My name is Kue May and I was born in 1998 in the Karen state called Kaw Thoo Lei, which was part of Burma, now called Myanmar. We lived in a village called Ta Pawn Dun. My family had to move to the forest because of the civil war conflict between the Burmese and the Karen people. We had to move a lot of times because once they found out that we were in a place, the Burmese soldiers would come and kill us. We had to keep moving from place to place. When they found out we were in the village they would come and kill all the animals and destroy our land. When we would hear the sounds of the guns, we would run to another place to hide. We tried to go together, but it was very difficult with kids because they would start crying. A lot people tried to go separately, but then the soldiers would see them, so we tended to go together most of the time. We would hide in the deep forest. We would have to run every three to four months. Now it is less often. The Karen people went to Washington DC to ask for help, so it has decreased, but it still happens a lot.
Living in the forest was very difficult. Like many others, I did not have access to a good education or healthcare. It was difficult for sick people to get treatment because nurses were unavailable at the time. Me and my sister only had three pairs of pants and my mom had to wash one a day while we were wearing the other ones. We had to keep changing. My house was built out of bamboo and the roof was built with tree leaves. The reason that we built our houses like this was because we could not stay in the same place for very long. We always had to run to find a new place to live in safety.
Before leaving the village we planted our own food; we planted rice and grew our own vegetables. When we left we had to leave it all behind. Sometimes if we were lucky enough we could come back to eat it, but sometimes we could not come back. Sometimes when the soldiers came into the village they would kill all of the animals in the village. My parents had water buffalo, chickens, pigs, cows, and ducks. Sometimes they would destroy everything and we couldn’t come back.
There are a lot of stories behind why the Burmese government was doing this and I have been trying to find out which story is true. I have heard from some older people that it is because the Burmese want to take over the land of the Karen people and they want to control everything. Other people say that it is because of the religion. The Burmese people are Buddhist and some of the Karen people are Christian. The two main types of Karen are Pwo Karen who are mainly Buddhist and the Sgaw Karen who are mainly Christian. I am Sgaw Karen. They are trying to make the Karen people into Burmese people. They think there are too many Karen people. There are about six million Karen people. My cousins live in Burma and they cannot study Karen language. They have to speak Burmese, they have to dress like them, they have to go to their school and cannot study or speak their language.
When I lived in the village I did not go to school because at that time it was really difficult. My mom actually taught children in the house when we had free time, but when we escaped we didn’t learn any more. She had gone to school through sixth grade, so she knows a little bit. In addition both of my parents farmed and took care of animals. My grandparents were there too.
Even though I was only four or five years old, I still have images in my head from that time. I saw everything. Sometimes it is traumatizing for me when I see things that remind me of that stuff. My sister and I are very close in age and I remember most of the stuff and she doesn’t remember anything. I don’t know why. I remember one time in the village we heard the sound from the village leader to gather us all together. One of the women went down to the river to gather water and someone kidnapped her. The village leader warned us. Early in the morning, around four in the morning, around the second time the rooster crows, we heard the sounds of the gun. We used roosters for our clock. We gathered together and we ran into the forest up the hill. We could still see what happened in the village. I saw that they burned the houses and killed the animals. We had a lot of pigs because a pig had just given birth and we had a water buffalo. They didn’t just kill them, after they killed them the spread them everywhere. A lot of the kids were crying and the parents had to cover the kids’ mouths because they were crying. The soldiers stayed there for two days and they killed all of the old people who stayed in the village because they couldn’t run anymore. I still remember all of that and it has become part of my story.
We didn’t want to leave, but we couldn’t stay there anymore. My mom wanted the best for the family so we moved. We moved to a Thai refugee camp called Mae Ra Moe in 2003 when I was five years old. There were six or seven different camps in Thailand. I lived in the refugee camp for seven years. It was a lot easier, but it was still hard because once we were there we couldn’t go out of the camp. We could not go back to the village because if the Burmese saw us, they would kill us. Neither could we go to Thai cities to work because Thai police would see us and put us in jail. Our life was no different from people who lived in jail. We were stuck in one place and could not move anywhere because of the fear of the Thai police and the Burmese soldiers.
They opened a school for us in the camp so I was able to study a little bit in Karen. My mom wasn’t one of the teachers. She worked for the Women’s Group. When there was a conflict in the family she had to go and find out what happened and make a judgment. She worked for the women and for the family. It was hard because the women asked their husbands to go work, but there was no work. My mom would go and help them, find out what they needed.
