It’s a Friday afternoon and a group of Karen refugees have just arrived at the Karen Organization of San Diego. With cameras hanging from their necks, they settle on the floor while they talk, listen to music and giggle as they show each other images and videos on their iPods and cameras. In the middle of the room, two elder Karen women dressed in colorful woven skirts tie yarn between rounded pieces of wood sticking up from a bamboo pole tied between two chairs. They are preparing a loom. A girl raises her hand, volunteering to learn the process of traditional Karen weaving. Her peers turn on their cameras and click away.
Most of these youth have lived most of theirlives in refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border; the ethnic group they belong to, the Karen, have been persecuted by the military dictatorship in Burma and many Karen look to the refugee camps for safety. For the youth, home is often a difficult place to define. Is it Burma, where many have never been? A refugee camp where they grew up but were never allowed having a permanent home? Or the United States, where everything is still new?
The AjA Project and the Karen Organization of San Diego are currently running a program using photography, audio narratives and traditional Karen weavings to help the youth explore and communicate the meaning of home and identity. It has proven important for the students to document aspects of their Karen culture; learning the art of Karen weaving has helped them maintain an important tradition. Karen elders are proud to pass these skills on to the next generation and the youth are excited about using photography to document their cultural practices.
When the students have finished their projects on this particular day, the room is buzzing with activity. Photographs are spread out on a table and students divide them into four categories: school; Karen traditions; transition; and environment. Meanwhile, one group is practicing reading aloud because, in a minute, it will be their turn to record their narratives.
One student reads: “In this picture we see the women try to teach young people how to weave. They are Karen. They don’t want us to forget our culture. This is our culture to keep and share with the other and new generation.”
They tease each other when words are difficult to pronounce, but they also help each other. They know that this project brings them one step closer to defining home.
Their narratives and images will be on display for World Refugee Day on Saturday, June 22nd from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Village at Market Creek, 404 Euclid Ave.