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Interview with Bless Say




Bless Say was born in Burma, August 8, 1950. She came to the United States in 2008. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life - family - school in Burma - dangers of being Karen in Burma - farming - Karen communities in Burma - fleeing to Thailand - refugee camps - moving to Minnesota - citizenship - working in Minnesota - learning English.





World Region



Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Bless Say Interviewer: David Zander



Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans



The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Burma and Thailand. In Southern Burma, in Kawthoolei state, the Karen have been involved in a struggle for independence since the end of World War II. The Karen villages continue to suffer frequent attacks and persecution from Burma’s ruling military junta. Many Karen fled to safety across the eastern border into Thailand. Since 2000 Karen have been arriving in Minnesota. There are now over six thousand living in Minnesota. They are among the most recent refugees resettling in Minnesota.


Bless Say, 2012.


From left to right: Eh Ku Du Say (grandson) Eh Te nna, sitting on Ta Mla Say and Htoo Htoo Say Lah Min on the lap of Bless Say in front, their son Thaw Thi Say and daughter in law Ka Mu Ku behind.


From left to right: Bless Say’s husband, Ta Mla, their youngest son Ler Lah, and Bless Say.





Bless Say Narrator David Zander Interviewer Eh Thweet Assistant Interpreter November 5, 2011 Southeast Asian Ministry Saint Paul, Minnesota

Bless Say Eh Thweet David Zander


DZ: Saturday, November 5th, at Southeast Asian Ministry, in the basement of Christ Lutheran Church, 105 University Ave. St Paul. My name is David Zander, I am the interviewer. And my narrator here is Mrs. Bless Say. So we will begin. Hi, thank you for giving me an interview. Please tell me your full name, when you were born and where. BS: My name is Bless Say and I was born in Burma. I was born on August 8, 1950. DZ: Welcome. I want to hear about your life. What is the first thing you remember when you were a little girl? What are your first memories? BS: My memories is when I was six years, my mother passed away. At that time I was very upset, and my father took care of me as the father ... As a mother. And he sent me to school, and when I was in ninth grade, my father passed away. DZ: Did you have brothers and sisters? BS: Yes, I have one sister and one brother. DZ: Older or younger? BS: They are older. DZ: So you are the youngest. BS: The youngest, yes. I am the youngest one. 14

DZ: When was your brother born? What year, roughly? BS: I guess maybe ... 1949. My eldest brother was ten or eleven when I was born. DZ: So you were a baby and he was ten or eleven? BS: Yes. Yes. DZ: How about your sister? BS: My sister is older... Two years older. DZ: Did you live in a village or in a town? BS: We lived in a village in a bamboo house. A traditional house. DZ: How many people were living in the house? BS: I lived with my father and my sister up till my mother passed away. There were three of us. Me and my sister and my father. DZ: Just the three of you. No Grandparents? BS: No, no grandparents. Because they all passed away. DZ: And your father said you are going to go to school. BS: Yes. DZ: Tell me about going to school. BS: My father is a farmer, so we are very poor, so we have little money. Without money it is very difficult to go to school. My father worked as a farmer and he sent me to school, but he had no money for us and not much support for us. DZ: Was the school in your village? Did you walk there every day? BS: Yes, the school was in the small village, and I walked every day to school. Yes. DZ: So you came home each day and went to school. Who were the teachers in the school? Were they Karen, were they Burman? BS: The teacher is Karen.


DZ: Tell me about a typical day in school. What time did it start? What time did it finish? What did you do in school? BS: School starts at nine in the morning and closes at four p.m. DZ: How many children in the school? BS: Over forty. Just one classroom. All ages mixed up. DZ: How many years did you spend in that school? BS: Four years. I started school when I was six. And then until I was six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Ten years old. DZ: And then what did you do? BS: When I was ten years old. I was in fifth grade. When I was in ninth grade, my father passed away. So I could not continue the school. I dropped out at eighteen. DZ: When your father passed away. You were eighteen. You kept going to school until you were eighteen. BS: Yes. It was a different school. First, we lived in the small village. And then when I was fifth grade, I went to the town, a small town. And I started to attend another school from sixth to ninth grade. DZ: Did your father come to the town or did you leave your father behind in the village? BS: My father did not come to the town. Just me. DZ: Where did you live in the town? BS: I lived in the boarding house... It was a boarding school... Girls all sleep together like a dormitory. DZ: Was it a school for both boys and girls or just girls? BS: The girls lived in a different building, the girls’ boarding house ... ..And the boy’s boarding house was a different building. DZ: What was the name of the school? Do you remember? BS: No name. Just the name of the town. Yedwinyegan high school. The Karen school. It had mostly the Karen teachers. 16

