Interview by: Justin Fennert
Photos by: Kimberly Dovi
January 13, 2019
Chase Vanderveen spends her days advocating for the rights of the Karen Refugee Community. This is where her story started.
Issue 1 : It is the heart that drives us, beating away to forge and mold each of us as our own magnificent people. This issue is about that.
How long have you lived in Omaha?
I’ve lived in Omaha for nine and a half years and I lived in seven states growing up. We moved around a lot with my dad’s job and for one reason or another he got transferred, laid off, quit, got a new job, something always came about and we just moved around. We moved to Omaha when I was 17 and I’m 26 now. This year will be 10 years that I’ve lived here and so it’s the longest I’ve lived in one place so it’s home.
What role does adversity play to influence our lives and lives?
I think about the adversity the Karen people have faced. The Karen people, along with several other Burmese minority groups, such as the Karenni, Kachin, and Chin, have historically been taken advantage of by the Burmese majority people. The Karen helped Great Britain in World War II while the Burmese sided with Japan. The Karen were confident after the war ended that when Britain freed the country of Burma from their rule, that all the minority groups would be given equal freedom to the Burmese. But in turn, it caused the Burmese to start what is now the longest running civil war in world history and it’s still being fought even today. The Karen people have suffered tragically. They have experienced everything from their villages in Burma being burned down to nothing, to having their eyes gouged if a Burmese soldier finds a minority reading in their own native language and not the majority language, to their mothers and children being raped in front of them. These tragedies and more led all of the families that we know to flee their beloved home country into Thailand to seek refuge.
The suffering doesn’t end there though. The Thailand government had to figure out what to do with thousands of displaced people, so they moved them into refugee camps along the Myanmar/Thailand border where they continue to not have citizenship (something they were never allowed to have in Burma either). Now they were safe from the war, but they were still stuck. In these refugee camps, the families lived on rations of sugar and rice and oil from the government. Many of them sustained themselves mostly off their own gardens they planted that are reminiscent of the large, beautiful gardens they have planted behind our apartment here in Omaha. Robbie and I have have enjoyed their master skills, as they all brought us daily portions of cilantro, cucumber, Karen pumpkins, and tomatoes all summer long. Many families raised goats and chickens and pigs to provide food for their families. But life wasn’t easy. Even in the camp, they lived in bamboo houses with inconsistent or zero electricity, no indoor plumbing, and going to school came with a tuition cost and it was illegal to find work outside the camp. There was no hope of success beyond the camp gates, no hope of going to college or traveling. They were trapped.
Coming to America, as you might imagine, was the single most exciting and terrifying thing to ever happen to them. Over the last few years sitting with so many Karen women and children, I have heard so many incredible stories. Stories of women birthing their children in the forest of Burma while escaping from their village where soldiers had just arrived. Stories of sneaking out of the camp to try to find work in the fields to provide for their families, getting caught by the Thai police and them accepting bribes from the Karen to let them go. Each of them has such a unique story of survival.
I listen and I weep. I weep for the ways I cannot change their past. I weep for the ways I cannot end the war that is still affecting many of their relatives. I weep for how difficult even life in American is despite the great opportunity of being here. Learning a new language is hard, really really hard. Learning how to navigate a new culture and society when you are part of an extremely isolated and uneducated culture, is oftentimes just as hard. Paying monthly rent for a basic need like shelter? New concept for them. Driving a car to get around? New concept for them. Learning about medicaid, medical diagnoses, car insurance and other concepts when your language doesn’t even account for many of the words we have in English for them is incredibly difficult. Yet they fight to learn more, to get jobs, to pay their bills on time, to get an education, and to be good friends all the while enduring these obstacles.
This adversity, wild and challenging as it, has not only made them into great Americans, but even more phenomenal humans. These people have become family to Robbie and I. You cannot log the amount of hours we have spent with these people over the last year and a half. They are the most kind, welcoming, trusting, loving, warm, compassionate people. They don’t have a malicious bone in their bodies--despite how easy it would be to lash out at anyone given what all they’ve been through. Even the youngest kids seem to have a keen awareness of other people’s pain and suffering. They come home from school with stories of people getting bullied and they want to pray for them and help them.
Teaching many of the mothers English on our living room floor every morning over the last more-than-a-year, I have gotten the privilege to walk alongside so many women and learn of their adversity and the ways they’ve overcome it. Adversity, like many things in this world, could push you to become the worst version of yourself or it could push you to become the exact opposite. Doing life alongside Karen people has pushed me to want to be the best version of myself too, because they deserve the kind of friend in return that they have been to my husband and I.
I have learned to laugh more, to love bigger, to not be bothered by the mess in my living room, to appreciate the little things, to complain less, and to be more present, acknowledging that life is moving quickly, and I don’t want to miss a single moment with our family here.
