So many impressions flood my mind as I wind my way in a rental car through downtown San Diego en route to visit the Karen community. I am here for a site visit to learn more about these new Americans. The Karen (pronounced kah-ren) are one of Burma’s many ethnic groups who have been granted refugee status to resettle in the United States. Through a Living Cultures Grant, support for weekly classes has brought middle school and high school youth together to learn traditional Karen dances from four dance instructors, including Ms. Hsit Hsa Paw. She is a culture-bearer who, for 22 years, taught dance in the two refugee camps where she lived on the Thai-Burma border. She is a young woman, I discover when I finally meet her, who has never been to her ancestral home having fled Burma with her family as a three-year-old child.
The Karen Organization of San Diego (KOSD) was established in 2009 to aid with the influx of refugees to Southern California. As a community-based organization, KOSD works very closely with four resettlement agencies in greater San Diego. In five short years they have assisted in resettling 90% of the refugees from Burma who arrived from nine different refugee camps in Thailand. Some of the families have waited a quarter of a century for the paperwork between the U.S. government, Thai government, and the UN High Commissioner on Refugee Status to align marking their passage to the United States. The San Diego community constitutes 200 families, which by American standards are typically large with seven or eight people in each household. Households can also be three or four generations strong. Close to 2,000 Karen people now make San Diego their home since 2007, and most have utilized KOSD’s social services which attend to basic needs for housing, health, and food subsides. But the agency is also aware that well-being and the continuity of cultural expressions are sustenance in the acculturation process.
This grant from ACTA, I learn, is the first-ever support they have received for any arts and culture program. When you are on the front lines of refugee resettlement, federal monies are not looking to the arts as the important lifeline we know them to be. With more Karen families due to arrive beginning this August, KOSD is bracing for a new wave of resettlement work to begin.
Walking into a room of middle school and high school youth, I sense immediately how comfortable these 30 teens are with one another. They are enjoying the camaraderie while intent on learning the bamboo stick dance from their dance instructor. Lining the floor is a grid of PVC poles that they will dance through as others sit cross-legged on the floor and beat out a rhythm. Clothing, hairstyles, and the casual use of cell-phones that sit lazily on a lap or are recording the activity, are the typical signs that these are indeed young teens. The feeling of this weekly class of traditional dance feels more like a warm family party. They are getting along. No disaffected attitudes here, I note.
The dance instruction is given primarily in the Karen language, punctuated by the percussive beat of Ms. Paw who cues in English, “one, two, three,” as dancers begin the complicated footwork pattern over and in-between the bamboo poles. On the wall behind them are maps drawn of the patterns they will create as they move through the poles. They need practice, dexterity, and confidence to perform the bamboo dance without looking at their feet. They are also having great fun.
“These kids do not have time to be regular teenagers,” remarks Nao Kabashima, executive director of KOSD and co-founder of the nonprofit agency. “Most of their parents do not speak any English and so they often must act like the head of the household.” She explains that among the many changes for newcomers in general, there are myriad forms to fill out including health forms, rental agreements, social security papers, immigration status papers, school enrollment forms, and more. These young people often negotiate for their entire families. Tensions can occur when parents want to assert their status over their teens who must also negotiate their own identities. Living in one of San Diego County’s most diverse school districts, their classmates come from other countries like Vietnam, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, and Mexico. Their interaction with mainstream American life is experienced through a complex lens.
KOSD is a nexus point for the Karen community. Once the office was established, families began to move into the neighborhood and many walk to the office. Here the youth meet to develop their leadership skills, focus on school success strategies, and discuss together their concerns. They often talk about how to make their community stronger and about the refugee camps they left behind. They are animated by a sense of caring and responsibility. “The youth are so close to one another; they are like family,” Ms. Kabashima affirms.
Many of them aspire to become nurses and social workers. This focus is understandable given the chaos and trauma that the community has experienced. The Karen live with the reality of violence in a personal and overt way. Many of the San Diego refugees are amputees, reflecting years of hiding in the jungles which were riddled with land mines. “The young people care deeply about their families and this community,” is the refrain I hear and sense from observing this session of traditional dance practice.
Performing traditional dances of the Karen people is one way that the youth feel they bring joy to their elders. For dance teacher, Hsit Hsa Paw, it is a way to assure that these cultural treasures that embody the Karen aesthetics and values will continue into the future. For the community as a whole, this cultural expression among the many traditional art forms of the Karen, is a means to assert their identities beyond fear. The dancers perform within their community for events like Karen New Year as well as for the larger community. The troupe performed for World Refugee Day, which was observed on June 20th in San Diego.
When asked how the youth identify themselves to those outside of their community, I am told that they often say they are Karen from Thailand. While this may be true by birth certificate, this is surely the short answer to what is likely a long and complicated conversation about Karen identity and history. They proudly identify as Karen because they can. It is not taken for granted.
For more information on KOSD, please visit their website at http://www.karensandiego.org.