REFUGEE YOUTH FROM BURMA, c/o ERIKA BERG
I think of myself as a “midwife” of refugee youths’ “visual stories,” stories of trauma, courage, sacrifice and resilience; stories that offer rare glimpses into the inner worlds of refugees; stories shared in the universally understood language of narrative art.
This story is theirs.
No one has humbled, taught or inspired me more than refugees, forced to flee violent conflict and persecution in their homelands. I am in awe of those who have survived devastating losses and heartache yet, somehow, manage to remain determined, hopeful – even grateful.
A facilitator of visual storytelling workshops, I have been privileged to bear witness to the life-stories of refugee youth from conflict-ridden countries around the world, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Burma.
I’m smiling, recalling how most refugee youth react when I tell them I need their help. Their eyes sparkle. It would have never occurred to them that their life-stories mattered, that they could be instrumental in promoting human rights and peace in their native lands.
Recognizing at a heart-to-heart level the stories of survivors of injustice is a prerequisite to forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence, as is enabling those forced to flee to feel heard, regain their dignity and influence the course of their lives. When the visual stories are exhibited, workshop participants see, for themselves, how emotions conveyed and evoked by a single narrative image can have the power to open hearts, build bridges of understanding and transform viewers’ empathy and outrage into inspired action.
Experiencing the power of their voices and visions can be transformative, for refugee youth – and their communities. Once they have seen themselves as catalysts for positive social change, they begin to realize that along with human rights come responsibilities, including the responsibility to challenge injustice and stand up for their rights.
The visual stories that follow were painted by refugee youth from Burma, also known as Myanmar, youth who had found safety in neighboring Thailand and India.
Nurture Nature. The 16-year-old refugee girl who painted this visual story opted to remain nameless. As a young child, she had fled an outbreak of violent conflict in her native village in Burma’s eastern Karen State. After trekking through the dense jungle for several days she finally crossed the Thai-Burma border. She shared her story at a workshop I facilitated in Mae Sot. Also known as “Little Burma,” this bustling Thai border town has become refuge to about 200,000 migrants from Burma. The girl dreamed of teaching people – including foreign investors, eyeing the wealth of untapped natural resources in Burma’s Karen State – why it was so important to treat our plant like a precious seedling.
In Honor. 26-year-old Jimmy was born in Burma’s most impoverished state, Chin State. Raised Christian in a Buddhist-dominated country, he had fled religious persecution and secured refugee status in neighboring India. Jimmy didn’t know how many political prisoners continued to languish behind bars in his homeland. Since the country’s military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government, in 2011, most political prisoners in Burma had been released – bearing scars of having been tortured, physically and psychologically. Despite their courage and sacrifices, today’s political prisoners remain faceless to all but family and friends who have dared to stand by them. Jimmy painted this picture to honor his unsung heroes. Without them, he said, there would be no democracy movement in Burma today. And without justice, he added, peace in Burma will remain an elusive dream.
Inclusivity. The prior military regime in Burma imprisoned cyber-dissidents. To pacify its citizens, the government restricted internet access and blocked content critical of the regime. Since 2012, internet freedom in Burma has expanded dramatically. Yet widespread coverage gaps, sluggish connection speeds and steep service costs have put the internet beyond the reach of the vast majority of citizens. While in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the 21-year-old man who painted this visual story learned about human rights, rights long-denied his people, the Kachin of northern Burma. He returned to Burma eager to introduce ethnic minority youth to their rights and the potential power of the internet to improve their lives.
Justice for All. Since 1996, the Burma Army has burned down over 3,000 villages, mostly in ethnic minority regions of eastern Burma. Ethnic Karen, 16-year-old Saw Yar Zar wasn’t the only youth in the workshop he participated in who had been forced to flee more than one burning village. “I will never forget the smell and crackling sound,” he said, with the help of a translator. Saw Yar Zar wondered why so many members of Burma’s government and national army believed that upholding their values could only be achieved by oppressing ethnic minorities. He dreamed of a world where impoverished ethnic minority villagers were considered as worthy of human rights as wealthy city dwellers, a world where their voices rang just as loud and clear.
Unity in Diversity. Enrolled in a year-long interethnic English immersion program in mountainous Umpiem Mai refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border, 23-year-old Kyaw Dah Sie dreamed of establishing Burma’s first multiethnic soccer league. He believed that if other youth from Burma’s diverse ethnic communities also had the opportunity to study, play and live together, they too would come to discover that beneath their outward ethnic, religious, political and socio-economic differences, deep down, they shared the same deeply-held values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Story: The six visual stories in “Art of Peace” were painted by six inspiring refugee peacebuilders from Burma (Myamar). After fleeing violent conflict and persecution in their ethnic villages, they participated in visual storytelling workshops along the Thai-Burma and India-Burma borders. Their names (ages) are Kyaw Eh (19), Anonymous (16), Jimmy (26), L.R.M. (21), Saw Yar Zar (16) and Kyaw Dah Sie (23). In early 2015, the youths’ visual stories will be published in a book entitled Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma.
Top picture: Kyaw Eh (19) – This painting portrays the youth’s journey to safety, in Thailand, after his village was gunned and burned down by the Burma Army. It symbolizes an experience shared by all refugees; they have all been forced to flee – to save their lives.