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Karen refugees rebuild their lives in the Triangle

Growing home

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Jones Ferry Road swoops through Carrboro and curves toward the country, where it isn't unusual to happen upon farmland tucked among the trees. On a two-and-a-half acre farm, workers wearing straw hats tend the plush rows of produce. At the farm gate, there is a sign written in curly, upward script mimicking the thin, coiling vines of string beans reaching toward the sun.

Yoe Moo and his wife, Paw Kau, who are Karen refugees and farmers, hover over a row of rainbow chard and speak to each other in their lively native tongue. This open, flat field in Orange County is much different from the jungle forests they farmed in Burma and Thailand. Moo digs his knees into the dirt and plucks through the stems with his fingers. Kau arranges magenta, amethyst, coral and yellow stems into bouquets. While the tropical colors resemble hues of flowers and fruits back home, Moo and Kau say they are still getting used to the taste of chard.

It's an important day for the 14 Karen families at Transplanting Traditions Community Farm; it is the season's inaugural pickup for their community-supported agriculture business, with more than 20 boxes packed for customers.

"It's a very strange concept for the farmers, that people are paying for something they haven't been given yet," says farm director Kelly Owensby. "But they are so gracious."

The project, which began last year, is run through the Orange County Partnership for Young Children. It is supported by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, a federal grant, on land owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy.

Initially a community garden for low-income families, it attracted many Karen refugee residents who expressed an interest in more space. All were farmers in their native Burma, but there they grew food primarily for their families. Here, they're selling the fruits of their labor, grown in the stubborn clay soil that requires an extra bit of muscle. They have found a four-season climate that is often unreliable, killing the lemongrass they planted on an unseasonably warm day in February. They begin working in the fields in the late morning after working a third-shift housekeeping job and before going to English-language classes.

Husbands and wives, in-laws and grandchildren: They all work together. They recall the classes they've taken to learn how to harvest new crops—kale and varieties of potato—and basic Americanisms, like how to properly hold and eat a hamburger. They're also planning to grow more Burmese crops in this second year, like bitter gourd and luffa (the stuff of loofah sponges).

One breezy morning, a small group sits cross-legged, eating bowls of rice and fish soup teeming with herbs, including bitter roselle, which is said to aid diabetes. Swirls of pale yellow thanaka, a paste made from bark to protect and nourish the skin, have been dabbed on the women's cheeks. They greet me with "A me will ee ah?" It's the way Karen ask how you're doing, but literally translates to "have you eaten?" I sit and, through Eh Tha Pwee's interpreting, I learn.

A military junta has ruled Burma (sometimes called Myanmar, though ethnic Karen refer to their home country as Burma) since 1948, after the country gained independence from the British. More than 100 minority ethnic groups, including the Karen people, in the Texas-size nation have been victimized by the military regime's repression. In 2007, the U.S. began receiving an influx of refugees. According to North Carolina State Refugee Coordinator Marlene Myers, the Burmese have made up the largest percentage of the state's refugees for the last two years, with 916 new Burmese refugees in 2011. Pwee, who recently started the local nonprofit Karen Community of North Carolina (KCNC), estimates about 400 ethnic Karen families live in Orange County.

Farmer Maw Roeh narrows his dark eyes as he sifts through a mental catalog of painful memories. He recalls witnessing military soldiers shoot his cousin and drag his body away. The government denied it, but gave him the equivalent of a few dollars to keep quiet and to cover—barely—the burial costs.

Roeh's wife, Paw Pa, remembers the military invading overnight to steal livestock and sacks of freshly harvested rice. Roeh says that every season they had to uproot their paddies in the jungle so the soldiers couldn't destroy them.

Murder, torture and rape are common in a place stripped of freedom. Refugee camps line the border in Thailand, a terrain recently described in Mother Jones as "land-mine-studded mountains." Even there, according to Pwee, the rice is rationed and hardly enough for the family. Leaving the camp to buy or grow food was a risk; Thai police were apt to arrest and torture refugees for failing to carry Thai identification.

Despite the recent election of a pro-democracy leader to the Burmese parliament, there is an enduring distrust among the refugees. Of those asked if they'd return to Burma under the promise of democracy, all said no. They call North Carolina their "third home," but, as Pwee says, "a better home."

"In Burma, I lived in a village. Life is so risky inside a Burmese village," Pa says. "Here, we can go to any area. We are free."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Growing home."

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