DZ: But you had to pay fees for school? BS: My father earned the money for me and I had to go to school. DZ: Did you wear a school uniform? BS: Yes, uniform. A white dress. Skirt… Green surround… Sarong. DZ: Did the girls have any school hat? BS: No hats. We wore sneakers, tennis shoes. Some wore slippers, too (flip flops). DZ: Did you like school? BS: Yes, I liked school. DZ: Tell me something you remember about school? BS: We were very happy at school because our Karen teachers are very good to us and very nice for us. They are very friendly and helpful, too. And. all of our Karen boys and girls, we lived as brothers and sisters. And the teachers told us to help each other, to love each other as a brother or sister. We never quarreled and we’d never fight. DZ: Did you have to pass exams, examinations? Did you have examinations at the end of school? BS: Yes, I had exams. But when I was in ninth grade my father passed away. So I didn’t graduate. High school ends at tenth grade. If someone graduates at tenth grade they can find a job. But I was not a graduate, so I can’t find a job. DZ: You were in a Karen town. Was life safe there or was life dangerous? BS: At that time it was safe. DZ: When did things start to change? When did things become dangerous? BS: In 1972, I went to a Karen village in Karen State because I can’t find a job. I didn’t graduate, so I came to Karen State and I found a job there as a teacher at Karen State. DZ: Growing up, what was your religion? BS: I’m a Christian. DZ: In your village was there a Karen church? 17

BS: Yes. We just had Karen church. DZ: Who ran the church? Was it Karen or was it missionaries? BS: Our Karen people, they built the church by themselves. DZ: What kind of a Christian church was it? Was it Baptist? What Christian denomination was it? BS: Baptist. DZ: Now I know that the Baptists’ missionaries went to Burma a long time ago. Had the Christian church been in your village a long time? BS: I don’t know. I just know the church already is there. DZ: Was your mother Christian? BS: Yes, my mother and father. And mostly our Karen people in the village, a small village. And they are all Christian. DZ: In the village, were there also Buddhists? BS: Some are Buddhists. In Burma .the Buddhists are mostly Burmese. DZ: The religion of the Burman, the majority, is mostly Buddhist. The religion of the Karen is mostly Christian. But some Karen are Buddhist. BS: Some Karen are Buddhists ... In the mountains some Karen are Buddhists. The people who live in the mountains, in the countryside. DZ: Your village, where you lived, what was it like? Was it flat? Was it mountainous? BS: Flat. A big river. DZ: Looking around, was it jungle? Or was it forests, woodland? BS: It’s not a jungle. No jungle. It’s all flat. We can see the sunrises and sunsets very well. Across the fields. DZ: What did the farmers grow? BS: They grow just paddy rice, flooded fields, and paddy rice. Rice growing in the water. DZ: You are working as a teacher in Karen State. So tell me about your work as a teacher. 18

BS: I’d teach the children, about fifty children in a small house, a flat house, the whole house ... we lived together. The teacher ... All the children with me. DZ: You were the only teacher. BS: Yes, the only teacher. DZ: Did you get paid money? Did you get a salary? BS: No. At that time I got money once a year, two hundred fifty baht in Burmese money. DZ: How many dollars do you think that was? BS: [Chuckles] Fifty cents! Seventy-five cents, I think. A year! [Chuckles] DZ: Did the children bring you food? BS: Yes, their parents gave me rice. So I cooked for myself. DZ: Did they ever give you a chicken? BS: No, just rice. Sometimes they bring me vegetables ... DZ: And the children go home, and come to school every day. Sometimes they bring a little vegetables for you. BS: Yes. DZ: In this one room school. Was it hot sometimes; was it cold some times of the year? BS: Yes. DZ: Yes. Did you have a fireplace? BS: No. DZ: No. glass windows. The air would just blow in? BS: Yes. The roof is made with leaf. Not aluminum but a thatch roof. DZ: How long were you a teacher in this school? BS: I was a teacher at the first village for three years. And then we moved to another village and I was the teacher there for three years. And then we moved again to another village and I was 19

