Growing up in Burma, Ba La never had the chance to go to school. After both his parents passed away he struggled to earn enough money for food in a country accused of a history of gross human rights abuses.
“Back there I had no time for studying, all I did was farm and work,” said Ba La, who is a member of Langley’s Karen community of refugees. “I would work one, or two days, and the rest of the week I had to go help the soldiers.”
“Now I go to school, and now I know now to write my name.”
Ba La told his story through a Karen translator, alongside several other Karen elders, as part of a new film about the Karen culture in Langley, which premiered Saturday, Jan. 18 at the Chief Sepass theatre.
The Karen people are a linguistically and culturally diverse group in Burma, a southeast Asian country also known as Mynanmar. 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.
“I came to Canada to escape from war and from all the fighting to have a better life,” said one Karen senior in the video, describing what it was like to finally be given the chance to have life-changing surgery on her leg after coming to Canada. “I really like living here because the government treats me very well.”
The film project aims to showcase and strengthen the uniqueness of Karen culture, and was spearheaded by the Langley Community Services Society (LCSS), where the seniors meet daily during the week to attend English classes. The video was funded by a grant from the federal government through the New Horizons for Seniors Program.
“They really have a very artistic flair,” said event emcee Peter Tulumello, cultural services manager for the Langley Centennial Museum, which helped organize Saturday’s event.
Clothing is very important to the Karen culture. Alongside traditional dances and songs, the film shows the process of hand-making their brightly coloured and flowing skirts and tunics, a task that can require days of extremely detailed work.
“If you take a look at some of their woven sachels, you just can’t believe how they make [them] without big looms … they’re just doing it at the table,” he said.
Representatives from the provincial government, Township and Langley City opened Saturday’s screening by recognizing the addition this group has made to the local community.
“When I come home from government … I realize that what we really need in our community is a heart,” said Langley MLA and Minister of Environment Mary Polak.
“As a people you have blessed our community, and I think most importantly, you’ve given us the chance to find that heart in ourselves, and to find the way that we can become more welcoming.”