November: A Karen Immigration Story

Hla/Paw family by their house in the Thai Refugee Camp. Daniel is missing. November is on the left.

Not everyone in my family made it to Saint Paul. My parents were village people, until the villages were burnt down. Hiding in the jungle, their food was stolen; their friends and relatives starved. Our people, the Karen, were attacked because we have a different culture, language, and religion. My father was shot through his hand. It took a long time to heal.

Let me explain. My name is November Paw. My parents fled Burma (Myanmar), over mountains and a great river, before I was born in 1992.

My entire life was in the Mae La refugee settlement in Thailand. Mae La is a large camp of 50,000 people. Our family of nine lived in a small bamboo house. The United Nations provided beans, rice, tea, and cooking oil for our survival, but the food was very boring. To add spices to our food, my brother Daniel snuck out of the camp to a job giving elephant rides to tourists. I went to a Karen school taught by the older children, and we all went to a Baptist church in the camp. My grandfather had been a pastor back in Burma.

My parents asked to live in America because there is freedom and good education. The day we arrived in Saint Paul my mother was happy, but she cried for all that was left behind. My oldest brother, Daniel, could not come to America because he was married. I remember my father became excited when he saw all the cars. But I was sick—starving, dizzy, tired. There was no food on our three-day journey to Minnesota, and for even more days the food I ate would not stay down.

Many people helped us when we arrived in August 2007 to be with my aunt in Saint Paul. on my first day of school, we rode a bus, but none of the Karen children knew what to do when we got there, so we waited on the sidewalk. Later some teachers came out and put us on another bus to the English-learning school. My friend Ron says I speak English well now.

He says I am very smart.

November Paw in Minnesota

My dad has a job in a food processing plant and my mother is learning English. She laughs and says she learns many words one day and they all go away the next. She has never gone to school before. She hopes the Karen in America will remember their language, handmade clothes, and food. Rice is better here than in Thailand. But in winter, my face hurts as I walk up Rice Street in snow to the store. The wind is frightening and painful. I am learning how to stay warm.

I wonder, did you ever wake up in the night and be afraid for your life? Sometimes the Burmese military came into the camps and chased us into the forest. We had to be very quiet in the dark or we would be killed. I worry about that still.

Minnesota is a safe place. We each have our dreams and hopes. My parents want all of us children to have a good education and jobs some day, and they want to live in a house and not an apartment. I dream that I will be a nurse when I am older. And we all pray that the Karen people can someday have their own country, that the myo dong (genocide) will stop.

Joyous news! My brother Daniel and his wife and children have just come to America. They can live in our same apartment building! I will see Daniel’s new baby for the first time. I can be an aunt!

Ta blit, Minnesota. Thank you.

November Paw (she was indeed born in November) is now a student at Roseville Area High School. She’s taking many mainstream classes like physical science and algebra. Recently, she was honored as student of the trimester! This summer, in her spare time, she hopes to learn Spanish, piano basics, anatomy, and how to be a good badminton player.

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