almost three years there. So at that time we have to run away from Karen villages, and we have to escape to the Thai village. DZ: So let’s look at that, the first village. You’re teaching fifty children. How did you know when you had to run away? Did you see soldiers? Did messengers come? What happened? BS: Our Karen soldiers, they live at the front line, they told us to run away, so we had to run away. DZ: So there is a line of soldiers. You’re behind the Karen lines. But the Karen soldiers say the Burmese are coming, “Get out of here. Run.” BS: Yes. Go to safer villages. DZ: And then again, later, you have to leave that village. Tell me more about having to move, move, move. What was happening in Burma? BS: Yes. [Sighs] I want to tell you this. In 1973 I got married, and I have the first child. At that time, my first child was three months. So I have to run in the jungle to escape. Because our Karen soldiers and Burmese soldiers are fighting. So we have to run away and escape in the forest. DZ: In 1973 you were married. You’re a teacher in a village. How did you meet your husband? BS: I was a teacher with his sister. So I didn’t go back to my village. I went to his house and I meet him. [Chuckles] At that time we fell in love and we got married May, 1973. DZ: You have been married thirty-eight years. BS: Yes. DZ: Tell me your husband’s full name. BS: Ta Mla Say. DZ: So you have the same last name as your husband. BS: Yes. We have the same last name. Ta Mla is like diamond. BS: And Say in Karen, means silver. Say is silver. DZ: So diamond marries silver. [Chuckles] So you married into great wealth. BS: [Laughter] 20

DZ: Your name before you were married was Bless Say, and your husband’s name was Say, too. I just wanted to make sure I get your names right. BS: And my children’s names. The first one is Eh Klu Say, Eh Klu Say.Eh Klu means love for his people. Eh is love. Klu is people. Bless is the same as English, as in God Bless. DZ: So the blessing from the marriage of diamond and silver was love your people. BS: [Laughter] DZ: That was your first born. This is the child you had to run into the forest with. Is this a boy? BS: A boy. I have four children. They are all boys. BS: They’re all boys, yes. DZ: I’d love to get pictures to put in this book of your children and your family. And we can work on that, collect pictures. So you have met your husband and the Karen are fighting the Burmese soldiers and it sounds very worrying. Very dangerous. BS: It was dangerous. DZ: Tell me, what did you feel? You’re a mother, you’ve got children. What did you feel about life in Burma? Was it safe? Was it dangerous? What did it feel like? BS: If we live in the town, it’s very safe for us. But when we lived in Karen State and in the villages ... The villages are not safe. DZ: Where were your brother and sister? What were your brother and sister doing? BS: My sister was a teacher. Right now she is retired. DZ: So your sister was a teacher, too. In another village? BS: Right now she still lives in Burma. My brother passed away. DZ: Sorry to hear that. What did he do when he was young? BS: And at that time he was a soldier. And he’d fight with the Burmese…. DZ: When did you leave Karen State and move across to Thailand? When did you do that and why? BS: We had to escape the civil war. In 1990. Go to Thailand. With my husband and with my children. 21

DZ: Was anybody else traveling with you? BS: All our people ran away together. We ran away together to Thailand. DZ: When you escaped to Thailand, the day that you’re traveling, how many were traveling? BS: Maybe one hundred, two hundred Karen people who have to run away and to escape to Thailand. DZ: How close were the Burmese soldiers? BS: On the other side of the river. DZ: I’m trying to get a sense of your escape and the journey. You’ve got to go through the forest. You’ve got to find your way to safety. How long were you traveling before you got to Thailand? How far was it? How many days did it take? BS: We were moving from village to village. I moved from the first village to another village. The first village and the second village are one day away. And the second village to the third village one day, too. And where we lived, the third village is very close to Thailand. DZ: How far? A mile, two miles, ten miles? BS: Very close. On the opposite side of the river. The other side is Thailand. DZ What is the name of this river? ET: Thoomwe, the Thoomwe River. DZ: The Hmong had a difficult time crossing the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. The Karen are crossing the Thoomwe. Is the river big? Is the river deep? Were there boats? How did you cross? BS: In the summertime it is not deep. In the rainy time, very big and very deep. Because the water from the mountain ... Flowed down and makes the river very deep and very wide. We cannot cross the river at the rainy time. The day we crossed, it was the summertime. So we ... We can cross on foot. The water just to our knees. Safe.

