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Keystone characteristics that support cultural resilience in Karen refugee parents

Abstract

This participatory action research study used the conceptual framework of social–ecological resilience to explore how Karen (pronounced Ka·rén) refugee parents re-construct cultural resilience in resettlement. The funds of knowledge approach helped to define essential knowledge used by Karen parents within their own community. Framing this study around the concept of resilience situated it within an emancipatory paradigm: refugee parents were actors choosing their own cultural identity and making decisions about what cultural knowledge was important for the science education of their children. Sustainability science with its capacity to absorb indigenous knowledge as legitimate scientific knowledge offered a critical platform for reconciling Karen knowledge with scientific knowledge for science education. Photovoice, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews were used to create visual and written narrative portraits of Karen parents. Narrative analysis revealed that Karen parents had constructed a counter-narrative in Burma and Thailand that enabled them to resist assimilation into the dominant ethnic culture; by contrast, their narrative of life in resettlement in the U.S. focused on the potential for self-determination. Keystone characteristics that contributed to cultural resilience were identified to be the community garden and education as a gateway to a transformed future. Anchored in a cultural tradition of farming, these Karen parents gained perspective and comfort in continuity and the potential of self-determination rooted in the land. Therefore, a cross-cultural learning community for Karen elementary school students that incorporates the Karen language and Karen self-sustaining knowledge of horticulture would be an appropriate venue for building a climate of reciprocity for science learning.

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Correspondence to Susan G. Harper.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Focus group protocol as applied within a Photovoice project

Reference: Wang, Caroline C. (1999). Photovoice: A participatory action research strategy applied to women’s health. Journal of Women’s Health, 8(2), 185–192.

Photovoice is a participatory action research (PAR) method based on feminist theory and innovative approaches to documentary photography. It has been used in the United States and extensively in England as a tool to empower marginalized people to work for change by representing their own realities through photography and presenting this in a public forum to policymakers. The three main goals of Photovoice, as defined by C. Wang are: to enable people (1) to record and reflect their personal and community strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about personal and community issues through group discussions of photographs, and (3) to reach policymakers (p. 185). This method allows people who have a limited public voice to represent themselves to the public. The Karen refugees with whom I work are limited by language and cultural barriers. This project would allow them to define their own “creolized” cultural identity through visual representation. Within the context of this project, these visual representations will not be made available to the public or to policymakers except in an educational venue.

I will discuss the use of cameras and the ethics of using cameras to capture people’s identities. We will review the consent forms and discuss how to protect people’s privacy, recognizing that anyone has the right to refuse to have their photograph taken. Photovoice also has developed the practice of returning photos to the community members, in this case, the students and their families, when the project is completed. That will be an option that participants can choose in this project.

The prompt for taking photographs will be: Take pictures of the things or people who are most important to you as a Karen American person. After the first set of photographs have been developed, there are three stages that unfold in the focus group discussions: selecting photographs that hold significant meaning; contextualizing the photographs, or storytelling; and codifying issues or themes that emerge from the discussion. Questions to prompt discussion during the focus group are:

  • What do you see in this picture?

  • What does this photograph make you think of?

  • Why is this photograph important to you?

  • What does this photograph say about you? About the Karen people?

Appendix 2: Narrative portrait of PSP

PSP has passed her citizenship test. After waiting 5 years to take it, she has passed. Three weeks ago, when we sat in yet another doctor’s office trying to figure out what was making her so ill, she worried that she would not be well in time to travel to Atlanta for the test. Before PSP became ill, she gave me Karen language lessons Friday afternoons at 5. Sometimes we would look through the citizenship kit and I would quiz her on the governor of G___ or the state representatives. She always knew the answers. A surprising but welcome diagnosis of H. Pylori followed the last doctor’s appointment. Now she is beginning to heal. And she is a citizen of the United States.

Balm for the body and the soul

When I congratulated PSP on passing her test, I asked, “What does citizenship mean to you?” She said that living in Thailand in the refugee camp was difficult: they were not allowed to apply for citizenship in Thailand. Thailand does not have a rule like the U.S. that allows people to apply for citizenship after 5 years. A fence circles the camp. If Karen refugees are caught outside of the fence, they can be arrested and deported back to Burma. If they return to Burma, they risk persecution, imprisonment and almost certain death. The military government in Burma has been systematically eliminating ethnic minorities for the past several decades. Yet the government of Thailand gave them two options: live in the camps or return home.

PSP, her husband EK, and her mother came here from Thailand 5 years ago; at that time she had two small boys, J and J. They had been in the refugee camp for over 20 years before they came to J_____ P____, the organic farm in C____ that serves as a transition place for refugee families.

If you ask PSP where she is from, she will tell you “Karen State.” Karen State is a long sliver of land along the Thai–Burma border. EK has told me that one day the Karen people will be an independent nation. They will be able to live in peace in their own country without fear of military raids.

On this day in March, the air has a touch of spring. We walk outside to look at PSP’s garden. She is feeling better and can walk on her own from the house to the barn. Last fall, when friends and I shared an evening meal with PSP and her family, she showed us around her garden with pride. Vibrant green plants clung to every surface and each other. Onions, tomatoes, bright red peppers weaving around the tomato vines, great purple bean pods hanging heavily from vine-covered trellises, giant curved yellow squashes, and bitter melons populated the small garden. Several times over the fall when I came for my lesson, rabbits were grazing in the yard alongside chickens.

