These Karen refugees no longer have to farm to survive. Now, they’re farming as a summer job.
Making Buffalo Home is a WNED | WBFO multiyear project looking at the impact immigrants and refugees are making in our community. As WBFO's Kyle Mackie reports, one group of Karen teenagers who came to Buffalo from Thailand are spending their summer working at an urban farm on the city’s West Side.
After Spanish and Arabic, the third most commonly-spoken foreign language in Buffalo Public Schools is Karen. Karen is the name of both a persecuted ethnic group from Burma* and the community’s common language.
This summer, seven Karen 16- and 17-year-old students at Lafayette International Community High School—all of whom grew up in refugee camps in Thailand—have been using skills they developed early in life: planting and harvesting crops.
“When I was little, I used to plant and harvest, like to eat for a meal,” Sunday Wah told WBFO.
No Ber Htoo agreed. “We farm[ed] just to survive our own life.”
“In Thailand, it’s really hot,” said Eh Kaw. “We worked all day in summer, like all day long, to survive—to get food so we wouldn’t be hungry. But mostly my parents worked really hard for us to have a healthy family.”
Most of the boys working at 5 Loaves Farm this summer came to Buffalo from Thailand around four or five years ago. Before that, they were forced to live in UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) camps as the result of a decades-long conflict between the Burmese government and ethnic minority groups like the Karen who traditionally lived in eastern states near the country’s border with Thailand.
The majority of the 93,534 refugees currently living in Thailand are Karen or Karenni (another ethnic minority), according to UNHCR.
“It’s very difficult to identify ourselves,” said Daniel Leong, board chair of the Karen Society of Buffalo.
Like the Lafayette students, Leong also grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. He said the only way for many Karen to escape the fighting in Burma is to cross the river into Thailand—a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and where it has been virtually impossible for Karen to apply for citizenship.
“That’s why when we ask the kids, ‘Where are you from?’ we say ‘We are from Karen.’ Actually Karen is not really a country, but they will say, ‘We are from Karen.’ They don’t want to say, ‘I am from Burma.’”
Leong said his organization estimates there are somewhere between 4,000-5,000 Karen living in Buffalo. His family was resettled in 2008 through Catholic Charities.
Nay Thaw, who was the first Karen Lafayette student to start working at the farm in the spring of 2018, explained that periodic attacks forced his family to move from one refugee camp to another before he was born.
“The Burmese Army tore down, burned down the camp—the whole camp. They burned down the whole camp twice. Then, my mom moved to another camp, which is [named] Umpiem. Then I was born there.”
The partnership between 5 Loaves Farm and Lafayette grew out of a connection fostered by the Buffalo Vineyard Church, which operates the farm. Chelsea Ellis, an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher at Lafayette attended the church and thought it might be a good place for her student, Nay Thaw, to intern.
Ellis said she asked Nay Thaw what he wanted to do for his next internship, after finishing one with her. He said, “I don’t know, but I don’t want to talk.”
“I don’t like speaking in English because, you know, sometimes when I speak, people don’t understand me. That makes me feel disappointed,” Nay Thaw told WBFO. “So, working with hands is my type. I want to work with my hands.”
Nay Thaw and the other Karen teenagers are good at working with their hands. Farm manager Matt Kauffman said they’re great workers because they know how to take care of plants.
“There’s sometimes more of a language barrier with the boys that I’m working with here on the farm, but they come with that intuitive knowledge of what it means to take care of a garden,” Kauffman said. “They understand the tasks: how to weed, how to water, how to cultivate.”
After Nay Thaw’s first season at the farm went well, Kauffman hired a few more Karen students to join him last summer. This summer, he was able to hire a total of seven through Mayor Byron Brown’s Summer Youth Internship Program.
Kauffman doesn’t let Nay Thaw or the others get away without talking. In fact, Nay Thaw and several of the other students said they’ve learned that farms are all about community.
“When I think of [a] farm, I just think of planting and watering, but that’s not really part of the farm,” said Nay Thaw. “The farm is about connecting to other people and giving to other people and sharing your food with other people.”
“I want to work in the farm because I like to plant, and work with friends, communicate, and I like to work hard and look at my future,” said Tha Win, who plans to go to college and then join the Army after he graduates from Lafayette.
“I learned [at] the farm, like they work together, listen to each other and they follow each other.”
Ellis said this employment opportunity has made a big impact on her students, both financially and by giving them a meaningful way to spend their free time. She also said it’s particularly difficult for the city’s ENL students to find jobs.
“They can just sit at home and do nothing and get bored, or maybe even depressed, and I think that them having something to do has completely changed a couple of their lives,” Ellis told WBFO.
Kauffman said he didn’t intentionally set out to work with Buffalo’s refugee community at 5 Loaves Farm, which cultivates 15 city lots—or about one acre of land.
“One of our goals was to be representing redemption in our neighborhood, so taking these vacant lots and converting them into something that was beautiful and productive,” he said. And he’s found that the story of the refugees he’s come to work with also represents that value.
“The heartbreak and tragedy that they have experienced that brought them here—for them to be able to be a part of what we’re doing and to share the gifts that they have is, to me, a really cool picture of redemption, one that encourages and inspires me.”
Ellis also said she’s inspired by her students at Lafayette International Community High School.
“It’s a school full of students that I wish more teachers could experience, because they’re like the best people I know.”
Leong, the Karen community leader, said many first-generation Karen refugees in Buffalo are still struggling. But like any community, they’re placing their hope in their kids.
“Many of the parents, they were aware before they came here that the main goal for them is just to have the kids engage in future education and future life—be better,” Leong said. “For the sake of the kids, I think they are here.”
For more Making Buffalo Home stories, visit wned.org/MakingBuffaloHome.
*We used the name “Burma” instead of “Myanmar” in this story because that’s the term all of the Karen refugees we spoke to used.