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Karen tribe at home in Mayo

Karen men Nay Sui (left) and Kwee Kwee at music lessons in Castlebar.
Karen men Nay Sui (left) and Kwee Kwee at music lessons in Castlebar.?Pics: Alison Laredo

Home away from home

Members of a persecuted Burmese ethnic minority are delighted to call Mayo their new home

Edwin McGreal

Sometimes we forget how fortunate we are in this part of the world. Ireland may be in the middle of an economic recession and far too many people are boarding aeroplanes in search of work in foreign climes.
But when you listen to the story of the 100 or so Karen people currently living in Mayo, you appreciate just how difficult life can be for some people in this world.
The Karen, the largest ethnic minority in Burma, have been persecuted by the military government there for close on fifty years. Freedom is not something they are on first name terms with. Most of the Karen in Mayo ran from their villages and had to flee to refugee camps just over the Thai border, under threat from the military.
Many of the journeys were fraught with peril as families fled through wild forests for weeks and months in the search of safety. Many of them lost family members when the military attacked. More still have physical scars to remind them. The lucky ones made it to the refugee camp of Ban Don Yang. There they found safety but not a lot else. Over 4,000 people were there and conditions were primitive. Many of the families were there for over ten years. Some of the younger Karen were born there.
Eighteen families were then fortunate enough to be placed on the Irish Government UN Refugee Resettlement Programme. They knew precious little about Ireland but it was going to be very different to their lives theretofore. They were leaving behind homes in the camp made of bamboo and with just one room for all the family to live in. In Burma they were a hill tribe people, living in forests.
They came to Ireland and practically everything was new. Concrete houses, electricity, showers, shops and, most difficult of all, a language most of them hadn’t a word of.
That was in 2007. Ten families arrived first to Ballyhaunis for an induction programme nearly two months long before moving to their new lives in Castlebar. Eight more families followed later and were resettled in Ballina. Five years on four of them arrive at Mayo Intercultural Action (MIA) – a body who have been of untold assistance to the Karen in Mayo – to talk to The Mayo News about their experiences.
Their English isn’t fluent but what is crystal clear is how warm and open they are. They laugh and joke with John Hoban and Isabela Basombrio Hoban, who have worked with them through the medium of music, and all are very engaging with Michelle Rooney of MIA. Those who witnessed their early experiences testify how hard it was for the Karen in the early stages of life in Ireland. But with a very positive attitude, they laugh heartily and with no ego when recalling their early difficulties.
“It was hard going to the shops and knowing what we were buying. One person bought black pepper when they thought it was coffee and they didn’t know that until they tried to drink it,” chuckles Phaw Shee Hta, a grandmother.
Phaw Shee Hta (pronounced Paw She Ta) came to Ireland having never seen a computer and having no English. She now checks online every day to check on news from Burma. Her English is constantly improving too but there are some things that trip her up.
“He or she can be very hard to know the difference between. I might refer to a man by calling him ‘she’ which he doesn’t like! Another one is when I am asked ‘how are you doing’? I would say ‘nothing’ because I had no job and thought the question was ‘what are you doing’? Irish people talk too fast too,” she laughs.
“My English is a little better but I need to stay improving,” says Po Kweh, a man at the top of the table. “The letter H is a problem. I can get mixed up between chicken and kitchen. People get frightened when I say ‘I am going to cook the kitchen’!”

Back in 2007 an ad in the local papers asking for volunteers to help with a Karen Befriending Group prompted Maireád Horkan to get involved. Since then she has seen at close hand the Karen community adapt with great determination to life in a strange land.
“Their level of English has improved hugely. The first year was very challenging for them, a lot of the communicating was done through smiling and pointing. Some of the younger members got their Leaving Cert Applied exams within a few years of arriving here which was a huge achievement. They are a very determined community, they will try and try until they get there,” Maireád tells The Mayo News.
Work opportunities have been limited thus far. The language barrier was one obvious difficulty as are the lack of job opportunities generally in Ireland and the lack of work history here but it is what the Karen have been moving towards.

