Linked by an Obscure Language

Kristin Collins, News & Observer (Raleigh), August 24, 2009

Christine Wai could hardly believe it when she got the call asking her to teach a class in her native tongue of Karen.

Karen is an obscure tonal language spoken by only about 6 million people on the planet, all of them members of an ethnic group from Myanmar. It is also a language that, in Myanmar, has been banned in schools, burned in books and seen as the mark of an inferior people.

But this summer, Wai, 23, found herself in front of a class of educators, health workers and religious leaders in her adopted home of Chapel Hill, teaching them how to say “hello” or ask the time in Karen, pronounced kuh-REN.

It was yet another sign that Wai, and hundreds of fellow Karen refugees, have found a permanent home in the Triangle.

Refugee resettlement agencies have brought several hundred persecuted indigenous people from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to North Carolina in the past few years. Many have settled in Chapel Hill, turning three apartment complexes into Burmese outposts and changing the face of the town’s schools, churches and health clinics.

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More than half a million Karen people have fled to refugee camps since the mid-1980s, when their country’s totalitarian government began using violence to drive them off their land.

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Flicka Bateman, a community activist who has become a fierce ally of the Karen in Chapel Hill, was one of 14 people who signed up for the inaugural course.

“I was in the Peace Corps,” said Bateman, who is principal of a school for children staying at UNC Hospitals. “I saw the value of being an American who cared enough to speak their language.”

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