DZ: Good. This is interesting. You had to cross a river. The other side of the river was Thailand. BS: Yes. Thailand. And some of our Karen people live in Thailand, so we can stay with them. DZ: So then did you decide to go to a refugee camp? 22

BS: We have no place to live, to stay, so we decided to stay in the camp. At that time ... UN ... UN build a camp for us, a refugee camp for our war refugees. So we have to stay in the camp. DZ: Was it easy to get in the camp or did the Thai soldiers try to push you away? BS: No. the Thai government signed… For our war refugees to stay in the camp. DZ: Thai government was sympathetic. Helpful to Karen. BS: Yes. Yes. DZ: Good. Because sometimes you hear in the Hmong, the Thai soldiers are firing, the Communist soldiers are firing, and the people ... The Hmong are trapped in the middle. But for the Karen, the Thai government wanted to help the Karen. What was the name of the refugee camp? BS: The first camp is Maw Ker [near the town Mae Sot, Thailand]. And the second camp is Umpiem [Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp]. DZ: Why did you need two camps? BS: The first camp ... We lived in the first camp but not safe. So we have to move to another camp. DZ: Why was it not safe? BS: Because... DKBA It came to our camp and fights, and fire on ... Our house. DKBA, development ... Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. They are working with the Burmese Army. They would cross the border. And attack and then that camp was burned. DZ: The camp was burned. So then you moved to a safer place. Umpiep. How far away was that? BS: Oh, we have to. .we have to ride in trucks. DZ: So this is all official moving the camp. BS: Yes. DZ: So how many were in Maw Ker? How many refugees were in the camp? BS: Oh maybe five thousand. BS: About five thousand. 23

BS: Everything UN arranged for us. For a ride. They organized the trucks. DZ: How big was the second camp? Was it bigger? BS: Bigger. DZ: Yes. BS: Yes, because a camp and Maw Ker camp are combined. So we have a big camp. DZ: How many people? BS: Maybe ten thousand. DZ: So. Let’s talk about the second camp. What year is this that you’re in the camp? BS: 1991 to 2008. DZ: How many years were you in refugee camps? BS: Eighteen years. For eighteen years. DZ: [Gasps] That’s a long time. BS: Yes. DZ: And your children are growing up... BS: Yes, growing up. DZ: When you got to the camp, how old were your children? When you first arrived? Four children. All boys. BS: Yes, four boys. DZ: Roughly, how old was... How old were they? How old was the oldest when you arrived? BS: The first one ... Oh, the first one was born in 1975. DZ: Oh, so in 1990 he’s fifteen. BS: Yes, fifteen. BS: And the second is 1977. 24

DZ: Yes, so he’s thirteen. BS: And the third one is 1980. And the fourth one is 1982. At the second camp. DZ: Yes. So they spent a lot of time in refugee camps... BS: Yes. They’d go to school. DZ: So when did you come to America? BS: In 2008. November 12th. DZ: The children, how old were they when you came? Did you all come together? Did you come as a family? BS: My third son came first, and my youngest son… Came… Before me. DZ: When your third son came to America, how old was he, roughly? BS: 2008, he was like. Twenty-eight. DZ: So one of your sons came. He was twenty-eight. He came before you. BS: Yes, before me. DZ: Yes. And came to Minnesota? BS: Yes, came to Minnesota. DZ: And then you followed. BS: The third son came first and this, the youngest one came after his brother. And then my husband and I came third. DZ: So ... BS: And the oldest one came… In April 2008, too. The second came ... On May 27, 2008, too. DZ: And then November 12th 2008, you came. BS: Yes. DZ: So when you were still in the refugee camp. Your sons are here. What are they telling you about life in America? 25