EK keeps chickens, at the house and at their community’s garden down the road on J____’s land. Once last fall when the youth group came for a meal after working on a chicken coop with the Karen families, EK showed them how to make a trap out of branches to catch garden invaders. He also demonstrated a chicken trick that the kids tried to copy: he put a chicken to sleep by tucking its head under its wing, and shaking it up and down while singing in Karen. Many times when I would arrive on Friday evenings for my language lesson, I would see EK leaning on the fence outside talking to the chickens.

EK and a young Karen man whom I don’t recognize are out in the garden today turning the soil for spring planting. PSP shows me where she will plant kale, and beans, purple and green, long yellow squashes, and herbs with Karen names. I notice a tent pitched in the backyard and we step inside; it is full of tiny plants in starter boxes. “This is my greenhouse,” she said. J, her second-born, tugged on my arm. “I water all the plants,” he said proudly.

I offered to drive up to the community garden with her. The kids wanted to come but PSP waved them over to their father. “But my mother wants to come,” she said. Every time I see PSP’s mother, she is smiling. She is a very slight woman. Once when it was very hot in the summer, I saw her out in the yard rubbing a branch of something against a stone, and then rubbing the residue on her cheeks. PSP’s family does not use air conditioning. It was sometimes a struggle for me to focus on the language lesson. As we drove through J____ on the way to the garden, PSP greeted friends from J____. PSP has many friends, Karen and American.

PsP remembers the house she and her family first stayed in when they came to J___ from the airport. She has told me that space in the refugee camp was tight, with bathrooms and wells for drinking water placed very close together. Very few people were able to grow their own food for lack of space, and the children were often sick. By contrast, J___ has acres of forest and farmland, and the houses sit nestled at discrete distances. They are painted bright colors. On one porch, several people are gathered in conversation. “This reminds me of home,” PSP says. “Well, yes,” I responded, “except we don’t have jungle here or bananas growing on the trees, and it’s freezing cold.” “Or waterfalls,” she says. Once when I was visiting PSP, EK held up a banana and said that this fruit doesn’t taste anything like the bananas they had at home. At home they could reach up and pluck a ripe banana from the tree and the flavor was rich and full. The bananas they have here, he said, are harvested before they are ripe and they die slowly on the trip to the grocery store.

PSP lived in a tiny apartment above the school at J___ at one point when their family was trying to move back here from A___. She served as interpreter for the next group of Karen refugees who came to stay for a few months to learn the ways and language of this country. “What is difficult about living here in America?” I asked her now. She answered slowly that if a person does not know English, then it is difficult to live in America. She began learning English as a small child. The schools in the refugee camps taught the children three languages: English, Burmese, and Thai. Some Karen had lived in Thailand for years and spoke only Thai. They were not residents of the refugee camps. PSP’s sister had married a Thai Karen man. The difficulty with that, she explained, is that she doesn’t get to speak or read in her own language.

When we finally reached the community garden, several Karen families were there ahead of us. J___ donated this land to the Karen people. On Saturdays in the summer, families come out with their children to work in the garden, eat together on the grass, and socialize. Now the ground is turned over, waiting for spring seeds. Giant water coolers stand above the ground to feed the irrigation system. In the fall when we were here, there was a magnificent patch of blood red hot peppers along one side of the garden.

PSP’s mother set out purposefully along the path in-between plots. PSP pointed out the plots that her mother has reserved for their family for the spring planting. We walked through the garden to the far side, where a herd of goats lived in the summer and fall. PSP had a goat that was expecting a baby. Now there were no goats here. “They have run off into the woods,” she said. I wondered if maybe they were carried off into the woods by bigger critters. The flock of chickens looked a bit thinned out too. In the fall, the chickens were arrogant and gorgeous, a variety of orange-red roosters from Cuba, EK told us. Now they didn’t seem so bold.

On the way back into town, we passed a Karen woman, distinctive in her long Karen skirt and flip-flops, a child on each hand, walking up to a store in C___. The sign caught my eye. It was written in Sgaw-Karen. “What is that?” I asked PSP. We pulled up and met the owners, the Karen pastor’s son and his wife. It was a modest general store, with a cash register propped on a box, and shelves stocked with packaged foods from Thailand. In the corner, great bags of rice were stacked up like bales of hay. I wandered through the aisles, marveling at what could be pressed into plastic and shipped from across the world. They would be having a grand opening on Saturday, the pastor’s son said.

I had last seen the pastor’s son at J’s tenth birthday party. J is PSP’s first-born child. It is the Karen tradition to call adults by their first-born child’s name; for example, PSP is really called J-mo.

Our last stop on this day in March was the elementary school, where PSP has been volunteering for the past year in the afterschool program. Many of the Karen families send their children to the afterschool program to get help with their homework. In January, PSP and I taught a class on the Karen New Year. PSP sang a simple national song and wrote the words on the board in Sgaw-Karen. Most of the children speak Karen at home, she told me, but they don’t know how to read or write it. I talked about the history of the Karen Nation to the children, and the meaning behind the national flag.

I asked PSP what she liked about living in the United States. “Education,” she answered. “Education is the answer.”

“What do you see for your future?” I asked. Improving her English, she said, so that she can pass the GED.

What after that? Nursing school maybe.

“What about your children’s future?” I asked.

“I would like one to be a pastor,” she said.

Maybe J.

“What about N?” I asked, looking at her three-year-old in a pink coat and dress.

Maybe a teacher.

“What does citizenship in the U.S. mean to you?” I asked finally.

“Freedom,” she answered.

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Harper, S.G. Keystone characteristics that support cultural resilience in Karen refugee parents. Cult Stud of Sci Educ 11, 1029–1060 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-015-9681-9

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Keywords

  • Karen refugee
  • Funds of knowledge
  • Sustainability science
  • Social–ecological resilience
  • Cross-cultural learning community