Meet Khu Oo Reh.
Mr. Reh is the Vice President of a leading Karenni political group.
“Karenni?” you ask.
The Karenni (and their ethnic cousins the Karen) is an ethnic group from the country Burma (also known as Myanmar) in Southeast Asia.
They are distinguishable from from the Burmese in language, script, custom, and other attributes. And clashing with the Burmese government since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, many Karenni fled to safety in Thailand–much like the Hmong have done from Laos in recent decades.
Also like the Hmong, the school I work for–Community School of Excellence in St. Paul–tailors a specific program for the Karenni. In fact, the institution boasts one of the only Karenni-language programs in Minnesota to go along with our significant Karenni student population.
While Mr. Reh’s main purpose coming to the US is to meet with the US State Department to update officials on the peace process between the Burmese and the Karenni, he’s also touring a few Karenni population centers in America. One of those is St. Paul.
He arrived to our school around 9:00am. It was still cool, and I noted his sweater. While yet outside for handshakes, he explained that “I got it for the weather here.”
He entered and greeted an assembly of all 130 Karenni students at our school.
He spoke about how proud he was to see Karenni students doing well in America. He asked questions and several students shared their thoughts and experiences. Many of these students–particularly the middle schoolers–were born in Thailand and have had to adjust to America as refugees.
After the assembly, Mr. Reh saw how these students were doing first hand by the classrooms.
Then, he joined school administration for lunch.
He updated us on the peace process he came to the US to report. Four years in, he says they are about to sign something with the regime in Burma.
“Do you hope for your own country?” I asked.
While many Karenni wish for their own state–which Mr. Reh explained they had until the Burmese military invaded following British’s exit–he answered that they will settle back within the borders of Burma.
Burma has the leverage. Military power, plus the fact that the refugee camps where many of the Karenni live are rough. For an idea of what a refugee camp might look like, here’s a photo of our Superintendent Mo Chang showing him hallway painting of Hmong refugee camp in Thailand.
“Where we come from in refugee camp, we have limited resources,” Mr. Reh said at our table. “Without getting in touch with outside world. It is exciting to see Karenni people in foreign countries.”
He continued, “My pleasure visiting St. Paul and my Karenni fellows. This morning is my great honor to visit this school. I welcome a number of Karenni children to learn English and have a good education here.”
Though life in the US has more opportunity, he said many Karenni “are nervous because of culture shock…they are unable to communicate with outsiders.”
He says the Karenni are “humble, simple, shy. They have to change such a nature to get along with others.”
Well, they at least have to overcome this to relate and collaborate with those of another culture. Mr. Reh himself had to overcome this, he said. He was 15 when starting to learn English at a school in Burma–which he eventually arrived to after finding his estranged father by walking the jungles, he said. Then he rose as leaders do, to become a spokesperson for the Karenni people still largely at the camps in Thailand, looking for a nation to call home.
Today, many are finding one here in the US.
Saturday was their annual Dee Ku festival also held at my school in St. Paul.
Mr. Reh was the special guest. There was traditional dress, dance, music, food, and all the highlights that make up a culture–and an identity for these “shy” people from Southeast Asia; (maybe this why so few people in America know about them.)
Just as I was blessed to get to know some adolescent Karenni whom I chaperoned during May’s Thailand trip, so am I fortunate to have met Mr. Khu Oo Reh, a man who can teach us about the blessings of a hot shower and who exemplifies leadership as a person helping his people find a home.