Finding Refuge in Omaha: The Karen Community’s Perseverance through War, Displacement, and PandemicFeb 15, 2021 10:10AM ● By Doug Meigs and Manger Baw
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Note: This story alternates between first-person testimony from Manger Baw (in italics) and third-person reportage from Doug Meigs.
"Run! Run! Run!" the villagers screamed as my father ran, holding me tight, protecting me from bullets. That is my first memory. I was a baby. Militants backed by the Burmese government attacked our refugee camp with guns and bombs. The cozy bamboo hut that my father built turned to ash as the village burned. When I close my eyes, I can still see the flames.
The Associated Press reported, “For Burmese refugees, nowhere to hide” (Jan. 30, 1997). A two-day assault by marauding guerillas of a rival faction, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, left thousands seeking shelter on the roadside or fleeing into the jungle: “At least 7,000 men, women, and children were homeless following raids on three refugee camps.” The militants returned in March 1998, a third assault on the camp in only three years.
So began the life story of Manger Baw, a child of diaspora born into Huay Kalok refugee camp in western Thailand near the Myanmar/Burma border. Her parents were civilians, Baw said, displaced by decades of armed conflict in the jungle highlands of their ancestral homeland. Hers is a story familiar to the growing community of Karen refugees who have resettled in Nebraska.
While local Karen (pronounced Kah-Ren, emphasis on the second syllable) have endured recurring trauma and hardship—civil war; displacement as refugees; overseas resettlement; evacuation from condemned apartments in Omaha; and, most recently, heightened COVID-19 exposure risk due to the community’s large number of “essential workers” in meatpacking jobs—their perseverance in the face of adversity is the common thread that unites their community in “The Good Life” they have worked so hard to attain.As the refugee camp burned, Dad took our family to the Buddhist temple for safety. All of the houses were destroyed, and we had nowhere to live. Then, the Thai government ordered us to move to an uninhabited place. The new camp was named Umpiem Mai, located on a hill. It was rainy, foggy, and cold. Two people died the day we arrived.
My parents cut back the long grasses to clear land for our new bamboo house. For the first week, we only ate cabbage and rice, and we slept under a tarp. Everyone was struggling, but we helped one another as best as we could. Dad built our house near a stream, and he kept a vegetable garden with flowers and mango trees. Every morning, I would wake up and help my parents with gardening. As a child, I did not understand hardship or worry. All I knew was eating, playing, and sleeping.
Within the fenced refugee camp, I helped my father sell fruits and vegetables from our garden. Eventually, I came to realize that the tall wire fence surrounding us was for containment as much as safety. It was my childhood home, but it was also like a prison. Resources were scarce, and life was hard. With the Burmese military dictatorship’s campaign against Karen freedom fighters ongoing, and the continuing persecution of ethnic minority groups across the border, those of us living in the Thai refugee camps were not allowed to leave—not even for work.
After surviving the Burmese military, we found new oppressors in Thailand—corrupt police. Once, when I was still a baby, my father went outside the camp for work. Thai police captured him; they wanted guns in exchange for his release. “We don’t have any guns!” my mother pleaded. The camp leader countered with walkie-talkies in order to make a deal. The police got the gear. Dad came home.
The Karen, one of Burma’s largest ethnic minorities, were displaced by historic and ongoing armed conflict along the nation’s southwestern border. But the Karen are not the only victims of oppression by the central government. In recent years, various United Nations agencies have also accused Burma of genocide and “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Rohingya people in the country’s northwestern Rakhine State.
At Umpiem Mai in Thailand, across the border from southwestern Burma’s Karen State, Baw’s family lived in close proximity with some 15,000 other displaced people. Roughly 80% of the camp’s population was Karen, along with Mon, Burman, and other indigenous ethnic groups, according to The Border Consortium—a nonprofit NGO whose website describes itself as the “main provider of food, shelter and other forms of support to approximately 87,000 refugees from Burma/Myanmar living in nine camps in western Thailand.”
Thai refugee camps began appearing in 1984 as temporary shelters for Karen and others displaced by the Burmese military junta’s aggressive expansion into parts of the country previously controlled by indigenous ethnic groups.
By 1992, there were 31 camps in Thailand near the border with Burma. More and more refugees poured over the border. They self-organized and negotiated settlement permissions with the Thai government. Camp consolidations followed (often in response to cross-border attacks, as was the impetus for Umpiem Mai). Maximillian Morch, the communications and reports manager for The Border Consortium, explained the geopolitical context in an email from his office in Bangkok, Thailand.