three Karen children in the back garden of Po Kweh’s home

“Work is probably the next step,” said Maireád. “What has been happening up to now is learning English and adjusting to life here. They are eager to work. Initially they’ve been receiving social welfare and funding from the UN programme but they are quite proud and would prefer to be working,” she adds.
Hsar Bnay Say (pronounced Sa Be Say) is a young mother who completed her Leaving Cert Applied in Davitt College, Castlebar and is now looking to work.
“It is hard to get work but I do voluntary work in a charity shop,” she explains.
And what started out as volunteering has developed into something more familiar for Maireád Horkan.
“I started off working as a volunteer but I now feel part of the community. I would find it really hard to walk away now. They have integrated very well in Castlebar. Anyone who has come into contact with them has spoken very highly of them.
“They are quite like the Irish in that they are very social. They are very proud and also very respectful. From talking to teachers in schools, they would all talk about how wonderfully behaved they are too,” adds Maireád.
In recent months some Karen have learned to drive, ‘something that was very much alien to their lifestyle in Burma and in the refugee camp. Some have started working and volunteering locally and many more are undergoing various courses such as Community Development. With the help of Susie Fry, the Karen have learned how to cultivate their own vegetables which most of them do in the back gardens of their houses. They’ve adapted with remarkable ease to life in Ireland when you consider their starting point. Many of the new additions to the Karen community have been given Irish names such as Óisin and Saoirse.
But they’re very keen not to neglect their own rich culture either. They’ve enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with well-known local musicians John Hoban and his wife Isabela Basombrio Hoban. Through the language of music and dance the Karen people have learned much about Irish culture, just as John and Isabela have enjoyed Karen culture.
“All of the Karen people I have met are very musical. The Karen symbol is the drum but they are also very much into music as a singing mechanism as much as through instruments. They would especially use the drum and the Karen harp which are very important instruments to their culture,” said John.
“They’re an amazing community, not only are we teaching them but they are teaching us,” continues Isabela. “So many lives have been enriched by the Karen community in this town. It has been very important and rewarding for the local people to enjoy and be privileged with their community. The Karen community show great tolerance and diversity too. An immigrant like me can learn a lot from them,” she added.
Saw Tun, a Karen male in his 20s, has learned several reels on his banjo under John Hoban’s tutelage. He lists ‘Shoe the Donkey’ as his favourite. Some Karen have undertaken Irish dancing lessons too.
“We do Irish dancing in Ballyheane with Irish people - it is very hard! But I really enjoy the different culture. I really like Irish culture,” says Phaw Shee Hta.
By this stage 57 of the Karen community in Mayo have been granted Irish citizenship. For one of the ceremonies in Dublin, a group of them learned off the Irish national anthem to sing at the ceremony.
“But when we were there there was Irish [language element] in the ceremony so we sang the anthem outside afterwards instead,” recalls Po Kweh.

Many of them now consider Ireland home but they haven’t neglected their native soil either. They yearn for peace in their homeland. Some will return home in such an eventuality while others will visit but with Mayo as their permanent home.

Phaw Shee Hta carrying a flag in the St Patrick’s Day Parade.?
Local Sinn Féin Cllr Therese Ruane is also a co-founder of Mayo Intercultural Action (MIA) who has worked closely with the Karen community since their arrival. Their hopes for peace and freedom for the Karen in Burma have been constant, as she recalls.
“The day they landed in Ireland was the day the monks started marching in Burma. The monks are so revered in Burma that people thought the military wouldn’t touch them and the feeling was that this would start things towards change. The teenagers saw these pictures on TV when they arrived at Dublin Airport and thought they would be able to turn around and go home. But the military arrested the monks, a lot went missing and things continued as they had,” explained Cllr Ruane.
But there is renewed hope. The recent election success of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party - who won 43 out of the 45 contested seats in the lower parliament - has served as a springboard for change.
“The military government are one of the most oppressive regimes around but in the last year there has been a move towards economic and political reform. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited their recently for the first time and peace talks have begun with different ethnic armies, including the Karen National Union.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s success has given hope that there will be a move towards political and peaceful revolution. The military are still committing human rights breaches but the Karen group in Castlebar feel more hopeful than ever before,” adds Cllr Ruane.


Mayo Intercultural Action are hosting an information night on Burma this Wednesday at 8.30pm in the Welcome Inn Hotel, Castlebar. Keith Donald and Eileen Seymour from Burma Action Ireland will be in Castlebar to share their experiences while members of the Karen community will also speak about their experiences in Burma, the refugee camps and life here in Ireland.