My dad opened a shop because he couldn’t do anything else. My mom had experience in the community. My dad used to be a Karen soldier, but then he quit. He was too scared. In each family one son had to be a soldier no matter what; my dad had three brothers so the military took him. He saw everything and it was too scary. My dad sold snacks in his shop. We sold the stuff that doesn’t go bad. We barely made any money. The Thai people came in with a big truck to sell things to us. We saved my mom’s salary to open the shop. The Thai people could come into the camp even though we could not go out. We would buy stuff and sell it later after they left.
In the camps we ate rice every day and we planted vegetables in the camp. We had some land because my uncle was already there. We were able to build a house and grow a lot of food and share between three or four families. Our house was a bamboo house with a roof of leaves. We got help because we lived in the refugee camp. UNHCR helped us with rice. If you had ten people in your family you could get rice so you wouldn’t be starving. Most of the donations were from other countries like the United States, Canada, or European countries.
They also donated fish paste because that was a need for the Karen people. But if we wanted to eat fish, we had to go to the river. If we wanted eat meat we had to go hunting. People would sneak out of the camp to hunt and fish. If the Thai police saw you, you would get arrested. One person would go and hunt a deer, but ten families would share it. My uncle would go fishing and would catch three or four fish and we would cook it in one big pot and then we would all eat it together. We cooked over a fire with firewood from the forest. We would put three rocks together to cook. There was no electricity. We had to carry water from the river. Because the river could become really, really nasty, we would go early in the morning, like four or five am, to get the clean water. My job was to get the water. We would also wash our clothes in the river.
In 2010 we came to the United States. It took about a year and a half. We were so excited because we wanted to have freedom to be able to go to school safely and work freely. When the day came, my parents filled out the application. In order to apply for it, the family must live in Thai refugee camp for 5 years and become OPE (Overseas Processing Entity). Single people cannot go; you must be part of a family.
Norway was the first country that opened to us. We applied for it, but my family didn’t get accepted. Then Canada, Australia, and Sweden. My dad wanted to wait for the Americans so that we could be safer. He wanted us to have freedom to live on our own and go to school. We would have a stable place to stay and to learn and have a job. I don’t know why, but he really wanted to come to the United States, that was his goal. My mom asked him, “What if you don’t get accepted to the United States, then what are you going to do?” He said he would apply to Canada, but he really wanted to come to the United States because he had heard a lot about it on the news. I had one uncle already living in the U.S.
You have to have the white paper that shows that you can apply. We went for an interview. The whole family must be present. If not, the application will be declined. After the interview we had to wait six months to one year to find out if we would be accepted or not. My family waited a little over six months and we got the results that we had to go for a medical check. We had to do a medical checkup for a week to make sure there would not be any serious disease that would stop us from going to the US. We went for medical checks and they told us to come back to the camp and wait for the result. A few months later, we got the results. The results said we were clear so we have to wait for the last step to come to the US. We waited six months and we finally had our name called and said that our family got accepted and we are in the final process, but they did not know exactly when we would have to leave so we just had to prepare and stay cautious. We could not get sick or leave the camp during that time.
Suddenly, one evening the camp leader came to see my parents and said that my family would have to leave tomorrow. It was almost dark. He called us right away and we gathered our stuff. The shop went to my uncle. It was just me and my parents and my sisters. My aunts and uncles ended up everywhere. Some are in the village or in the camp. We haven’t seen them for years now. We didn’t have time to do anything. We had to leave the house at five in the morning. All night we couldn’t sleep because we were excited, but at the same time we were so worried. I brought only my traditional clothes with me. It was too fast. They only gave us one night to prepare. I would have liked to bring something that would remind me of my family and my grandparents.
First we were going to go to Minnesota, but my uncle was living in Portland. He came here first and then he could help us. Before we could come we had to do another medical check in the city and they gave us training on how to communicate with people. I didn’t understand so I don’t think it helped me with anything. When we came here they already had a place for us, but it was so far away from my uncle. There is a Karen community in Portland. We have two Baptist churches, the one that I go to and another one. Ninety-nine percent of the people in the church are Karen people.
The buildings and people are so big here! The people in my village are very small. And the houses were tiny. And I came here and everything was so big. And there were lights everywhere. In my village in the daytime we used the sun and in the nighttime we used the moon. The lights were natural. We had candles, but they were only for the house. Here you go out on the street during the nighttime and you can see everything because there are a lot of lights on the street.
I didn’t like any American foods when I first came. They all smelled. Even the houses smelled different. In my village, because of the bamboo houses. the air would go in and out. But here because of the walls, the air cannot go out so it smells different. I had a hard time adapting to the smell.
It was October when I came here and it was cold. I remember that November there was a first snow at midnight. My uncle drove all the way to our house to wake us up at midnight to see the snow. In Burma and Thailand we have only three seasons and here there are four.
