BYU offering first Karen class taught at an American university

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Bryce Lundstrom laughs with a Karen woman named Pee Haw Paw in Minnesota. Lundstrom served the Karen people in their native language for two years on a church service mission. (Bryce Lundstrom)

According to instructor Laesgaw K’Chawtee, BYU is offering the first Karen cultural class at an American university. The Karen or Kayin people generally live in southeast Asia in Myanmar and Thailand.

Karen is an ethnic group who have resided in Burma, or Myanmar, for over 2,000 years and were among the first inhabitants of the region, according to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“There are a lot of Karen refugees in the U.S., and this class will help students relate to them and their culture instead of just seeing them as a number,” K’Chawtee said. “It will establish relationships that will create a lot of help for Karen people and give students the desire to serve.” 

Many of the Karen, like 12-year-old refugee Ta Bleh, have fled Burma due to religious and ethnic persecution from the government.

Reality for Ta Bleh was gathering what was left of his friend’s body and dragging him miles back to the refugee camp they grew up in after childhood play turned into a landmine explosion.

K’Chawtee said he hopes to cover cultural aspects of the Karen people such as marriage, traditional dance, art, history, politics and other topics the native people value and want the world to know about them.

“Hopefully next semester we can work something out with language studies and start Karen 101,” K’Chawtee said.

This text is an example of Karen writing. The Karen language is another part of Karen culture that K’Chawtee hopes to preserve in FLANG 330R. (Photo courtesy of Omniglot)

K’Chawtee said there are already 10 people signed up for the class, which he believes is great for a first-time language and culture class at BYU.

“The culture is truly amazing and these people changed my life,” said Brooke Freeman, a BYU student who served a Karen-speaking mission in Minnesota. “If this class can have the same effect on others that would be amazing.”

Freeman learned about and worked with several organizations to help Karen people during her mission in Minnesota.

“Educating ourselves is the best way, or at least the starting point, for understanding the conflict in Myanmar because we have so much to gain from learning about cultures outside our own,” Bryce Lundstrom, a BYU sophomore who served with Freeman and will be taking the class next semester, said. “The Karen people are truly amazing and it is a worthwhile investment in time to understand where they come from.”

Ya Kho, a Karen refugee who settled in Minnesota, believes that this class will help spread awareness about his culture and the struggles his people are going through back in Myanmar.

“They are running away from a war that is trying to destroy their culture, so they want to teach about their culture to preserve it,” K’Chawtee said. “The more people know about their culture, the less power the regime has to destroy it.”

K’Chawtee said the class will not only share their culture, but also the story of destruction that follows it.

“Currently there is an incredibly violent military coup taking place in Myanmar,” said Jesse Phenow, co-executive director of The Urban Village, a non-profit organization that accompanies Karen and Karenni youth as they connect, heal and settle in the United States. “They don’t care who they kill as long as they retain their control.”

Phenow explained this is not the first military coup and the military elite have controlled Myanmar since 1962 and that there has been a history of violence toward ethnic minorities long before then.

“The people of Myanmar are rising up to fight back against the military all over the country, but the military has lots of resources and tools of destruction,” Phenow said.

Phenow said that people are not fleeing because there is nowhere to flee to. 

According to Phenow, alongside the few that manage to make it to refugee camps in Thailand and the even fewer who make it to the United States, there are over 2 million internally displaced people within Myanmar right now.

“It is one of the longest civil wars in history,” Lundstrom said. “The Burmese government was doing what a lot of Karen people call ‘Burmicifaction’ where if you aren’t Burmese, or won’t ‘become’ Burmese, they will kill you or drive you out of the country.”

The fear and violence within Myanmar because of this mass genocide has led more than 117,000 Burmese refugees to resettle in the United States from 2008-2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Burmese Refugee Health Profile.

Kho explained that he was born in a Thai refugee camp, where he lived with his family until they immigrated to the United States when he was 13.

“I was nervous and excited at the same time because it was my dream, but for us it is not easy,” Kho said.

Kho is now 25, and lives safely with his wife and two children in Minnesota.

“Sometimes I have a dream that I am back in the camp and I’m so angry to be back,” Kho said.

Freeman said she heard many stories on her mission of pregnant Karen mothers running from the Burmese, who would not even spare their women and children.

“It breaks my heart,” Freeman said. “They have been through so much and I wish I could do more to help them because I’ve grown to love them so much that they’re like family to me.”

Phenow explained that Karen struggles do not end when they come to the United States, since newly arrived refugees face challenges like housing scarcity, education inequality, unfair wages and language barriers.

“I look at the conditions they live in here in America, working 9 to 9 jobs at the worst pay, only to come home to hungry kids in rat and lice-infested apartments with a dozen people per bed in every house, and yet they never complain because this is heaven compared to the life they were living,” Lundstrom said. “That’s humbling for me, and it makes everything in my life seem trivial.”

Lundstrom said that any donations to places like the Urban Village, or the Karen Organization of Minnesota would always help, but even just knowing who they are does too.

“We’ve been proximate to real violence and danger, and while we don’t love the danger, we do love standing in solidarity with people whom we care deeply for,” Phenow said, speaking about the Urban Village. “They know we’re there because we believe they are worth our lives.”

K’Chawtee said that taking this class will help bring light to this fading culture, which he believes is the most meaningful thing he can do for the Karen people who have fought so hard to preserve it.

These are pictures of large gatherings with food eaten on the floor in Karen culture. Freeman said they call these gatherings a “Bah ywah.” (Brooke Freeman)

Lundstrom explained that Karen people are especially proud of their culture, so learning little things about them goes a long way.

“I wish more people realized that they probably live in the same city or neighborhood with someone from the Myanmar diaspora,” Phenow said. “I know a handful of Karen and Karenni people who live in Provo or Salt Lake City, so this directly affects the people around you.”

Data from the Refugee Processing Center showed that Burmese refugees were the second largest number of refugees entering the United States and the sixth largest entering Utah based on country of origin in September 2022.

K’Chawtee said one reason people should consider taking the class is to fulfill the mission of BYU, which is to go forth and serve.

“Go find your ‘other,’ sit at their feet, and get curious,” Phenow urged. “I promise it will change your life forever.”

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