What have you learned from the Karen people?
Where do I even begin? I have learned so much from the Karen. They have added so much value to Robbie and my lives. I truly am a better person because of them.
Their generosity. It's common to hear of other cultures in third world countries having next to nothing yet still being filled with joy and giving despite the hardship. This fact is also true of the Karen. Life and finances are not easy and they don't have much, yet countless times in the last year we have had neighbors knock on our door offering us fresh produce, eggs, spring rolls, pad ka pao, rice noodles, and other delicious traditional home cooked dishes. Many families have even paid attention to learn foods I love like avocados, cilantro, grapes, and oranges, and bring me them often. It still blows me away more than a year later. On Christmas, we had families who bought us gifts despite us trying to tell them not to-- we have often struggled with receiving when we know money is hard, yet we have been told time and again that it is their honor to give to us and that it is a tangible picture of their gratitude. So we have learned to receive with joy and thankfulness. One morning in 2018 when I was just setting up for my English class, two of the moms I used to teach came to my door a little early telling me in Karen, "Come with us!" They were smiling and laughing and I could tell they had a little surprise for me. I went along with it, although I had no idea what was happening. They can't drive, so they just pointed at my car and handed me a random address written on a piece of paper. I tried to ask them in Karen where we were going, but I couldn't figure it out. I followed the GPS to another apartment complex fairly close by. They had taken me to a Karen woman's home where she sells traditional Karen clothing out of her living room. Two rooms were lined floor to ceiling with shelves packed with brightly colored Karen shirts and dresses. They picked out several dresses for me to try on and we had so much fun laughing at how tall I was compared to the short length of most Asian dresses. I had narrowed it down to two that I loved that I wanted them to help me decide between. The woman who lived there interpreted for me, "While you were in the bathroom changing your clothes, they already bought both of them for you." Tears streamed down my cheeks. "Are you serious?? Please tell them I will pay them back. These are very expensive, like $80 each." She said, "They told me how much you have done for them. They love you. This is their thank you." That is a day I will never forget. When I wear those dresses, even today, I think about the sacrifice it was to buy me those and what an honor it is to wear their Karen clothes proudly. We have been so blown away by their generosity. And it has compelled us to be more generous because of their example.
We have learned from the way they do community. They have each other's backs and there isn't an hour of the day that their doors are not open to their people or to Robbie and I. Nearly overnight after moving in, we had children racing to our window after school each afternoon to peek in and see if we were home so they could come hang out with us. The adults trusted us so quickly that I soon found neighbors were coming to my apartment without even knocking, sitting down on our rug in order to just spend time with me. This was humbling to me, that they would come over despite the extreme language barrier, knowing we likely could not have a conversation, but to just be in each other's company. I have loved these beautiful moments that have consisted of me doing a puzzle or reading a book with their toddler on my living room floor, having a shared understanding of love and respect for one another even if we can't express it through language. I long for the wonderful summer days when the moms would invite me out to the back garden where they were grilling chicken or pork together in a big circle, talking to one another, sharing food, and loving on me. I think about how much beauty has been added to Robbie and my lives from all the living room prayer gatherings they've invited us into, wedding celebrations, family picnics, and daily casual hang outs. Their influence has seeped into the very foundation of the way we do life now. Multiple nights every week for a year now, I have cooked dinner for a group of teenagers, and our "family dinners" have become a very special part our life. From Bible study every Tuesday with our teens, teaching our boys how to drive, sleepovers with our girls, our tradition of scary movie nights on Fridays, camping, swimming, hiking, and learning to play chi loh, a Burmese cane ball game, that Robbie played with the boys all summer long, we have truly built a life doing everything together with what has become "our" people. We don't have kids of our own yet, but the community here that they have lovingly welcomed us into, has become our beautiful, enormous extended family. Many parents call us "Poh Doh Mu" and "Po Do Kwah" which means niece and nephew in the Karen language. We are so honored to be a part of their family and ultimately, the greatest lesson they have taught us is that love and family knows no race or specific culture.
I have learned to laugh more, to love bigger, to not be bothered by the mess in my living room, to appreciate the little things, to complain less, and to be more present, acknowledging that life is moving quickly, and I don’t want to miss a single moment with our family here. All these good gifts, we know have come from the Lord. This life we have built with the Karen people is a product of praying on our knees daily for two years about what God had planned for us and giving God our willingness to go anywhere and do anything. In January of 2018, moving in was my greatest fear-- moving into a place with bed bugs, cockroaches, mold, and mice-- but now, moving out would be our greatest nightmare. Living without them is not an option anymore. Now that we have experienced their love, we will never live life the same.
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