‘Giving refugees a voice:’ Burmese Karen refugees’ stories told through NIU exhibit

DeKALB – Lay Mu is a sophomore undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University majoring in health sciences, with the goal of one day becoming a nurse.

Mu, 19, a graduate of West Aurora High School, speaks four languages and plans on joining the university’s archery club. For fun, Mu enjoys spending time with friends and watching TV shows on Netflix, especially Korean dramas.

However, 10 years ago, Mu’s life was very different.

Mu was born in the Ban Don Yang refugee camp in Burma. Life inside the camp was nothing like life in DeKalb. The camp, located in a dense jungle forest, didn’t have video games or televisions, and children played with sticks and rocks, jumped over rubber bands and climbed trees for fun. There were no colleges or hospitals and each family lived in a homemade bamboo house and was given weekly rations for food and charcoal.

“It was not safe to leave the camp, and we were not allowed to go in or out,” Mu said. “I could never have imagined a life like I have now back then. There, I had no hope, no future. I feel blessed to be here, grateful to attend university.”

When Mu was 9 years old, he escaped from the camp as a refugee with his father, mother and two older brothers. His oldest brother, who he had never met, left years prior and was living in the United States.

“When I first came to the U.S., the only two words I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no,” Mu said. “Everything smelled weird, fresh and better. There were a lot of cement roads and lights. I was used to seeing only the moon and stars.”

Mu started the third grade in the U.S., and he described American schools as “scary.”

“I didn’t understand any of the language, and I couldn’t communicate with the teacher or make friends,” he said. “I took ESL classes throughout school, I studied hard to get good grades.”

Mu received a full ride scholarship from Give Something Back Foundation. He had to apply as a freshman in high school.

Mu’s goal is to become a nurse to one day give back and help others in the refugee camp.

“I want to let people know that this is happening now and share the story about the Karen people and the refugee camps,” he said. “It’s important to share what happened, what is happening with others.”

History of the Karen

The Karen, pronounced Kah-Ren (emphasis on the second syllable), are an ethnic group indigenous to southern Burma/Myanmar. They have been in conflict with the government since 1949 fighting for the right of their own Karen state. A military regime has been in power in Burma since a coup in 1962.

During the decades-long conflict and violent military persecution, many Karen escaped their war-torn villages to refugee camps in the forested jungle along the Thailand-Burma border.

“Nobody expected to stay in the confinement of refugee camps more than a few weeks,” said Catherine Raymond, director of NIU’s Center for Burma Studies – the only center for Burma studies in the United States. “But in some ways, the refugee camps became for them a country. They made their own bamboo houses, they have kitchen utensils, blacksmiths, weavers, schools. Some people have now lived their entire life [in the refugee camps]. They have finally given up on the dream of returning to their ancestral homeland. That’s a devastating decision, it haunts them. When they leave their camps to go to a new country, they often never see their family, friends or continent again.”

Raymond said that seeing the mountain Kwe Ka Baw is a dream of many Karen refugees, those living in refugee camps and those who have escaped to resettle in another country.

“The mountain is a dream of their homeland,” she said. “It’s a dream of going back to the land of their ancestors.”

The Exhibition

“The Art of Surviving: The Journey of the Burmese Karen Refugees in Illinois” is an exhibition at the NIU Art Museum based on work done by doctoral and master’s students who either lived within the refugee camps along the Burma-Thai border or who have worked with Illinois Karen refugee communities.

Karla Findley, lead researcher for the exhibition, has been working with Burmese Karen refugees for more than 15 years in the Aurora area through World Relief.

Raymond first had the idea of creating an exhibition in 2008 and started planning it in 2015 after receiving a Luce Grant. The exhibition had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After years of preparation, it finally opened Aug. 24.

According to the NIU Art Museum website, “The exhibition ties the minority Karen refugee experience to a global perspective, engaging visitors in a critical dialogue on forced migration and displacement and what visitors can do to advocate for local refugee communities.”

The exhibition is free and open to the public. It runs through Nov. 12 and is located in the NIU Art Museum, on Altgeld Hall’s first floor, 595 College Ave. in DeKalb. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.niu.edu/artmuseum.

“The Art of Surviving: The Journey of the Burmese Karen Refugees in Illinois” has three parts: Life in Burma, living in fear; Life in the refugee camps, safer but in confinement; and Life in the United States, poor but in freedom.

The first section features a 10% scale bamboo house made by about 20 refugees living in the United States. The house, designed to look like an authentic home in the refugee camp, features a kitchen with shelves, a woven grass roof and a blanket taken by refugees when leaving Burma. It also features a 3-minute video of a Karen refugee telling the story of how she became a woman soldier and traditional Karen items, including an 18th century bronze drum, buffalo horns and a tunic with both of these icons.

“The purpose of this room is for people to fall in love with Burma and the Karen culture,” Raymond said. “It shows how they were fighting for the right of their own Karen state. They wanted their land and natural resources, so they drove them off and away from their homeland.”

The second section of the exhibition shows the confinement and daily life in a refugee camp. This section features items that would normally be found inside a refugee camp and features a room that has kitchen utensils on display and a knife made by a blacksmith.

“This section is meant to show what life was like living in a refugee camp,” Findley said. “It shows the confinement, the isolation and poverty of these camps, but also how the Karen adapted to living a life away from their homes.”

The third section of the exhibition is dedicated to life after leaving the refugee camps. When leaving their camp, refugees could bring only a large rainbow tote bag to place all of their belongings in as checked luggage.

“They put all of their belongings into that bag,” Findley said. “Most people usually bring clothes and eating utensils.”

One room of the exhibition is dedicated to the Karen refugees who are studying at NIU.

“This is their success story,” Raymond said. “They were born in a refugee camp, learned English, attended an American school and now attend university.”

One wall of the exhibition features drawings made by refugees showcasing the differences between life in their ancestral homeland and life in their camp. The drawings of their homeland are colorful and feature fields, mountains, trees and flowers. The camp drawings are monotonous in color, usually brown, with small buildings and no vegetation.

Giving the Karen People a Voice

Arkar Kyaw, a doctoral student at NIU and president of the university’s Burma Interest Group, is from Burma but is not of Karen descent.

When he first saw the exhibition, he said he was brought to tears by what he saw.

“This [exhibition] is something I think everyone inside Burma should see, something I think everyone should know,” he said. “I grew up brainwashed, not knowing what was going on. I had no idea. It was humbling, and I was shaken when I found out. These people could be entrepreneurs, artists, so much more. It is such a loss to the country and to the world because they are living thinking only of their survival. Everyone has something to contribute to the world, and they have so much potential and it’s lost while they’re living in their camps.”

Kyaw also stressed that political and military unrest is still taking place in his country. A coup took place on Feb. 1 of this year, with the military seizing control of the country, followed by mass protests.

“I think the exhibition is important to see,” Kyaw said. “Come and visit and see what’s going on. Take a moment to realize how privileged you are and then take action to try to help and make a difference.”

Mu, who was involved in the creation of the exhibition, said he is grateful that it tells the story of the Karen people.

“Our Karen community is very thankful and can’t describe how much it means to us,” Mu said. “It might sound like just a story, but it’s actually happening. So many people are already forgetting our past. We need to remember and share with other people. This exhibit gives us a voice.”

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.