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Refugees’ story of struggle told through works of art

Exhibit inside Timms Centre marks World Refugee Day – June 20
Participants in a refugee art project stand with their work, on display at the Timms Community Centre. From left to right: Moo Doh Paw, Laura Knyaw and Truepayna Moo.

For young Karen refugees living in Langley, it can be hard to put into words the struggles and hardships they faced to come here, as well as the challenges endured as they adapt and grow up thousands of kilometres from their homeland.

For some, it has been easier to express their truth by painting and drawing, as part of a school program.

“The Karen are very quiet and art is another way for them to show everybody matters. When we came, people didn’t really know anything about refugee people — especially Karen — so it was important to step up there and tell our stories and make them aware,” says Moo Doh Paw, a Langley Secondary School student, who is just days away from graduation.

Nearly 350 Karen refugees were settled in Langley, starting in 2006 and 2007. The Karen people are an ethnic and religious minority that has been persecuted by the military dictatorship for decades in Burma, the Southeast Asian country now known as Myanmar.

Adjusting to life in Canada has proved to be a high-voltage culture shock.

When asked what was most different or unexpected about adjusting to life here, Laura Knyaw, a 19-year-old Langley Secondary School graduate, says: “Everything.”

As they honed their English language skills in class, the students also picked up paints and pencils and began to make art. The idea to encourage the students to use visual storytelling came from a group from Seattle that hosted a workshop in Langley three years ago.

“We just continued it and it was just a really powerful way for the youth to tell their stories and express their journey when sometimes it’s really hard for them to do that through words,” says Lisa Sadler, a settlement worker with the school district.

“And also to raise awareness about what is still happening ... the Karen people that are still in refugee camps and still in Burma are still struggling. And we’re just using it to raise awareness.”

Several pieces of art created in recent years are now on display in the new Timms Community Centre in Langley City, in recognition of World Refugee Day, which is June 20.

One of several paintings by Knyaw on display depicts a young boy, staring out of the canvass, with a look of agony on his face, while thick streams of blood pour from his eyes.

“He cries blood to show that there is a struggle inside. People can’t see the struggles, [so] we have to cry blood to show how hard it is,” she says.

A drawing sketched in pencil shows an infant girl, with one hand curled up near her face, again staring out of the canvass and directly at the viewer. A caption, in cursive handwriting, below the girl reads: “I am just like any other child who has a dream or hope.”

Moo Doh Paw drew the girl from a picture taken in a Karen refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border, which she chose because, “It shows a lot of emotion on the kid’s face. I wanted to draw it because I wanted to show people that there’s a lot of kids out there that don’t have the same opportunity as we have.”

Truepayna Moo made a presentation to City council last month, requesting the recognition of World Refugee Day and the display at Timms.

“Karen people are not recognised as citizens and are persecuted in Burma. And are not wanted and poorly treated as refugees in Thailand,” she told council.

“I became a Canadian citizen a few years ago and it is the first time in my life that I belong to any country.

“Today I am proud to be Canadian and proud to call Langley my home.”