Karen refugee girls prosper in Pennsylvania
Born and raised in refugee camps, four girls discuss resettlement in Lancaster and their hopes for the future.
Four years ago, Karen refugees Pree Pree, Mimi, Hsa Kpru and Ler had never left the confines of their refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand. Now resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — America’s refugee capital — the girls are determined to make the most of their new home.
12-year-old Pree Pree’s favourite subject in school is math — she giggles when she talks about her favourite singer, Shawn Mendes. Her sister Mimi, age 14, helps Pree Pree with her homework and dreams of seeing the Eiffel Tower one day. Hsa Kpru and Ler, both age 13, recently made the honour roll at their school.
Pree Pree, Mimi, Hsa Kpru and Ler are Karen, an ethnic group native to Burma that continues to be systematically persecuted by the government. More than 400,000 Karen people are internally displaced in Burma. Karen refugees make up the majority of the 128,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand. Since 2005, more than 68,000 Karen refugees have resettled in the U.S.
Born and raised in refugee camps, the girls didn’t know a life beyond the confines of their makeshift home. Nor did they know of the violence that forced their families to flee to the camps. Their parents don’t discuss it with their daughters. Mimi says remembering “doesn’t make her dad feel good.”
Lancaster, their new home, was founded by immigrants fleeing religious persecution. It honours its historic values by resettling 20 times more refugees per person than any other town in America.
The girls’ families moved to the U.S. because it offered greater opportunities than refugee camps, where jobs — and futures — are limited. Adults rarely found work in the camps and often had to leave their families for long periods of time away to find work elsewhere.
While the girls attended school in their refugee camps, not all of their friends were so lucky. “Some people don’t go to school and some just get married — a lot of people can’t afford to go to school,” Mimi said of life in her camp. Tuition fees and costs of school supplies often prohibit refugee girls from accessing education.
Hsa Kpru agrees that the best thing about life in America is that school is free. Her family worries about her relatives still living in the camps who are struggling to pay for education and for medical needs. “We have to work hard for our food, our house, our water,” she says of her family’s life in Lancaster. “Still, we try to save money to help them go to school and get medicine.”
With the help of ESL classes and community arranged homework helpers, the girls are adjusting well to middle school in Lancaster. Ler and Hsa Kpru both achieved honour roll, an award that made Hsa Kpru’s dad “so proud.” Mimi hopes to combine her love of drawing and math to become an architect when she’s older, while her sister Pree Pree wants to become a doctor. “With education, you can choose your own job,” Pree Pree says.
After-school activities helped the girls to adjust to the new country. Mimi, Ler and Pree Pree are all part of the Mennonite Children’s Choir. Ler says the singing helps her improve her English, and Mimi finds it improves her confidence. Activities like choir are one of the girls’ favourite parts about life in Lancaster — Mimi says that in the refugee camps, “there wasn’t anywhere to go other than school.”
Pree Pree, Mimi, Hsa Kpru and Ler’s families all experienced firsthand the welcoming spirit of the Lancaster community thanks to organisations like Church World Service (CWS) that help them get acclimated to life in Lancaster. With the support of CWS and the broader Lancaster community, refugees from all over the world have a second chance at the lives conflict stole from their families.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.