Karen find home in Lincoln

Panawdee sits with his son inside of Lincoln’s First Baptist Church.

Photo and stories by Becky Gailey

For 10 years, Panawdee lived behind a chain-link fence.

“You can leave sometimes, but just make sure the police don’t see you.”

The fence that contained his life, however, was also the one that had saved it.

Behind those chain links lived thousands of refugees who had started fleeing from Burma to Thailand in the 1970s to escape the civil wars that have ravaged Burma since its independence from Britain in 1948. Panawdee fled to Thailand in 1998 when he was 18. The United Nations began resettling the camp in 2006, and Panawdee left for America in 2008.

“The United States is the land of freedom, the land of opportunity,” he said. “People are treated the same, so I chose to come to the United States.”

Life in America was hard though because everything was different. Even Panawdee’s name was not the same. Traditionally, Karen have only one name, but the government forced him to split it into three different ones when he entered America, making his official name Pa Naw Dee.

When Panawdee arrived, there were only a few Karen in Lincoln, and he had to figure out many things by himself. Almost three years later, Panawdee’s wife and two sons have arrived, and he has become the unofficial leader of Lincoln Karen community, which now numbers more than 500 people.

“He is the most forward, curious, wanting-to-learn person that I’ve seen in the whole community,” said Martha Sorensen, who volunteers with the Karen. “He wants so badly to learn what is right. He is always asking what more can be done, and not just for himself, but for his whole community.”

After arriving in Lincoln, Panawdee began working during the day and taking English classes at night. When word spread that he could speak English, other Karen began flooding him with requests to help them. Not only did they not speak the language, but they had never had to pay bills, enroll children in school or use a bus system.

The Karen community faces more challenges than others groups because many of the adults were born in refugee camps, said Vanja Ilic, who helps resettle Karen through the Lutheran Refugee Services in Lincoln.

“All they know is life in camp; they don’t know society,” Ilic said. “They are like children going out into the world for the first time but they don’t know the language and the culture.”

As more and more people asked him for help at all hours of the day and night, Panawdee decided something needed to be done, so last March he opened up his home to his community.

Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday morning from 9 to 12, Karen come to Panawdee’s apartment for help. Sorensen, who first met Panawdee and the Karen through her church, calls doctors, schools and insurance company on behalf of the Karen. Wasana Soumpapanaponga, Panawdee’s wife, translates, an opportunity she eagerly uses to improve her English.

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Panawdee said it would be nice if the Karen could afford to rent an office space instead, but he is happy that he and his apartment are helping so many people.

“Our community, we are really like a big family,” he said. “We help each other to the best of our ability. One person finds how to get to the hospital and get food stamps, I find how to get a job and then we share with each other.”

Panawdee said more Karen are learning how to survive in America, but he is afraid his community is not integrating enough. Many Karen rarely interact with people outside of the community because not enough of them are learning English, he said.

“I would like to help people all the time, but I would like them to help themselves. We are struggling,” Panawdee said. “If they tell me they learn English, I am very happy. If they tell me they do not learn English, I tell them they need to go do something to learn English.”

Panawdee began working with Lutheran Refugee Services two years ago as a case manager because he wanted a job that would allow him to practice English. When he is not at his apartment, Panawdee is taking other refugees to appointments, translating for them and teaching them how to navigate life in America.

Having someone within the community working as a case manager is invaluable, said Ilic.

“He is available to people outside of the office, and they can rely on him on nights and weekends. They know him and trust that he can help them.”

Ilic said Panawdee is the exception though. With little English and a bad economy, most Karen end up working in factories or other entry low-level positions.

Karen speak their own language, called Karen, and do not identify with ethnic Burmese because they have persecuted the Karen since their country’s independence. The Karen rely heavily on the eight or so translators in their communities, but Ilic said that is natural. Once the first Karen refugees came to Lincoln in June 2007, many more followed because having someone who speaks Karen and English eases the transitions of others.

Although Panawdee said he wants his people to adjust to life in America, he also said he appreciates how the Lincoln community has allowed them to retain their culture, especially at Lincoln’s First Baptist Church.

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The Karen may be having troubles now, but they are working hard and always have a smile on their faces, Ilic said. She, Sorensen and Panawdee all expressed hope for future Karen generations.

“In a few years kids in school will become the leaders in their families,” Ilic said. “Then their kids will grow up with English and be active Americans. It will just always be harder for the adult population.”

Life in America is not easy, said Panawdee, but that is to be expected because most of the Karen in Lincoln have relocated several times and arrived in Nebraska with little more than a suitcase of belongings.

“We are very grateful to be here in Lincoln,” he said. “We have a very good community here and a couple of agencies that help us. We would like to say thanks to the government and everyone who has helped us.”

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