SHEaward — Refugee and Immigrant Woman of Excellence

© 2017-Huron Plainsman

Lah May Paw Soe was presented with the SHE  award for Refugee and Immigrant Woman of Excellence in October. And once you meet this remarkable young Karen woman, who was born in a Thailand refugee camp, you will understand why.

Lah May Paw has proved to be a committed advocate, a steadfast contender, and a voice for the Karen people of this community.
“I want to thank America and the Huron community for the opportunity to live in freedom,”  Lah May Paw said. “Someday, the Karen people will take what they have learned living here, and restore real freedom to Burma.”
In today’s political arena, the conversation surrounding the number of immigrants and refugees entering the U.S. has become a hot topic. So it only seems appropriate to begin this article with a bit of history and a brief introduction into the circumstances behind one of the world’s refugee crises, that of the Karen people.
Myanmar (Burma) a former British colony, is located in southeastern Asia and nestled between Thailand, India and China. Because of it’s location, Myanmar has a diverse population made up of 135 different ethnic groups. Buddhist make up 88 percent of the population, with 6.2 percent being Christian and 4.3 percent Muslim. When one reads about the historical conflicts that have occurred within this region, it quickly becomes apparent that this country has been a never-ending war zone for 200 years.
The Sgaw Karen people of Myanmar, were introduced to Christianity by protestant American missionaries in the 19th century, and quickly allied themselves with the colonial British.
During World War II, the Karen people fought with the British against Japan until the British were forced to retreat into India, leaving the Karen people at the mercy of the Japanese and Burmese who began systematically killing them.
When World War II ended in 1945, so did the Japanese occupation in Myanmar. The Karen people felt they were now entitled to their own independent, sovereign state, but the request was denied by the Burma government, thus creating a civil war. The political unrest in Myanmar continued and finally resulted in a bloodless military coup d’etat in 1962, resulting in a one-party socialist military dictatorship.
This dictatorship has led attacks in civilian areas, burned villages, destroyed food supplies, laid land mines in public areas, and shot fleeing civilians. They have been accused of sexual violence, forced (slave) labor and the use of child soldiers in their campaigns.
To escape the violence of the last 30  years, thousands of refugees sought safety in the eastern border jungles of Thailand. Today, there are 99,930 people living in nine refugee camps as of September 2017, and are comprised mostly of the Karen and Karenni people.
In 1988, Huron resident, Lah May Paw Soe, was born in Thailand, growing up with her family in one of these very camps. Her memories of the refugee camp are a mix of emotions and are expressed with a sense of the isolation, alienation and hopelessness she experienced.
Food was scarce, and difficult to come by. Employment nonexistent, unless you were fortunate to get hired from the outside. But the Thai government police control these camps and all movement in and out of them. To leave, one must pay the police or run the risk of harassment and violence. It was common place for Thai businessmen to pay the police for access to the refugees for their own use, either for labor or for sex.
Her daily life in the camp consisted of the same routine: chores, school, church, and living in fear. With no future in sight, achieving a life outside of the camp seemed impossible.
If it weren’t for a UN organization called United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHC) many of these people would never escape this life of non-existence. It was this group that opened the doors for Lah May Soe and many others to migrate out of the camps and into different countries. The Karen people are scattered among many nations in the world today — Australia, Switzerland, and the United States are just a few.
In 2008, after completing the interviewing process by IOM (International Organization for Migration), Lah May Paw Soe and her three children were released from the camp and relocated to Oakland, Calif.
Living alone in an apartment with her children in a foreign country, and not knowing the language or customs was frightening enough. But when she and her children witnessed a black man being shot by the police, she questioned her decision.
“How is this any better than a refugee camp” she asked?
She quickly realized that Oakland was not where she wanted to raise her children, especially when the few friends she had refused to visit her there.
What she longed for was a small community, where employment was available and her children could feel safe. Through various contacts, she discovered a job opportunity in Huron, and they made their move to the community in 2009.
This determined young woman, who fled to a new country for a new life, has wisely taken advantage of all the experiences and obstacles she’s encountered to help those who have followed.
Her first endeavor was to master the language barrier and she has done so proficiently. Her first-hand knowledge in navigating through this complicated society is remarkable and indeed an asset for those who have no idea.
As an interpreter, she assists others with almost everything imaginable — housing, the currency and banking system, shopping, medical and dental appointments, licensing requirements, lawyers, how to acquire a green card, applying for citizenship, and job hunting. She also eases the transitional process by teaching individuals about American customs and social skills, and encouraging them to participate in community events.
At age 29, Lah May Paw Soe, has attended Leadership Huron classes, participated in Connecting Cultures, and plans to open a Karen Association office at the Huron Community Campus building on Dec. 2.
On top of all of this, she is employed by the Center of Independence, and is the mother of four. When she arrived in Huron in 2010, there were just a handful in the Karen community. But due to her extraordinary efforts, Huron is now proud to have 2,500 Karen people calling it home. This amazing woman still has goals she would like to see fulfilled.
Lah May Paw Soe said the Karen Association office opening is one of four goals that she has been working toward since arriving in Huron. The other three goals are:
• To establish classes, training and educational programs for the Karen to learn and enhance life for all Karen in the community.
• To establish a youth service organization to help with community needs and help the Karen youth develop leadership and job skills.
• To share the Karen culture with friends and neighbors in the Huron community.
They are also planning a Karen Day in Washington. D.C., on Monday, Nov. 6, when about 10,000 Karen people are expected to ask the government for peace in Myanmar and to eradicate the ethnic cleansing that continues to this day.
Lah May Paw Soe is not only a beacon of light to the Karen community, but offers each of us an example of how to live our lives in the service of others. Huron congratulates Lah May Paw Soe, a recipient of the 2017 SHE awards. She is truly a woman of excellence.


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