Three of my four grandparents were immigrants from another country, arriving here on a ship through Ellis Island. The grandparent who was born here was the daughter of parents who also were immigrants arriving on a ship. Like many U.S. cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul have a long history of being a destination site for immigrants: Swedes, Norwegians, German, Irish, Czech, Slovak, and many more. In the late 1970s, after the Vietnam war, Hmong families began to be resettled to the U.S., primarily to this area. In fact, my sons' grade school was half white and half Hmong. A Somali refugee population began to build here starting the 1990s.
Lately, I've become personally involved, for the first time, with a refugee family, a family of ten from Karen. I had never heard of Karen before this family arrived. The Karen are a group of people from Myanmar (Burma). During World War II, the Burmese sided and fought with Japan while the Karen sided and fought with Britain. Based largely on this conflict, the Myanmar government wanted the Karen out of the country. Off they went through the forest, away from their homes, to refugee camps on the border of Thailand, where some wait much longer than a decade to immigrate to another country, such as the U.S. or Canada. (Did you know an entire people group is still bearing the physical burden of WWII?) When their turn comes, the airline tickets are paid for plus a per-person resettlement fee is granted. The refugees are expected to pay this money back over time. The local coordinator of the refugee program told us that the parents of refugee families will likely never see a financial benefit or perhaps even ease in their lives, but they do it for their children's future.
I have learned that the Karen people are known for their kindness and have found this to be true. During my first visit to their apartment, the Karen mother cooked and fed the three of us who were visiting a multi-course Karen meal and gave us each a traditional Karen woven skirt and blouse. As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, it is a thing of beauty. This woman could speak no English and owns very little, yet with a deep and true smile, gave us what she had.
This afternoon, my husband and I are going to visit the Karen family for an Independence Day celebration. I'm bringing watermelon and will wear at least part of the Karen clothing I received as a gift. My daughter-in-law (the key friend and helper of this family, giving so much of her time!) and son will bring other treats, as will a third family. Even while these refugees are working hard to learn the language and figure out how to earn a living, all while still being a family and caring for daily needs and finding friends, they are modeling what it is to be free and brave, and importantly, kind.
[Photo: taken of the blouse given to me by the Karen woman.]