From Rural Myanmar to Rural Colorado

Violence and fear has repeatedly forced the Karen, an ethnic minority, to move. Tens of thousands left Myanmar, where they were persecuted by the military government, and went to refugee camps in Thailand. From there, some were accepted into a refugee resettlement program in the United States and sent to large metropolitan areas including Denver. But as KVNF's Laura Palmisano reports, about 100 Karen in Denver decided to move again. Worried about life in a big city and the influence of gangs on their children, they settled in Delta, a predominantly white town of 9,000 people. In a three-part series, Laura details the struggles of the Karen with language and fitting in, and the triumphs, including going to college and buying a home. This series is part of a reporting project for the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s 2015 fellowship on immigrant families.

saw peter, karen refugees
Laura Palmisano / KVNF

Saw Peter is Karen. That’s an ethnic group in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  And for more than 100 Karen refugees in rural Delta, Colo., he’s the go-to person for advice, translation and other essential information.

Like the other refugees in this community, life hasn’t been easy for Peter.

As a young man, he smuggled his family to Malaysia because the government in Myanmar seized their farm and threatened to kill them.

karen refugees, esl class
Laura Palmisano / KVNF

As anyone who's ever taken a foreign language class knows, it’s hard to learn another language. For immigrants to this country, that challenge can affect their whole lives. According to census data, in 2013, there were more than 25 million people in the United States with limited English proficiency.  And, in Colorado's rural Delta County, a group of refugees from Southeast Asia is trying to overcome this barrier. 

Htoo Ler Moo, Karen refugees
Laura Palmisano / KVNF

Htoo Ler Moo was 7 years old when his family arrived in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Before going to the camp, his family lived in a tiny village in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where his parents worked in the fields.

In their village, they didn’t have electricity or running water. Htoo Ler Moo says they were safe until the soldiers came.