I’m not much of a gambler, but I’d be willing to bet that those reading the title of this post are thinking Karen is a woman’s name . . . which it obviously is. What most of us may not realize is that the term also refers to the third largest ethnic group in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar in southeastern Asia), numbering approximately 7.5 million.
Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the Karen. I certainly knew nothing about the ethnic fault lines within Burmese society or the violent clashes over the past two centuries between various factions within the country. And if someone had told me that over a period of several decades some 200,000 Karen had been driven from their homes and villages as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, only to wind up in refugee camps in Thailand, I would have stared blankly: Karen who?
Last night, a group of 12th graders in our Siyyum program joined me as we traveled to a modest apartment complex off Phillips Highway, just north of Emerson. There we met members of the Kwae family, Karen refugees granted political asylum in the United States . . . one of the lucky few among the world’s refugees (little known fact: only 1% of all refugees are granted asylum by the world’s nations). The meeting between ourselves and the Kwae family was the culmination of many months of discussion and research among our 12th graders, who were charged with the task of designing a project of tikkun olam (social action) within the Jacksonville community. Our conversations led us to World Relief, an international organization that guides the resettlement of refugees around the globe. Each year in Jacksonville alone, the local affiliate of World Relief helps to acclimate hundreds of newcomers to our city, and a world that is utterly and frighteningly unfamiliar.
Imagine never flying on a plane before. Imagine landing in a country where you can neither speak nor read the language. Imagine encountering indoor plumbing, a supermarket or a washing machine for the very first time. You and I can’t . . . but members of the Kwae family can and have.
Through World Relief, these refugees attend English classes, learn how to navigate public transportation, open a bank account, and find a job. Their children enroll in local schools, and these families slowly begin to travel the road toward social integration in the tapestry of America, whose very fabric is woven from successive waves of immigration.
Over the course of the coming weeks our 12th graders will help the Kwae family by extending a helping hand and making them feel welcome. We will teach them how to type and use a microwave; we’ll help them practice their English, and take them for a visit to the zoo and the beach — two places they have never been. We will play with their children, ages 5, 3 and 1, and if we are successful, they will feel a little less like strangers in a strange land. As the first synagogue group in Jacksonville to work with World Relief I’m proud of our 12th graders, and you should be, too.
I can see myself in the reflection of these refugees’ lives. The Karen people come from a vastly different background than my own, yet there are shared echoes of experience. As the grandchild of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island with thousands of others, I find myself thinking about the challenges my grandparents faced as new arrivals more than 90 yeas ago.
Equally important, as Jews having just completed our annual celebration of freedom at Passover, it is vital we remind ourselves that the story of the Israelites didn’t end with their crossing of the Sea. Time and again in the desert they expressed a preference for the certainty of enslavement over the insecurity of freedom. True liberation is about so much more than the mere absence of slavery; it requires a readiness to face the vicissitudes of an unpredictable and complex world. Against the background of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt, we can better appreciate the spirit of a Burmese family and their courageous leap of faith into the unknown.