Today, Morch said, the Thai camps fall under the oversight of Thailand’s Ministry of Interior “with refugees responsible for camp administration and delivery of services through refugee camp committees, with The Border Consortium alongside international NGOs and local partners, providing aid and technical assistance.”
“Over 76,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand have been resettled in the United States alone since 2005, the majority of whom were Karen,” Morch said. Karen refugee resettlement communities have emerged around the world—in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavian countries. Meanwhile, some 60,000 displaced Karen still live in refugee camps near the Thai-Burmese border, with approximately 5 million Karen people residing in Burma.
The year 2005 was a milestone for Karen refugees. “In 2005 the Myanmar refugee population peaked at roughly 150,000 refugees; while the majority were Karen, this also included a large number of other ethnic minorities,” Morch said, adding that the camp where Baw’s family lived, Umpiem Mai, reached its peak population of 19,000.
It was also an important year for Nebraska’s Karen community. Tha Ther Moo, the president of the Karen Society of Nebraska’s Omaha chapter, said Karen refugees began resettling in Nebraska around 2005. Moo arrived in Omaha during March 2009. He said more than 5,000 Karen people now live in Omaha, with more than 8,000 Karen statewide in Nebraska.
The organization’s founder and former chair, Rev. Saw Khu, initiated The Karen Society of Nebraska in 2006 while working with Lutheran Family Services, Inc. The society’s current executive director, Pa Naw Dee, moved to the U.S. in 2008 and is listed as a co-founder on the society’s website. Their mission: “to help refugees and immigrants from Burma to build and sustain a high quality of life and to achieve self-sufficiency in the state of Nebraska.”
Demographic data suggest that Omaha's Karen community more than doubled between 2010 and 2015. “While there was no specific category for Burmese in 2000, the 2010 Census showed those listing Burmese as their specific Asian race at 1,720 in the Omaha metro,” said David Drozd, research coordinator of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “Now we have survey-based data to give us figures before the 2020 Census results are released, and surveying centered on the 2016 calendar year shows 4,421 Burmese in the metro area. So, that’s more than 2.5 times higher than just six years prior in 2010.”
Omaha. Where is that? 8,000 miles away, on the opposite side of the world? I had never heard of the place that would eventually become my home. After first resettling in Las Vegas, and then relocating to Omaha, I learned that my new home, “The Gateway to the West,” was named after the Umonhon people, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, whose name translates to “Up Stream” or “Against the Current.” I like these names: “Omaha” and “Nebraska.” The words of place resonate with Karen historical meaning, too. Maybe this is coincidence; I think it’s providence.
In ancient times—2,760 years ago, according to our traditional lunar calendar—a Karen grandfather crossed over a great river of sand to find the high rolling hills and lush tropical jungles of Kawlah, the county that preceded the Burmese occupation of our native landscape. Historically, we have lived geographically upstream along the Salween River—the waterway that has sustained our people for generations. Like the Umonhon, our fight against currents of oppression is a struggle familiar to indigenous people all around the world.
I appreciate that my adoptive state of Nebraska’s name is rooted in an indigenous name for the Platte River, the “Flat Water,” the great braided river of sandbars that stretches from the state’s western to eastern borders—reminding me of the primordial milestone, the great river of sand, that we Karen of Nebraska have again crossed in finding our way to this land.
My father talked about the U.S. as a land of great opportunity. From behind our fenced enclosure, anywhere in America seemed like a dreamland. Here, nestled in the river valleys of the Missouri, Platte, and Elkhorn, this unique Northern Plains landscape is surprisingly comfortable for a hilltribe people from tropical highlands—it feels like home.
The British East India Company invaded Burma in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). During Burma’s colonial era, the British overlords encouraged class hierarchies based on ethnic and religious divisions to solidify their rule. Karen were given preferential treatment, positions of privilege over the nation’s majority ethnic groups, and many Karen converted to Christianity.
British rule ended in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and Japanese occupation. The world’s longest ongoing civil war began the following year, continuing through the Burmese military junta’s asserting dominance over the nation in a 1962 coup.
Since 1976, the Karen National Union and Karen National Liberation Army have called for an autonomous state within Burma rather than outright independence. Ethnic Karen factions joined students, monks, and others throughout the country in a failed uprising to implement democratic reforms in 1988. The Burmese military junta’s retribution was swift and fierce, accelerating the exodus of Karen people into Thailand.
In 1989, the central government changed Burma’s name to Myanmar (many countries around the world did not recognize the change due to the perceived illegitimacy of the nation’s oppressive military rule). This name change coincided with the revision of Karen State to “Kayin State.” Baw describes the name change to “Kayin” as “just another effort to wipe us out,” part of the government’s ongoing “Burmanization” campaign to eradicate her people’s cultural history indigenous to the geographical landscape.
