By ANDRE GALLANT
When religious figures and educational leaders from refugee camps along the Myanmar/Thailand border visited the University of Georgia last week, they marveled at the campus’ tall brick edifices, modern architecture and teaching technology. Robert Htwe was one of those leaders who toured campus last week, and he looked in awe at the giant white boards that took up most of a tall wall in a bottom-floor classroom in UGA’s Miller Learning Center.
Htwe is a pastor in the Karen Baptist Church, and is chairperson of all the denomination’s churches in the Thai border refugee camps. There he also runs a Bible school in a Thai refugee camp. When Htwe saw the giant white board, he remarked to his fellow leaders on the tour — Karen refugees now living in the Athens area and UGA staff who had coordinated the excursion that in refugee camps — that the only white boards are large rocks on which chalk will quickly build up, requiring constant cleaning to keep up with new material.
For decades now, Christian ethnicities within Myanmar have been forced to flee to camps along that country’s border with Thailand. Repressive Buddhist regimes have changed hands multiple times since the 1960s, but one aspect of their brutal governments remained the same: The Karen people, and other Christian ethnicities, were targets and not welcome within their homeland. Some Karen stayed behind in Myanmar under constant threat and oppression; most fled to the camps and, hopefully and eventually, to new lives in the U.S. or Europe.
Htwe — along with Isaac Kyin, a Baptist pastor from Rangoon, former capital of Myanmar, and the Rev. Tha Hgay, a representative of the American Karen Baptist Church — came to Athens on a nationwide tour that took the leaders around to different Karen enclaves around the country, including North Carolina and Minnesota. 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Christian missionaries arriving in Myanmar, then known as Burma, a British colony.
The entire year is dedicated to a long celebration called Jubilee. The 100-plus Karen community based in Madison and Oglethorpe counties already has thrown some Jubilee celebrations, as have other refugee communities, and a giant celebration is planned in November for all Karen still in Myanmar. Karen religious leaders no longer fear for their lives as they once did, Htwe said. And the government has now allowed limited travel for Karen pastors like Kyin to come visit the Karen diaspora in the U.S.
But thousands of refugees still live in the camps, and conditions, especially educationally, are not improving. Few teachers are available to teach young people born in the camps. Part of the reason Htwe made treks to communities like Athens while in the U.S. was to encourage education and assimilation among the Karen people living here. The trip, though, provided opportunities to build connections with higher learning institutions like UGA to perhaps create service learning and study abroad programs that would draw UGA students to the Myanmar/Thai border camps.
Htwe, Kyin and Hgay met with officials from UGA’s Office of International Education during the tour last Thursday to lay the groundwork for such programs. Htwe said that Karen religious leaders like him also must keep the connection between Karen in South Asia and Karen in the Southeast of the U.S. strong, so refugees don’t feel cut off from their ancestral home. “All Karen people want to go back to their homeland,” Htwe said.