A Karenni Chronicle
By Joanne Kruse, Erika Degner, and Terry Schoessow
In the spring of 2008. Pastor Peter Kelm brought a “Mission Opportunity” to the Trinity Lutheran Freistadt Church Council: helping the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettle Burmese Refugees into the Milwaukee area. Various meetings followed, especially with the Human Care Board. We learned much about the needs of the people, specifically those from the state in Burma named “Karenni.” It was decided that Trinity-Freistadt would help co-sponsor one family with Lutheran Social Services.
What began as sponsoring one family, has grown to a ministry to more than 100 Karenni living in Milwaukee, a bilingual worship services at Chapel of the Cross Lutheran Church, English lessons, Sunday School and tutoring, along with nearly 40 children boarding an early morning bus each to attend Trinity Lutheran School.
The Karenni Ministry is truly an example of Trinity Lutheran Freistadt members Growing in His Word, Serving in His World, and Joining in His Mission... Together.
Many Helping Hands
The family would receive $50 per month per adult family member and $10 per child per week for three months from LSS, plus rent for three months. They would also receive Badger Health Care and some W-2 money. The goal was to have the father employed within three months of their arrival. Liability insurance for volunteer drivers was also included. The family would have to begin paying back the loan from the U.S. Government for their airfares six months after their arrival. Generous monetary donations were, and continue to be, important to this mission. Trinity held two Sunday door offerings, and several “Weekly Coffee Hours” were given specifically to the family at first, then later to the Karenni Mission. The Human Care Board, Bible Study groups, Seniors, Historical Society, and individuals made donations. Lenten Supper offerings were also added to the pot. A checking account was set up in their names.
In addition, the family’s clothing sizes were listed in the bulletin, and the Trinity congregation was extremely generous in providing regular clothing as well as winter clothing for everyone. In addition, car seats appeared. The family was allowed to pre-shop the church rummage sale in April as well.
After that, the work of the congregation began in earnest, and started collecting household goods and making volunteer lists for transportation of supplies and people. A washer, dryer, beds, bedding, living room furniture, television were among the donations.
The church applied and was accepted into the relocation program to assist the Karenni family. Trinity had to wait for a specific arrival date before it could find an apartment to lease. The church was notified in early February 2009 that the family was coming on the 25th of that month. In two weeks, generous volunteers found an apartment, cleaned and furnished it with basic supplies. A young family volunteered to house them for the first few nights until they could settle into the apartment.
"I picked up the first Karenni family to arrive in Milwaukee, the Khu Matio family, from Mitchell International Airport on Ash Wednesday in February 2009. A Kayah speaking social worker and I met Khu Matio, the 22 year-old dad; Kye Meh, his slightly older wife, and their four and one-year-old daughters. The LSS social worker explained what was happening, and then left. It was a very quiet 25-mile ride from the airport to Germantown in the February darkness, with snow piles on either side of the freeway. We couldn’t really communicate, but I kept thinking how incredibly scary this trip would be. It was beyond my comprehension to think of being in the jungles of Thailand one day, and less than 48 hours later, be riding with this very white middle-aged lady into this very cold, dark night.
"The Saturday after they arrived, several people met at the new apartment on Milwaukee’s northeast side with the Khu Matio family to settle them in and have them sign the lease. That day was very difficult. We understood why, as we tried to imagine being asked to sign a paper as detailed as a lease agreement in a foreign language.
"We spent quite a bit of time together during the next weeks and months. I helped with some initial English lessons on a weekly basis. As spring came, we also went on outings - to a nature center, the beach, and out for ice cream. During one early memorable time, I drove past the Omega Hills landfill site. As I drove, I knew I should have taken a different route, because it would be hard to explain. Sure enough, Khu Matio looked out and exclaimed, “mountains!” (rhyming with rain). The Karenni state is quite mountainous, and he was homesick for them. I really hated to disappoint him, but didn’t want him looking forward to a future trip in the “mountains.” I was at a loss for words other than “no mountains” until I got to Robert’s Frozen Custard. I pushed open the swinging door on the wastebasket containers, showed them the trash, and said “mountains made of this.” You should have seen their faces!"
