ISC Case Worker and Karen Interpreter Klee Shwe brightens our office every day with her friendly smile and can-do attitude, and recently she shared her gift for giving with Karen refugees halfway around the world.
In late December, Klee went on a month-long adventure of a lifetime when she travelled to Thailand to serve with PowerMentor, a leadership development organization. The group visited the large Karen (pronounced kah-RIN) Eintuta refugee camp on the Salween River, the natural border between Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand. The entourage of 40 volunteers included nurses, medical students, teachers, and others who are committed to helping with the refugee crisis.
Klee herself had spent her childhood at another refugee camp, Tham Hin, 10 hours to the south. When she was just a year old and her sister Ehtheyu was 2, her parents fled their home when the Burmese army invaded their small farming village and set the homes on fire. The family lived at the camp for 10 years, and Klee, now a Buffett scholar majoring in International Studies at UNO, felt compelled to return to her roots and see for herself what the situation is like today.
After two weeks at the river camp, Klee traveled with a friend to visit Tham Hin. The friend had spent his childhood with Klee at the camp before he and his family were resettled in Indiana. Most Americans may not know that arriving at a refugee camp is only the start of a long, arduous journey. Some statistics note that the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years and, as of 2015, 59.5 million people were displaced worldwide. Of this number, a staggering 51% are children under the age of 18. Klee, herself only 22, is particularly concerned about refugee youth. Camp-life is a dull, unfulfilling existence for all residents, especially young people, she explains. With little formal schooling and no opportunities for work, the youth languish.
Small, but mighty, Klee proved to be an intrepid traveler. After visiting Tham Hin, she and her friend decided to risk journeying to the tiny village where Klee was born, passing through three heavily-guarded checkpoints. Klee admits it was frightening, and explains that she traveled “as a refugee, and not as an American citizen” so as not to create suspicion. Though it was challenging (they slept in the jungle at times), she said the trip was well worth it. At her village, which has been partially rebuilt, she met many people who remembered her parents, and she even posed in one of the canoe-like boats in which she was born. Another special memory was leading the village children in a laughter-filled game of musical chairs. They loved the attention and begged her to return soon.
Klee doesn’t know if she will ever return to the village of her birth, but she does hope to return to the refugee camps someday.
“We are very privileged to live here compared to those people,” Klee notes. “People moved here for a better life, and now that we have a better life, I think it’s important that we not forget our people. We once had to go through all that, too.
“I wanted to know more, too, so that maybe I can help more in the future. Even if I don’t return permanently, I hope I can go back and forth and help the community on each visit.”