In response to insurgents, the Burmese military dug into the Karen-occupied highlands. Decades of ensuing human rights abuses include “forced labor, village burnings, arbitrary taxation, rape, and extrajudicial killings” (according to World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian nonprofit based in the U.S.).
The Karen Peace Support Network, the largest network of Karen civil society organizations in Burma, reported Burmese military artillery shelling of villages in northern Karen State that displaced more than 3,700 villagers and killed a village chief on Jan. 12, 2021. The following day—Jan. 13—was the Karen New Year, the traditional close to the rice harvest.
Despite appearances of national democratic reforms since 2008, Burma’s military once again seized power with a coup on Feb. 1, 2021—the military alleged (unsubstantiated) voter fraud and established a one-year state of emergency—after army-backed politicians suffered landslide losses in nationwide parliamentary elections. “It’s crazy,” Baw said as she followed the unfolding news coverage from Omaha. “It’s going to get worse for those in the city; it’s been worse for those in the jungle.”
Traditionally, Karen are simple agricultural people. We just want to raise our pigs, catch fish, garden, and live in peace. As a kid from the refugee camp, my knowledge of our traditions came from my parents and elders in the community. Survival was embedded in these lessons. We were taught to always eat quickly and not to talk during meals, because, “in the jungle, the enemy could come for you at any time.” The camp was safer, but we had to be ready to run. This caution from elders is ingrained in the Karen collective consciousness.
Now, our refugee communities are scattered around the world—often resettled in urban areas—but the internet and social media have helped those of us in the diaspora (especially the younger generation) stay in contact with our traditional roots.
When we talk about the diaspora of Karen refugees, and when we say a person is “Karen,” realize that our community is diverse. There are two primary Karen languages, and many different regional dialects, each very different. Some Karen follow traditional religious practices, others are Buddhist, and many Karen are Christian—like my family. The creation of a modern Karen identity is informed by the diaspora and organizations like the Karen Society of Nebraska (of which I am a member). In Umpiem Mai, we mostly spoke S’gaw and Pwo Karen languages; the same is true for our community in Nebraska.
The Minneapolis metro was an early U.S. hotspot for Karen resettlement at the dawn of the new millennium, as the Twin Cities were already a major destination for Hmong refugees (a different group of displaced Southeast Asian refugees from the highlands of neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam who had aligned with American interests during the Vietnam War). Hmong and Karen are culturally distinct but similar in their experiences of displacement, relocation, and resilient adaptation to the American Midwest.
Eventually, Nebraska emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing destinations of Karen refugee resettlement. Aside from Omaha, there are growing Nebraskan Karen communities in Lincoln and Madison—both towns also have Karen Society of Nebraska chapters. These communities’ growing populations work predominantly in the region’s historic food-processing industry. Jobs in meatpacking offer good salaries with minimal English language skills needed.
With the onset of the global pandemic of COVID-19, concentration of Karen labor in the regional meatpacking industry translated to heightened risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus as it began spreading among these “essential workers.” The Karen community’s experiences during the pandemic represent just another level of trauma on top of layers of generational trauma.
A series of investigations by ProPublica in 2020 revealed widespread mismanagement of virus exposure risks in Midwestern meatpacking plants as the industry became a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission and associated mortalities early in the pandemic.
Twenty percent of Nebraska’s cases were coming from meatpacking labor during the summer of 2020. Nebraska state senator Tony Vargas—who represents District 7 in South Omaha, and whose father died of COVID-19—shared the grim statistics in a Jan. 14, 2021, Washington Post op-ed titled, “Nebraska meatpackers breathe for hours through blood-soaked masks. This can’t keep happening.”.
On Feb. 1, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched a formal investigation following reports that “nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died.”
My father had brown eyes, dark hair, a long nose, small eyes, and a big bottom lip—just like me. Mom said we look just alike. I remember staying up late with him, telling jokes, enjoying being the youngest of four kids and the only daughter.
I’ll never forget the day Dad trusted me to take a 2,000 baht donation to the camp’s Christian Bible school. I was 12 years old, and it seemed like a fortune. I had never before held so much money—the equivalent of $60 U.S. dollars in Thai currency. But the day was rainy, and I wanted to play. The Bible school money fell from my pocket, lost, somewhere on the muddy road. When I realized, I panicked and tried to find it. No luck. Deep fear and anxiety set in.