Navigating the "System"
"I was available to take the family to many, many appointments during the first few months. We went to Maximus (Milwaukee Job Center Central), the W-2 agency, to get bus passes, to the bank to open a checking account, for doctor appointments for immunizations and physicals. This is in addition to obtaining Social Security cards, Medical Care Cards, and state ID cards. LSS was very helpful in navigating the "system.” The social workers there gave lots of advice on various contacts for the government agencies and health care. I also rode the bus routes with them to show them how." ~ Joanne
"During our visits, we worked on English, and also how to navigate the "system.” They would bring household items to us to ask their names and sometimes their uses. The daily mail and school papers also arrived on our laps, so we could sort out the furniture ads or nonessential school mail, explain what papers to sign, and return conference papers. They learned how to jot appointments down on the calendar we posted on their refrigerator. Khu Matio also learned how to write a check." ~ Terry
"Communication was constantly a challenge. They knew the alphabet, “hello,” “please,” “good-bye,” “thank you,” and could count. We used a lot of gestures, children’s picture dictionaries, and Richard Scarry’s Word Book. I made charts for basic vocabulary to help them. I printed different fruits, the numbers so they could copy them to write checks, and general terms. We also made trips to Maximus, the bank and the stores." ~ Erika
"I reviewed pictures of people that they knew from Trinity and looked at their family photos, too as we learned words for husband, wife, daughter, uncle, etc. Their photos had banana trees in the background." ~ Joanne
LSS provided English classes of different levels as well as information on basic living skills, jobs, and interviews. Khu Matio was able to find employment with a temporary agency to work at a factory fairly quickly. That was good, because besides taking over normal living expenses, refugees are required to reimburse the U.S. government for their airfare beginning six months after their arrival.
"When urgent matters came up, or when the ideas were too big for our limited communication, it was very helpful to be able to use e-mail. Khu Matio’s older brother Luis and sister-in-law Mubi were very fluent in English and still lived in Thailand. Once we got their e-mail, we could ask a question, and they in turn would call Khu Matio and explain. Khu Matio and Kye Meh would do the same when they had a question for us.
"Certain topics were “untranslatable,” no matter what the system. For example, twice a year, at the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time, we now laugh with Kye Meh as we remember our difficulty in explaining the concept to her the first time. It was less than two months after their arrival, so there was no way to really tell them about this strange custom. Terry finally went into the kitchen and turned the clock ahead, much to their consternation. She tried to explain, but failed, knowing that they must have thought she was the strangest person in the world. The next day, Joanne found the clocks turned back to their original times, so she repeated the process. Eventually they caught on that, for whatever reason, this was the way it was.
"About this time we met Ellen and Pat, two retired social workers from Milwaukee who were going to visit the family’s old refugee camp in Thailand. When they returned, they were able to update us on the status of the family who remained there. Ellen and Pat joined us through the next few years at family birthday parties, helped connect Maria with educational resources in Milwaukee, and found an outlet for Lusia to sell her weaving." ~ Erika
"Between us, we also showed them how to better function in Wisconsin society and culture: we went for walks to the local park, and to Asian food stores, Lake Michigan, the zoo, trick-or-treating, and the Domes. It was interesting to note a comment from Khu Matio during the visit to the tropical Dome. “Oh, that is a leem tree! We use that for medicine and food in refugee camp.” ~ Joanne
"Throughout our work with "our" family on 27th St., phone calls with questions or requests for help became routine. "What do you do when the tornado siren sounds?" ‘Toilet won't flush." "Why no power here? We always pay bill." “What are storm windows?” With lots of phone calls and e-mails between us, one family member or another would drive down to help solve the problem. ~ Erika, Joanne, Terry
"I searched out a school, took them to the Central Office to register the oldest girl, helped fill out the paperwork for free lunch, and took the family for a tour at the school. On the first day, I watched in amazement as that spunky five-year-old jumped on a big yellow bus all alone when it pulled up in front of her house. I then drove to join her in class for the first part of her day. The Milwaukee Public Schools, and specifically Silver Spring School, has gone out of its way to be helpful and accommodating. Even when that school did not have a formal ESL program, they created support for Than Myan and the rest of the children as they joined her at school. They also provided an excellent well-rounded education for the last four years." ~ Terry
In August that year, Trinity found out that the rest of Khu Matio’s family: his parents, sister and her baby, and six-year-old brother had been cleared to come to the U.S. They had been on the waiting list for over three years. Although they could be placed anywhere in the country, they were hopeful that they will be placed near Milwaukee to be reunited as a family. Trinity learned that “our” families were Christian, with little or no English skills, but with a strong employment history. They had lived in the refugee camp in Thailand for over 15 years, since the adults were small children. (Trinity would later learn that the “Mom” of the family, Kye Meh, left the Karenni state in Burma with a much older brother when she was seven - about 1992. She never saw her parents again.)
"Once we learned they were actually coming to the area, and were sponsored by the International Institute, we were able to ask the congregation for clothing and more household items for the next arrivals. They arrived on schedule. Eventually, congregational volunteers helped get the rest of this family settled into the same duplex. The oldest sister, Maria, proved to be as fluent in English as Khu Matio kept telling us she was, so the communication issue improved immensely after their arrival. The first family was also able to help them navigate “the system,” but we again were involved in frequent trips to obtain cards, transport to medical appointments, etc. Now, anywhere we wanted to go with the whole family involved at least two cars, lots of coordination, and FOUR car seats!
