Thar Thwai spent the first 13 years of his life in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand.
At age 20, now a Carrboro High School graduate studying sports management at Catawba College, he still remembers how it felt to live confined within the refugee camp borders. He remembers his parents’ stories of fleeing the military junta in Burma, sometimes called Myanmar.
Those memories, Thwai explained, are why he spent his Friday night back in Carrboro setting up for the Karen New Year celebration at Carrboro Elementary School. The memories are why he joined over 500 people Saturday morning, to celebrate the New Year with traditional dances, songs, and speeches, and to feast on fried rice and fresh cucumber.
“I think it’s important to get together so people can stay together, have community,” Thwai said. “When you move around a lot, it’s easy to move away from your culture, to leave your history.”
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“We know where we came from, what happened to us, why we’re here,” he added. “Even kids who were born here, I think it’s important for them to hear about what happened.”
Celebrated on the first day of the month of Pyathoe, the Karen New Year traditionally marks the culmination of the rice harvest. Across different Karen cultural and language groups, and even religions, it’s a day all Karen can hold in common.
As an ethnic minority, the Karen people have faced violence from a military junta that’s ruled Burma for over 50 years. Many Karen have fled to refugee camps, often in Thailand, before resettling in countries designated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
An estimated 1,000 Karen lives in the Orange County area. On Saturday, dancers in gleaming blue and gold costumes, and musicians beating a painted drum and clashing cymbals, performed the traditional “Don dance” before a packed auditorium. Dozens of attendees spilled out into the lobby and parking lot, catching up with friends and family from across the state.
The celebration drew members of Karen communities from Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Greensboro, High Point, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Durham – and even Richmond, Virginia. Christine Wai, one of the celebration organizers, explained that each of the North Carolina communities takes a turn hosting the event.
While there’s little rice harvest to celebrate in Carrboro, the New Year now marks a time for resettled Karen refugees to come together across religious lines. Some Karen are Buddhist, others are different Christian denominations – but everyone can share in the New Year, Wai said.
“At the Karen New Year, we don’t divide into religions,” she said. “Everyone can get together, peacefully…To be able to talk, and talk about what troubles they have, what needs they have, and to release the stress by talking together.”
‘Like brother and sister’
Way Thaw Htoo traveled from Richmond to celebrate. As he glanced across the lobby, he recognized faces he’d known from his 11 years spent in refugee camps in Thailand.
He recalled vivid memories of those years – like when police arrested him and his father for cutting bamboo stalks.
“I went to jail when I was 14 years old. I was trying to walk with my dad to get money for my family, cutting bamboo.”
“The police took us to jail. … We went 17 days with no food.”
That shared history, the shared heritage, forge a bond between him and other Karen refugees, Htoo explained.
“Even if we don’t know each other, we’re just like brother and sister … like tonight, if I don’t have anywhere to sleep, everyone’s happy to give you a place to sleep.”
Sharing the culture
North Carolina’s first Karen New Year events began as simple household celebrations, with one or two families gathered. When Christine Wai and her brother, Loyal Wai, first resettled in North Carolina in 1999, they were one of the only Karen families in the area.
As other families arrived, they looked to the Wais for help adjusting to the new culture – and for help sustaining their Karen culture. Karen families in North Carolina began organizing the first formal New Year celebrations in the early 2000s, according to Wai.
“Pretty much we were the first family when we arrived here, so they depend on us,” Wai said.
The Wais continue to help organize the ever-growing New Year festival – now with the goal of sharing their culture with other North Carolinians.
Outside the auditorium, May Noe was doing just that: teaching her friend, Elizabeth Lambert, about Karen phrases and traditions. Noe is a seventh-grader at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland; Lambert’s in the ninth grade at Cedar Ridge in Hillsborough.
“(In Karen culture), you can’t wear shoes in the house. You can’t tell elderly people to do things for you,” said Lambert.
Friends had even loaned Lambert a traditional Karen top, embroidered in pink and blue by hand.
Noe helped Lambert sound out the Karen words for “I’m hungry.” The two friends repeated the phrase back and forth: “Ya moh tha awe tah.”
Gabriela Rife, who works at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Newcomer Center, said the New Year celebration help her to connect more deeply with her students.
“I love it when I see my students out of school, like when I see them at their jobs, in areas where they’re competent … I like to get out and appreciate their skills,” Rife said.
“I get to see a lot of my former students. I get to hear from them – like one of my former students, she just told me that she’s a citizen now, and just bought a house,” Rife said.
As an endocrinology researcher at UNC and a new mother of a six-month-old son, Christine Wai described the challenges of juggling her daily responsibilities with organizing the Karen New Year celebration.
“It’s kind of hard, you know – you have a son you’re breast-feeding, while trying to put the program together, and then someone’s calling you.”
But that 6-month-old son is precisely the reason Wai believes in the celebration’s importance.
“So that our Karen community, the children especially, will get to learn who they are,” she said. “It’s important for us to teach them once a year, so they learn who they are.”
As he studies sports management, Thar Thwai also envisions creating stronger communities for Karen children. Now on the Catawba College soccer team, his goal is to support other Karen youth soccer players. Many refugee children, Thwai said, have the talent and passion for soccer, but not the transportation and funds needed to play in club leagues.
“What I want to do is organize a Karen youth soccer league – like there is for club soccer – so that there are more opportunities for Karen kids,” Thwai said.
Yet Thwai also emphasized the need to teach the history behind those opportunities.
“If I had children, I would definitely tell them about how their grandparents lived. I’ll make sure they know that there was a lot of struggle and fear they had to live with.”
“For the next generation, I want to make sure they know the opportunities they have.”