Although disappointed in myself, I did not shed a tear. I could not lie to my father, and I had no way to replace the money. I came home and told my parents. Surprisingly, Dad did not get mad. Instead, he said, “Learn from your mistake and study your weakness.” I stood there, stunned. I was shocked because he still believed in me even when I failed. The next day, he handed me another 2,000 baht to donate to the Bible school. Another chance.
Dad always taught me to help the poor and the sick—even from our own position of poverty in the camp. While he raised me to be Christian, he did not go to church; instead, he would go to the hospital and comfort the ill. But by March 2009, he got sick himself. He developed a terrible cough and he had to go a hospital in the Thai city of Mae Sot outside the camp.
Doctors couldn’t determine the cause of illness. Then a few months later, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The disease was contagious, so they isolated him from us. They took him to another camp where only people with active tuberculosis lived. Dad had to go and live there for treatment. Behind the fences of Umpiem Mai, I missed him terribly.
Sometimes when I called him on the phone, I could hear his cough. It broke my heart. He wrote notes in a diary that detailed how many pills he took and how often. He got weaker and weaker. He took the medicine but had difficulty breathing. Then my mother had to go care for him. I stayed home with my older brother for a while.
When Dad did not get better, and Mom could not come home, I went to live with a neighbor. One morning, after going down to get water from the garden, someone called me into the house. Softly, he told me that my father had passed away. I pretended to not believe him, but I knew it was the truth.
Later, my mother said the doctor had given my father the wrong medicine. A cousin who spoke Thai told us he was misdiagnosed—that his true disease was lung cancer. Sadly, everything was too late. My cousin wanted to sue the hospital, but Mom said, “No.” We didn’t have access to a lawyer, and she had made up her mind. Besides, we really didn’t know where to begin. We were refugees. What could we have done?
With resettlement through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Baw fulfilled her father’s dream. In February 2011. She traveled with her mother and an older brother—her other two brothers were already in the U.S. and Australia, respectively.
When she first arrived in the U.S., descending over the Las Vegas metro at night, Baw couldn’t believe her eyes as the city lights stretched deep into the desert horizon. The urban sprawl illuminated the unfamiliar desert geography as if stretching into eternity.
From Las Vegas, her brother went to Kentucky, then to Omaha. In Nebraska, he discovered a welcoming community, supportive faith-based organizations of various denominations, and ample job opportunities. Baw and her mother followed in 2012. That same year, the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with the Karen National Union; however, government-sanctioned persecution of Karen and other ethnic minorities continued in Burma’s Karen State.
When Baw enrolled at Benson High School, she was surprised to discover several Karen classmates who had spent their childhood in other refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. After graduating, Baw attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a recipient of a Susan T. Buffett Scholarship Award, and she stayed active in Karen community—volunteering and mentoring local Karen youth.
In her senior year at UNO, as president of the Karen Student Association, she learned that the City of Omaha had condemned the Yale Park Apartments. Five hundred Omaha-Karen people were suddenly homeless. She and fellow Karen students went to offer their support—and translate—for displaced families and a local nonprofit, Restoring Dignity, which had helped to file housing complaints that prompted the city to close the apartments.
The Omaha World-Herald reported: “Inspectors found gas leaks, bedbug infestations, leaky ceilings and mold and eventually cited [landlord Kay] Anderson with a total of 1,962 code violations after conducting a mass inspection of the 100-unit complex on Sept. 20, 2018.”
I learned the news from a group chat. People were like, “What is happening?!?” The social workers came out, and journalists came out, but our people still had to go to work. Several of my friends lived over there, too.
We worried: What are people going to eat? Where are they going to sleep? The Karen Student Association was concerned, and we wanted to help. We found out they were being taken to temporary shelters inside Adams Park and Columbus Park Community Centers.
I was like, “Whoa, this is just like another refugee camp! There was even one lady who had just given birth to a baby a few days before being evacuated to the gymnasium. It brought up a lot of bad memories. We have all gone through this before, and then it was happening again.
Life regained normalcy. One year after the “evacuation,” World-Herald reporter Erin Duffy went on a tour of the large apartment complex. She observed repairs ongoing, and members of the Omaha-Karen community were again tenants. Today, the apartments remain popular with the local Karen community, Baw said, due to affordability and convenience of living in close proximity for practicality—carpooling to regional food-processing jobs.
In 2019, Baw graduated from UNO with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, minoring in sociology, and she traveled to Burma for the first time on a month-long exchange trip sponsored by the Karen Society of Nebraska. She and two other Nebraska grads from the Karen community stayed at a school in the jungle, where they worked with local 7th through 12th graders.