"A highlight that fall was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when I invited the three women to come to my house so I could guide them in making a traditional dinner. The rest of the family arrived in time to attend the Trinity-Freistadt evening Thanksgiving service, then returned home. Discoveries from that dinner: turkey and pumpkin pie are tasty; there is NOT always room for Jell-O!" ~ Terry
"From Christmas to Easter and summer picnics, the three Trinity families described here took turns hosting several other events a year with the Khu Matio families. We also shared other cultural traditions throughout the year: school Valentines, Easter egg dying and hunts, the Fourth of July, pumpkin carving, the Folk Fair, children’s birthday parties, and Christmas tree decorating. We also went to Open Houses and Conferences for the children.
"During the next two years, until several of our friends learned to drive and bought cars, we coordinated our efforts to get them to church on the major holidays. A special evening for all of us happened in April of 2010, when Kye Meh chose to be baptized. The rest of the family had been baptized at the refugee camp or sometime earlier, but as the only in-law, she never had the opportunity.
Growing Karenni Outreach
"In the three years that followed, we have watched with wonder and amazement as about 100 Karenni people have joined “our” family in Milwaukee. Many of them moved into a cluster of apartments on the south side. This has led to a greater Christian outreach and a new mission field. I was privileged to be present when Pastor Kelm conducted the first bilingual service in one of those apartments. The furniture had been removed from the living room, and over 70 Karenni crowded into this small room to hear the word of God!
After about six months, this ministry grew into a formal weekly church service at Chapel of the Cross Lutheran Church, with volunteers providing English as a Second Language lessons and Sunday School after church." ~ Terry
"...the jug of oil did not run dry..."
"One last memory, however, makes me wonder whether God intervened directly with a family where money is always tight. Everyone living in Wisconsin is familiar with the long heating season and the need to purchase fuel in a timely manner. In the case of oil heat, this can be several times a season. Over one year after the second half of the family moved in, Maria called on a Saturday night to ask if I knew whom to call to order oil, because the gauge on the very normal-sized tank in the basement was showing a fill was needed. I asked her whom they called the last time. She answered that they had NEVER had it filled! This was so hard to believe, I quizzed them to see if perhaps there was another heat source I didn't know about, or if the very helpful landlords had filled it, etc. No. It had not been filled since they moved in. I had been in the house many times; I knew they were using heat. Eventually, we came up a plan to get the oil delivered and all was well." ~ Terry
Life Lessons Go Both Ways
Throughout all of this, Trinity members have also grown spiritually and culturally, learning valuable lessons, brought to Trinity from a gentle people from the other side of the world.
- Although we originally thought of them as “Burmese Refugees,” they have never really felt a part of Burma, and much prefer being known as being from Karenni, an independent country. Officially, Karenni and Karen are states in Burma, now Myanmar. Their native language is Kayah.
- They became refugees from warring factions in their country, one of which was the government. The government wanted the mineral resources in the mountains. To some extent the Karenni were persecuted because they were Christians as well as being an ethnic minority. Detailed information available at: http://www.karennihomeland.com
- When they were forced to leave their homes, they escaped to the jungle with very few, if any, supplies. They subsisted on things they found in the jungle while making their way to Thailand and relative safety.
- The refugee camp our families came from in Thailand had over 20,000 people; there is more than one refugee camp along the border.
- Bamboo is usually the building material of choice there.
- Burmese pythons are called that for a reason, and yes they do climb bamboo huts.
- Dental care is usually nonexistent there. So are toothbrushes.
- A fifth grade education is considered “educated,” especially for most girls.
- Girls generally do not have as much access to learning math.
- Karenni do not use “first names” and “last names.” Therefore, they say “Khu Matio,” or “Beh Meh” not just “Khu” or “Beh” every time.
- Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage.
- Many females have “Meh” in the last half of their names; many males have “Reh,” so one cannot assume that everyone with Reh is related.
- They count birthdays as many other Asians do: you are “one” when you are born.
- The families we are familiar with sleep with one whole family in one room. They did not choose to use cribs. Babies sleep with their moms.
- Like many immigrants, the children we work with are very eager to learn, and are doing very well in school. Although the parents don’t always know WHAT to do with class assignments, they very much want their children to do the right thing.
- The older children have now been in school for six years, some have graduated and attend Milwaukee Lutheran High School.
- They are an extremely polite people. We heard, and continue to hear, “thank you.” Toddlers are taught to say, “thank you” from the time they can speak in Kayah. No matter what, they are always appreciative for our efforts.
- They like living in Wisconsin, although they could do without winter.
- We also confirmed that we all have very patient husbands.
- And, once again, we are reminded that God is at work through our efforts on Earth.