Thursday, December 26, 2013
Julie Say and her brother Mark Say were reunited on Christmas Eve at Thunder Bay International Airport. (Brent Linton)
Christmas arrived a day early for Julie Say of Thunder Bay who was reunited with her brother Mark Say after eight years.
The pair haven’t seen each other since Julie left Karen State (Burma) as a refugee. Karen State has been in a civil war for 60 years, with 100,000 people in refugee camps in Thailand.
Wahlay Ray, a settlement worker with the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association who works with an estimated 200 refugees from Burma annually, was a Burmese refugee himself.
“The civil war has been going on for over 60 years, and because of the ethnic conflict between ethnic groups and Burmese army, civilians left their hometowns because of the military offensive against the civilians,” said Ray.
“So many of the Karen people left their home and fled to Thailand to apply for refugee status, so there are nine refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma boarder with over 100,000 people in the camps . . . which have poor sanitary conditions and are surrounded by barbed wire.
“In 2005 and 2006, the international community started to pay attention to the situation in Burma, especially on the Thailand border, and this is why they began resettlement programs,’’ he said.
“So Canada is one of the countries welcoming the refugees from Burma.”
He said people come to Canada “for the sake of their children.’’
“They know it is hard to come to this country when the have no basic education, no language skills. They know it is tough.’’
Ray said the multicultural association arranges temporary accommodations for new arrivals and offers English as a second language classes, among other services.
“One of the hardest or most difficult things for people from Burma is the winter,’’ said Ray.
“It is really something for them. They find it very hard, especially when they don’t have transportation. They have to bike or find other means for the first few winters.
“Finding a job is also very hard because of the language barriers, but the good thing is that many of the Karen people who are here help them with job connections.”
Ray clarified how people from Burma want to be identified: “We have a big conflict in Burma and many ethnic groups do not want to be called Burmese because the government named the country after the name of the majority, Burma. It is a long, long, long story; we call ourselves the Karen.”
He said he landed his job with the multicultural association five years ater he arrived in Canada as a refugee.
“It was quite rewarding to work with your own people. You can relate to their experience.”
He said he was fortunate to have had a “welcoming host, Sleeping Giant sponsorship group, that was formed by members of the First Presbyterian Church.
“There are a few similarities between a Christmas here and in Burma,’’ said Ray.
“The place where I came from is like a jungle and mountainous area. We don’t celebrate Christmas as a family, but we celebrate as a community.”
“So it would take two or three days with all kinds of competitions like singing. On the last day we all go to church together.
“The villagers would cook the traditional curry chicken, pork and all kinds of wild animals. It’s a little bit different.”
Koeloe Lo spoke on behalf of Julie Say and said having brother Mark Say back in her life is like a Christmas present.
Mark and Julie have another brother who is still in Burma/Thailand due to the fact he recently married, which complicates the refugee immigration process.
Mark Say got a good first taste of Thunder Bay weather upon his arrival Tuesday at the local airport.
He will live with his sister for the time being.