Hilda Anderson has few memories of her family’s ordeal to escape persecution and death in their native Myanmar (also known as Burma).
She was too young to remember her family moving from one refugee camp to another along the Thai-Burma border, staying a step ahead of the people whose sole intention was to end their lives.
They were forced to flee their homeland to escape killings, torture, rape, and forced labour by the Burmese military regime.
Anderson is a Karen refugee who immigrated to Canada, more specifically, to Langley, when she was 13.
The Karen people are a linguistically and culturally diverse group in Myanmar. In the face of a harsh military government, Karen rebels have battled for greater autonomy for more than six decades, finally signing a ceasefire agreement in January 2012.
Thousands fled to refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border to escape the conflict, and hundreds of Karen people have immigrated to Langley since 2006.
Anderson, 22, and her family are among those who now call Langley home.
For Anderson (who changed her name from Htee Lu Pah) Langley isn’t her second home.
She considers it her first — a welcoming place where she feels she belongs.
A tsunami of emotion washes over Anderson whenever she speaks of Canada, its people, and the opportunities provided for her in this country. She hesitates for a few seconds before speaking, her voice shaking as she dabbed tears from the corners of her eyes.
“Canada is my first home,” Anderson said. “I get very emotional when I talk about this. Even though I was very young in the (refugee) camp, one of the things that was always in my mind was that I don’t belong there, because I knew that there was always someone out there who was trying to kill me because I was just being myself — just being who I am, speaking my language and trying to learn my own traditional ways.
“People wanted to kill me for that.”
And while there have been different types of struggles in Canada, Anderson believes she and the Karen people have been accepted with open arms.
“They are so welcoming,” she said.
On Nov. 25, 2009, the then 15-year-old Anderson was a guest speaker at the PuCKS gala at the Langley Events Centre. A program scholar with the local Promoting Community through Kids in Sport program (that provides opportunities for children through sports and literacy), Anderson shared with a roomful of people her harrowing story about what her family had to go through to survive.
It was a memorable night, and a moving story that resonated with many.
“A lot of people came up to me (after I spoke at the gala) and said that we’re so happy you are here. We’re glad you’re here, we’re glad you’re safe.
“No one has ever said that to me before. No one,” she said. “Even our own Karen people, we always have to protect ourselves. With the Canadian people, I feel like they care about me, and make me like I belong, even though I’m a newcomer.
“Canada is my first home.”