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“I attach great importance to Dutch norms and values, but I also follow the culture of my own country”

I was born in a village near Tenasserim, Myanmar in 1993. Both my parents belong to 'the Karen tribe', which is one of 135 ethnic groups in Southeast Myanmar and accounts for 6% of the population. I lived in the village with my mother, sister and 2 older brothers. My father was a soldier in the army, so he wasn't home much. My mother had to take care of all the children on her own.  Unfortunately, I was only able to live there for a short time because of the war that was going on in my country, which is described as one of the "longest civil wars" in the world.

I was about 3 years old when they burned down our village. We fled with my family and others looking for shelter. We walked for a year without stopping until we reached the border of Thailand. Only shortly before we had to flee, my little brother was born so my mother had to carry my brother in her arms. 

We ate the rice we had brought with us. To survive we also looked for vegetables and fruit and/or fished or hunted animals in the jungle. At night we hid without being able to make big fires so as not to be discovered by the enemy. One of the few memories I have is that it hurt to walk barefoot on hot stones. It was a very difficult journey for a little girl. 

Luckily the whole family arrived alive and well in a refugee camp in Thailand called "Ban doh yang camp" where many Karen people lived. We had a small health center, a small school with a library that is not comparable to the Netherlands. In the refugee camp we lived in poverty, so also the school had only limited resources. We had rice and vegetables and if I was lucky I got to eat meat twice a year. My mother worked very hard in the camp to earn some money. Everything is so different there than here in Europe.

When I was 13, we were invited by the Netherlands to come and live here as refugees. However, my sister, who was already married at the time, had to wait until they were granted asylum in the United States, where she now lives with her husband. 

The first 4 months we lived in the AZC Amersfoort Asylum Centre until we got our house in Ede. One of my first memories when I just arrived in the Netherlands is that I had to get used to the big difference between summer and winter. Here it is not only much colder in winter, but it gets dark much earlier while in summer, on the other hand, much later. Also, never before in my life had I seen dark-skinned people or cities that looked so beautiful. Everything was different and I missed the nature of Burma and Thailand, like the waterfalls in the mountains, but I was also happy to live in a county where everything is much safer, more modern and organized.

For two years I took Dutch language lessons in Arnhem and then I enrolled at the ROC institute to study nursing levels 1 and 2. I met my current husband and came to live with him in Almere. When our three children were young I focused on being a mother and housewife. Since last year I am working again in a nursing home where I help the elderly with their daily care. 

As far as I know, there are no other Karen people living in Almere, although I think there are others from Myanmar. When I came to this big, modern city, it was hard for me to get used to it. I think it was also because I was starting a new life with my husband at that time and I missed my family, who I would like to bring to live in this city. I like Almere better than Ede and especially the centre. I think it is unique that there are so many different people in this city with so many nationalities and from different ethnic groups. I am an example of that. 

Since I started living in Almere with my husband, I have learned many new things. He helps me with the Dutch language by improving my language skills or explains about history and how things work here in Europe. Of course, I also learn a lot together with him about raising our children. 

Although I come from a country where 75% of the population is Buddhist, I was raised a Christian. My husband and I like to go to the "Wegwijzer" community in Almere. In this church I learn more about God and what He means to me. There I also meet new people and have made new friends. Once a year we celebrate the Karen New Year in a church in Ede with many people of Karen origin participating. After the service we celebrate with dances and traditional Karen food. It is party all day!  It is also a tradition to wear the traditional costumes of our region. 

I have lived in the Netherlands for almost 15 years and I am now used to and adapted to the way things are done in this country. Life here has given me better educational opportunities and facilities to move on. I attach great importance to Dutch norms and values, but I also follow the culture of my own country. I still prefer rice and I like spicy food, which is very typical of Karen culture.

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Photos, Interview and Text: Lyla Carrillo Quan - van der Kaaden
Text Revision: Babette Rondón
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