Business owner survived bombings, bullets, to start new life in Thunder Bay

Kreesa Ro is one of approximately 250 Karen Myanmarese refugees now living in the city

Kreesa Ro is one of approximately 250 Karen Myanmarese refugees now living in the city

As a member of Myanmar's Karen minority, Kreesa Ro spent her childhood on the lookout for bombs, bullets and land mines - a consequence of the civil war between the Karen National Union and the Myanmarese government. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

One Thunder Bay, Ont. business-owner's harrowing tale of dodging bombs and bullets in her homeland, then surviving the stinking confines of a Thai refugee camp, provides a window on the experience of some refugees who start new lives in the city.

Kreesa Ro is the owner of the Knyaw Lucky Store on May Street, which sells Asian food and household items.

She is also one of about 250 members of Myanmar's Karen minority now living in Thunder Bay.

The Karen National Union has been locked in a civil war with Myanmar's government ever since the country gained independence from Britain in the late 1940s — a conflict originally spawned by the Karen's desire for their own independent state.

Tens of thousands of Karen have been displaced by the fighting, including Ro. 

"They have fighter jets. Like a plane that drops a bomb — kills people," Ro said, describing her life as a six-year-old living in a small village near the Thai border.

"They came there, and they drop a bomb in my village. So we have to run all the time," she said.

"But people did not die because we ran around, we jumped in the river, we went to the cave," she said. "You had to be careful every day."

In 1997, when Kreesa was nine, the Myanmarese army ambushed her village, burned down her house and killed her family's animals, she said, so they ran into the forest to take cover.

For the next year, they travelled from village to village seeking food and shelter, she said.

"When you go to another village, you can't go outside the path, because there's land mines," Ro explained. "If you go outside the path, you will die right away. Usually we have to go in the valley because on the top of the hill, there's a army troop, so when they saw us they killed us. Usually when we go to another village we have to go during the night."

Ro and her family eventually made it safely to a refugee camp on the other side of the Thai border, where they lived in a tiny bamboo hut built by her father, slept under blankets on the bamboo floor, ate a steady diet of rice, beans, and fish paste, and boiled water from a well to drink, she said. Their toilet was a hole in the ground in a bamboo hut.

"That's why we do not have fresh air there, because everyone do that, and you can't flush ... so it smell bad," Ro said. "Bad pollution, not fresh air, that's why people get sick a lot."

Ro owes her life in Thunder Bay to a cousin who arrived here in the early 90s and a Presbyterian church group that sponsors refugees, she said. They collaborated to bring Ro and her family to town.

"When I arrived in Thunder Bay, it was June 11. I thought it was heaven. And I can see a bird squeak there, because I never seen a bird in [the] refugee camp. And when I went to the park, there's green, and I never seen a green thing ... in 11 years in [the] refugee camp. I just seen only dirt," she said.

Ro learned English at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association and Confederation College. She earned a high school diploma, studied office administration, and supported herself by working in restaurants at night, she said.

Shortly after finishing school, she gave birth to a son, but then found herself a single mother when her husband left town to care for his parents, she added.

She opened her store in part to provide herself with the flexible daytime employment she needs to raise her son. At night, she supplements her income by cleaning three professional buildings.

"I don't want my baby to suffer like me. I just want him to have a bright future," she said. "So I work hard for him."

Ro wants her son to become a doctor so he can go home and help the people in her village, she said.

She has a similar dream for herself.

"If I am a successful business woman, I can afford to build a hospital for my people there. And yeah, if I become a successful business woman and when I turn 60, I want to go back to my country and help people there," she said.