Burmese refugees see struggle paying off

Burmese refugees are struggling to adapt to life in Ottawa, five years after the city became their home, a social service agency says.
Karen refugees are studying English at the Karen Learning Education and Opportunities. (CBC)

Burmese refugees are struggling to adapt to life in Ottawa, five years after the city became their home, but their new sense of freedom makes it worthwhile, they say.

Karen refugees began arriving in the city in the fall of 2006 from camps in Thailand, where some had lived for more than a decade.

Ottawa is now home to 300 Karen. They fled the military regime in Burma, or Myanmar, where the Karen people make up seven per cent of the population, the largest minority ethnic group.

Many of the refugees in Ottawa spend at least a year trying to learn English, says Coleen Scott, the head of Karen Learning Education and Opportunities.

Munang Nu recently joined a dozen other Karen refugees on the floor of an Ottawa apartment, where they studied geography for their citizenship test.

"I’m very, very nervous to speak to the teacher because I don’t know English," said Nu, a dishwasher.

Scott says people who arrive in Canada after years as subsistence farmers, then as residents of refugee camps face a severe culture shock.

Learning about hot water

"You don't know anything about how to live in a house [because] you've lived in a hut, and your life is outdoors a majority of the time," Scott said before rattling off some of the seemingly ordinary things a Karen refugee must figure out. "How to live in a home, hot water, how the bathroom works, how to take a bus."

Many Karen refugees work two jobs at minimum pay to cover their rent and buy food. But Nu says all the hard work and study will pay off.

"If you come to Canada, you can work, [you] can do what you want — buy a bicycle, everything you want you can do if you have money."

A refugee known as Okwee, who came to Ottawa in 2009 with his wife and four children, says that despite the challenges, he has no regrets about his decision to try for a new life in Canada. Burma and Thailand offered only a harsh existence, he said.

"When I live in Burma, I don't belong. When I live in Thailand I don't belong.  When I am a citizen in Canada, I am happy because I have a home."

Lawdo Thaw, who recently bought a house, feels the same way.

"I'm really, really glad to come to Canada," he said. "The first reason is my family is safe and secondly, my country does not have freedom yet."