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The mingling of cultures: Carrboro's growing Karen community



It's Saturday, July 27, and rain clouds are threatening. A hundred or so members of the Karen community, formerly of Burma, are gathered at Damikayama Temple, a few miles west of Chapel Hill, for a ceremony in which nine young men will reaffirm devotion to their faith. Some will find their callings as lay monks; others may give themselves over to the monastic life.

Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro, points out that although it is unclear when the ceremony will begin, no one seems concerned. It's understandable, considering so many of these folks arrived here from refugee camps, where waiting was pretty much all there was to do.

The Karen people were persecuted in their homeland and driven from their homes. As many as 9,000 Burmese refugees live in the area, many of them attracted by the service jobs at the university and UNC Hospitals that don't require extensive English-language skills.

Myo Oo is one of the young men participating in this ceremony. He's 21 and has just graduated from East Chapel Hill High School. Last night, his head was shaved, and he now wears a burgundy monk's robe. His English is halting, yet laced with "likes." ("I'm, like, going to the altar to pray.")

Myo's father had cancer. Believing that the family had somehow angered the gods, his mother returned to the family's village in Burma to try to appease them. His father died in March.

Myo will attend Durham Tech in the fall and will continue to work at The Cedars of Chapel Hill. This is now very much his home.

To mingle with the Karen on this day is to experience a people in rapid transition. Many have become citizens. Language is an issue, but not an insurmountable one. True goodwill goes a good long way, as does embracing a new culture (while preserving one's own). This event is one part religious ceremony, one part block party. Dress ranges from traditional to contemporary. Adults snap photos. Food is persistently proffered, and strangers are greeted with genuine warmth.

Min Khaing, a novice monk here from Orlando for two weeks of monastic life, describes karma this way: Sometimes your skin's made of gold, and sometimes you eat from the pig's trough. Some karma you can control, and some you can't. That which you can, spend wisely. Practice doing good things, he says, and good things will follow for a thousand lives.

In Orange County, we learn from one another. Good things follow. And most make it home before the rain falls.

Taylor Sisk is a writer and editor based in Carrboro.

Editor's note: For more on the Triangle's Karen refugees, see our slideshow feature "Growing home: Karen refugees rebuild their lives in the Triangle."

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