When we first got here, we tried to cook, but we didn’t know how to cook. They left us rice and a pot, but we didn’t know how to cook anything. We turned on the fan and we thought something bad had happened. We started praying because we were really worried. Eventually someone came from the social security office and showed us how to cook. Shopping was very difficult, too. My dad was pretty smart, so if they showed him one time he could do it.
I started going to school in February. I was twelve years old. My first day of school in the United States was incredibly difficult. I did not know how to speak, read, or write any English. I was lost the first day. They tried to show me where to get the bus and where to get off, but they didn’t tell me how many stops, so I got off at every stop and would get on again. The first day no one told me that I had to be in a specific class. This was Reynolds Middle School. Everyone gathered together in the cafeteria and I saw everyone there so I went with them. When the bell rang everyone went to their first class, but I had no idea where to go so I just followed people around. I kept walking around the building. A person saw me and tried to tell me what to do, but I didn’t understand. So they took me to the office and then sent me to a class, but I didn’t know what they were saying so I came back again to the office. Three times I came back to the office!
I was full of fear and worry because of the language barrier. For the first three months I was crying every single day when I came home after school. I told my parents I did not want to go back to school because I did not understand anything. Everyone in the class was born here and spoke English well. This became an issue because I did not understand anything that my teachers taught me. To fix this, I stayed after school to get help from teachers. When I got home, I tried to read books. As time went by, I started learning little by little. I started to understand what the teachers said and I could communicate with my classmates when I was in class. It was a humbling experience that made me feel a wide range of emotions such as embarrassment, excitement, frustration, and intimidation.
At that time there were not a lot of people learning English so they put us in together with the people who were born here. For the first month I was in class with the people who speak English and I had no idea what they were saying. Then they changed me to a newcomer class to learn the alphabet and basics. We had to pass a test called ELD (English Learning Development), and I passed mine when I was in the eleventh grade. I graduated from Reynolds High School and Portland Community College and now I go to Sumner College to study nursing.
My passion is to help people. My dedication to my family and community has also helped to hone my skills. I have acted as an interpreter for various members of my community. Some examples include taking them to offices or hospitals and helping them fill out the applications. This is because they do not understand the culture of this country, including the laws or the language. It was tough on all of us moving to a country without knowing anything at all. For us, it felt like being lost in a dark cave somewhere with no hope of help arriving. By standing up and helping my fellow people with even the smallest of things I have made a big impact for them and changed what they think about this country. When I help them, I feel like I am a little star shining through the darkness for those who get lost. I want to make sure everyone is able to receive help for what they want and need. There are so many ways that I can show them how much I care about them. Sometimes just listening to their problems really helps and it shows how much I care for them and respect them. Working closely with my community has opened my eyes and helped me solve all sorts of problems. I have high expectations of privacy and safety for the people I care for.
It is very important to know that everyone has a history and a personal story. After I passed my ELD and they put me with the American people, but no one wanted to be my friend because they didn’t think I could speak English. It was very hard. Even though I got straight A’s, no one wanted to be my friend because of where I came from. Even though it seems like American people have everything, they might have had parents who divorced and that was very painful. Every human has a story that is untold until we ask them.
The first three years in the United States were very challenging because everything changed suddenly. The switch over from bamboo and tiny house to a big huge house was shocking. A small village and camp turn into a big huge city overnight. My parents had language classes for about six months, but after that they had to find jobs. My father could not get any job because he did not speak any English. He had to go to Nebraska to work in order to support the family. He went to Nebraska because they have a meat factory, which was a place he could work when he didn’t speak any English. He was there a year and half. We had to be separated from my dad when my mom was pregnant. When my dad got back from Nebraska he couldn’t find a job, so my mom got a job in hotel housekeeping but she didn’t work long because my little siblings needed my mom. Now my mom stays home with the children and my dad works in a laundry.
When I came here I was with a refugee visa and after I had been here a year they gave us a green card. When I turned eighteen I applied for citizenship right away. I wanted to feel like I belong somewhere and have a place to call home. Before in Thailand I did not have a place to call home. I feel protected and safe, so becoming a citizen was very, very important because I can feel that I belong somewhere. When I got my citizenship I was crying during the ceremony. I don’t usually cry when I’m happy. I don’t know how to explain how happy I was to belong somewhere. I came home I told my family that they had to get their citizenship. Everyone in my family is a citizen now. Once I finish school I hope to give back to this country. Because of this country my family is able to live much better than we used to. My goal is to help people as a nurse. I owe so much to this country.
More context on the history and culture of Kawthoolei by PCC student McKenzie West: