters such as landslides and flooding are frequent. Families suffer from serious health conditions due to lack of adequate food and nutrition along with no medical professionals on site. The only medicine available is expired and often incorrect amounts are consumed.

Six years ago, the Karen situation started to receive international attention and action. Countries such as Canada pledged to resettle thousands of Karen refugees. From 2006 to 2010 Hamilton received 350 Karen refugees (who are still settling into their new home).


Thrilled to be in Canada, the Hamilton Karen community is resilient and hard-working. They bring their rich culture, tradition, and eagerness to settle into their new home. Due to the extreme hardships they have endured, they must overcome extensive barriers.

The language barrier is the biggest challenge for the Karen community as there are currently no service providers with Karen interpretation in Hamilton. There is one Karen speaking settlement counselor in all of Hamilton, located at the Immigrant Women’s Centre, who is responsible for the integration of 81 Karen families. Families are taking English classes, but since many Karen adults received no education in the refugee camps, it is especially challenging to learn to read and write in English.

For youth and children attending school, learning English can also be very difficult. Parents are often unable to help with school work due to the language barrier and therefore they have a harder time doing well in school. Parents are often not able to communicate with their teachers in English, and the children and youth have reported bullying in school because of the language barrier.

Many men and women are suffering from arthritis and other complex health issues. Parents and grandparents require interpretation for medical appointments and often ask their teenagers or children to accompany them. This however has caused tension in the community as many youth are not interested in missing school to attend these appointments as they will fall behind in class. Most parents and grandparents are also unsatisfied with the translation due to the limited understanding of the youth to interpret adult issues.

Many Karen men find jobs in greenhouses working for minimum wage. Both facing disabilities, Paw and Say have a difficult time finding employment. “My physical body is not able to work like my friends”, says Say. “I have experience in farm work but because I have no education and a disability the greenhouses will not hire me. Because my foot is amputated, it cannot function well. I cannot stand for long enough periods to do the work.”

Combined with Paw’s visual impairment, the family has seen no other option but to apply for Ontario Disability Service Program. Their case is pending, and has been continuously delayed due to language barriers and lack of medical records.

“The process has been very stressful and is taking a long time. I still don’t have the answer yet”, Say explained.

Despite their challenges, Say, Paw and the rest of the Karen community are very grateful to be in their new country. “We enjoy freedom in Hamilton”, said Say. “In our country Burma or the refugee camps we did not have freedom. In Canada, we are free to go anywhere we want to go.”

By Semula Horlings, Immigrant Women’s Centre | Photos by Michelle Drew

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