The Plight of the KarenBy Carol Reynolds
March 21, 2008
I loved listening to Eric B. Hare’s masterfully told jungle tales like Pip Pip, the Naughty Chick, and Silver and the Snake as I was growing up. Elder Hare was the Australian SDA pioneer who brought our message to the Karen (pronounced Kha-Ren’) people in Burma (now renamed Myanmar). Karen folklore foretold the coming of a white man with a golden edged black book. When the missionaries brought the Christian message, the Karen were some of the most receptive in Burma. Amid the prevailing animism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia, the Karen are one of the only groups that have been successfully evangelized, and are now approximately 50 percent Christian.
The Adventist message has taken firm root among the Karen people. There are also many Baptists among them. The Tidwell family served as SDA missionaries among the Karen during the early 1980s when my husband and I first went as missionaries to Thailand. We spent a week there, teaching health evangelism to their workers on the Burmese side of the border. What a joy it was to live so simply in the jungle and to see the faith of these people. Later we had Karen students that we dearly loved live with us. We have been concerned about the plight of this gentle and humble group of people ever since.
The Karen have been longing for freedom from the oppressive Burmese regime for over fifty years. They claimed a portion of eastern Burma as their own country, and defended themselves against the aggression of the Socialistic central government. This has been a long and bitter civil war, but the government of Myanmar has not budged. The Christian Karen especially, have been severely persecuted over the decades. The stories coming out of this area sound like biblical battles. Many times people gather in their churches and pray during battles, and amazing victories are won. But many Karen have had to flee their country to the Thai border for safety as the Burmese took over more and more of their territory.
Refugee camps have sprung up along the Thai/Myanmar border, and many Burmese have been there for over twenty years. Can you imagine that whole generations of Karen have grown up in these primitive camps? There are many Karen who are trapped in what is called "No Man’s Land" between the two countries. The central government soldiers loot and burn their villages and rice fields, rape the women, and kill indiscriminately. The Karen refugees flee to the jungles and are hunted as animals, subsisting on what they can find in the jungles to eat. This has been going on for decades and most of the world knows very little about it. Our Adventist Karen brothers and sisters have been continually persecuted and many have been martyred.
Just last month, February 2008, Martin and Liana Kim and I had the privilege of visiting the Mae Lae Karen refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand. It had been ten years since I had the opportunity to visit this camp. It seems that little has changed. Just getting to the border was an arduous trip with many military check points. Around 50,000 people live in primitive bamboo shacks behind barbed wire in this large camp. Children were everywhere. The SDA people welcomed us, as we celebrated an academy graduation and visited their primary schools. The seven churches in this camp have around 1,500 faithful members. These refugees are trapped there, unable to move illegally into Thailand because getting caught would mean being sent back to Burma where they would be jailed, tortured, or killed.
HOW CAN WE HELP THE KAREN?
On my flight home, I was surprised to find a group of about thirty Karen refugees in the back of the plane, on their way to live in America. I tried to communicate with them, but only one spoke a few words of English or Thai. The Thai stewardesses told me that many Burmese people had been coming on their flights to the States in the past year. They asked me why America wants them, and what are they going to do in America? As I observed them, looking and smelling like they just came out of a primitive jungle village, people who had no knowledge of our modern world, who do not speak English, and who broke the plane’s bathroom door because they had probably never used one like that before. I also wondered how they would be able to adapt to life in the USA. They need our help!!
From my research of the Karen situation, I found that in 2007 over 10,000 Burmese resettled in the United States and in 2008, many more were to be accepted. They are being sent to cities all across America. I understand that the U.S. government does help them at first with housing, basic needs and finding jobs. But after a few months, they are left to survive on their own. Although the U.S. had accepted a few Burmese in the past, this is the first time that large numbers are being accepted for resettlement here. It seems that there are no political solutions or peace for this sad situation in Myanmar.
I have called a number of new Karen arrivals in the U.S., and find that they often have no clue how to find Adventist people or churches. One young man told me that it was more than a year before he finally found one, and then it was so far away that he could not go very often. Two faithful members in another area were meeting quietly in their home each Sabbath, until finally someone passed on their names and we were able to connect them with a church family. This kind of story is repeated often. They need our help!!
THE GOOD NEWS!
Last fall, the ASAP board voted to include Burma as one of the Southeast Asian countries that ASAP will serve. Our trip to the refugee camps was exploratory--to assess the needs and find out more ways ASAP can be involved. ASAP is now helping with the support of medical missionaries and health training through Pr. Phamor. ASAP will be looking at sponsoring additional projects and schools within the camps and "No Man’s Land" where the people are in even greater danger and need.
Right now we can reach out to help those newly arriving refugees to the United States (as well as those going to Europe and Australia). They are in need of friends and instruction on how to live and survive in Western countries. They need to be connected with Adventist churches and loving Adventist people. Their children need Christian influence and education. They need to learn a new language. They need our help!!
Above all, the Karen need God. Not all of them are Christians or SDAs. When people are displaced, they are often the most receptive to the gospel. This happened among the Cambodians during the 1980s. Now God’s church is rapidly growing there because of ministry that was done in the refugee camps during the time when they were most needy. Most of the Karen would prefer to have peace and stay in their own country. In fact, many of the older people are choosing to stay in the camps rather than struggling to adjust to life in a new country. Last month several of our members in the camp came to me with the names and addresses of their sons or daughters who are now in the U.S.
These faithful Adventist brothers and sisters need our help!!
ASAP plans to add a section in our new upcoming website for the Karen. It will include ideas on how to help newly arriving refugees. We will have names and addresses of churches and people who are ministering among the Karen. We will seek to educate the SDA North American members about the Karen and how to help them. We want ASAP to be a place where the Karen can find help and connect with resources and people to assist them. And we will be praying about ways to be more involved in the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis along the Thai/Myanmar border and in "No Man’s Land."
Please pray for miracles to take place for the Karen and pray about how you can be involved. Feel free to contact the ASAP staff with any news or thoughts you have about these plans.
Click here to read the touching testimony of one volunteer in Albany, New York, who is reaching out to the Karen in her community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carol Reynolds, along with her husband Byron and three boys, Jonathan, Michael, and Daniel were missionaries in Thailand for over twelve years. She currently resides in Tennessee and works as a nurse though her heart remains with the people of Southeast Asia. ASAP is blessed to have Carol and Byron as members of the Board of Directors.