Baw wrote on her personal blog: “I am very passionate about youth and education in Karen State, Myanmar. I am hoping I can advocate for my people through writing and social media. My ultimate mission is to empower and equip youth with leadership and communication skills which will help them to respond to the ever-changing needs of the community.”
After returning to the U.S., Baw joined AmeriCorps. She worked as a college coach for low-income students entering UNO and Metropolitan Community College. She concluded the service year working from home as pandemic lockdowns took effect. Meanwhile, her mother and brother—in the same household—continued to work in local food-processing plants.
Pandemic anxieties grew with the spread of the novel coronavirus. By the summer of 2020, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in the meatpacking workforce. Baw remembers feeling scared when her mom and brother would go to their food-processing jobs, carpooling with others as is common for Omaha-Karen commuters.
The pandemic dragged on, and the factory gave her mother an oversized t-shirt with a special message: “My work feeds the nation.” Baw’s mother was beaming with pride when she brought it home. “She couldn’t read it, so I translated for her,” the daughter said. “She was so happy to have received this appreciation.”
Three people from Omaha’s Karen community died from COVID-19 in 2020, according to the Karen Society of Nebraska, which reported a total of eight Karen deaths statewide due to the pandemic. Karen-specific COVID-19 ethnic data was not available from state or county health departments to corroborate the numbers.
Racism is real. And there is concern in the Karen community that we could be seen as responsible for the pandemic because some people might see our faces and think we look Chinese, that we are somehow responsible for the so-called “Chinese virus” that is hurting our community, too. This is a fear for many Asian people.
Over the summer, a Hmong colleague in AmeriCorps—who was based in Minneapolis—told me his grandmother was attacked by two kids because they thought she was Chinese. When I heard that, I was like,“Yo, I have to be careful!”
In a Jan. 25 email from the Douglas County Health Department, senior epidemiologist Dr. Anne O’Keefe explained that food-processing plant labor falls into “Tier II of Phase 1B” of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination prioritization.
“With the addition of age 65+ and people with underlying conditions, the timeline for this tier is a little uncertain right now. But at this point we are thinking sometime in March through May,” O’Keefe said.
As the pandemic stretched on, Baw admitted she was not sure if her family members would consent to vaccination. “They might not, unless it’s required. Then, of course, they would do it,” she said, adding that many in the Karen community are skeptical of vaccines. Some older people might prefer holistic health remedies. And there is also timeline uncertainty for vaccine availability to “essential” meatpacking labor—including members of Baw’s family and household.
Outreach to the Karen community to communicate public health messaging has been an active interest of the Douglas County Health Department and its various community partners (including federally qualified health centers that work with refugee communities). Public health posters and instructions on the department’s website are available translated into Karen, Spanish, Arabic, and several other languages. Nationwide, communities of color have suffered disparate adverse health outcomes from COVID-19.
State and county health departments are urging support for vaccination throughout the entire community. Vaccines for COVID-19 will be available to all Nebraskans, regardless of country of origin or immigration status.
It’s important for everyone to get vaccinated if they can, O’Keefe said, because that’s the only way that society will be able to get back to normal. In the final days of 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, estimated that 70-80 percent of Americans would need to be vaccinated for a “dramatic decrease” in caseload and attainment of herd immunity—that’s roughly 230 million Americans.
The weakness here is bigger than any one person—a global pandemic that has killed more than 2,000 Nebraskans, half a million in the U.S., and 2 million worldwide. While the death toll continues to rise, part of the solution comes down to individual choice—the decision to be vaccinated, or not.
“We will try to encourage people to get a vaccine as soon as it is ready,” said Moo, the Karen Society of Nebraska chapter president in Omaha. “Doctors in Omaha have given us information to circulate within the community, and we are sharing this.” The Karen Society of Nebraska has also posted pandemic-related public service announcements on its website and Facebook.
Although hesitant at first, Baw said she plans to get vaccinated when she becomes eligible. But even when she is inoculated against the disease, whenever that may be, she knows that her own immunity is not enough.
In addition to wearing a face mask, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing, she looks to a higher power for support. She prays to God to protect her loved ones from the ongoing pandemic. She prays for her family. She prays for her fellow Nebraskans. And she prays for the future of Karen all around the world—especially those facing continued oppression by the Burmese military.
To sign up for COVID-19 vaccination in Nebraska, visit the websites of the Douglas County Health Department (douglascountyhealth.com) or Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (dhhs.ne.gov/).
For more information about Nebraska’s Karen community, visit the Karen Society of Nebraska’s website at karenksn.org.
This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.