BS: [Chuckles] DZ: Are they saying, “Oh, it’s good,” or are they saying, “Oh, it’s bad?” BS: They say good. [Chuckles] Yes. Because we have freedom in U.S. And when we were in the camp we have no freedom. We have to stay in the camp like a prison. [Chuckles] BS: We can’t go outside. And camp guards. DZ: So your sons are saying, “Mum, Dad, it’s good here. Come!” BS: [Chuckles] Yes. DZ: Did your sons come straight to Minnesota? BS: Yes. Came straight here. DZ: So did they tell you how cold it was? [Chuckles] BS: [Chuckles] Yes! They told me. DZ: But they had come in April. They didn’t know! [Laughter] BS: [Laughter] DZ: Because, at the History Center the big book says, “Bring warm clothes.” [Laughter] DZ: But they said, “Mom, Dad, come. It’s good, we feel free.” BS: Yes. DZ: What did you feel when you had to get on an airplane. Had you been on an airplane before? BS: No. DZ: No. [Chuckles] You had some orientation in the camp about America, cultural orientation. Were you excited? Were you scared? Were you happy when you ... ? When you’re in the plane, the plane is bringing you to America, what did you feel? BS: At first when I was in the camp, we heard that Americans, they are mean. But it is not the same as I heard. When I arrived here, all Americans are very friendly. Helpful. 26

DZ: Did you come with the help of World Relief? BS: Yes, World Relief. DZ: And did they meet you at the airport? BS: Yes. DZ: Yes. Yes. Well, let’s come back to the camp. You heard that Americans were mean. Were these working in the camp or were these tourists? BS: They are tourists. DZ: Tourists. BS: somebody said they are mean! [Chuckles] And some woman said, “We don’t want to go to America ... Americans eat people! [Chuckles] BS: ... were very afraid of that. So we don’t want to come to here because we don’t speak English well. We cannot speak English well and we don’t understand, too. DZ: Your sons ... Are you using cell phones to talk when ... When you talk to your sons, can you talk to them? BS: When I was in the camp? DZ: Yes. BS: Yes. DZ: So you ... So now, you’re on the telephone with your sons and they are telling you, “No, [chuckles] they don’t eat people.” [Laughter] BS: [Laughter] DZ: And they’re not too mean. So that they can give you a reality check. Check. So you came here. You’ve been here three years. Tell me about the last three years. What did you do the last three years in America? BS: When I arrived here, at that time it is winter. November. BS: And I started to learn English. DZ: Where did you go for classes? 27

BS: MORE School. [Multicultural School for Empowerment Saint Paul, Minnesota.] ESL class. Just Karen. Some Burmese, too. Adult Basic Education. English as a second language. ESL class. DZ: [Chuckles] English is your third language. BS: [Chuckles] When I started to school, I don’t understand ... About the teachers talk. Because... I’m not well in English. So I don’t understand the teacher’s talk. BS: And my classmates, some talked to me. I don’t understand them. But later I tried hard and I learned... I’m a little bit improved in English. DZ: You’re talking to me! Telling me your story. BS: I want to continue the class but... I don’t have enough chance now. Because one of my sons has a kidney problem. DZ: So you look after him? BS: Yes, I have looked after him ... DZ: Kidney dialysis? BS: Yes. He’s having dialysis... He is waiting for a transplant. DZ: Your husband ... Did he find a job? BS: Yes. He has one. DZ: Tell me about what work your husband found? BS: He works as a cleaner. [Chuckles] In this office. DZ: Was it tough financially when you came? Was it hard to make enough money to live here? BS: At first it was very hard to find a job, but later I applied to take care of my grandson as a PCA. DZ: Personal care provider. You applied for a position and you were accepted. To take care of your grandson or your son? BS: Yes. My grandson. DZ: Yes, personal care assistant. Like child care. And you got paid Child care assistant. 28

BS: Yes. DZ: How about housing? When you first came, where did you live? Are you still in the same house? BS: At first when I came I lived with my sister-in-law. And then we had to rent an apartment. My husband’s brother’s wife. [Chuckles] they live on Orange Avenue. DZ: So they helped you. Was it an apartment or house? BS: House. DZ: And then you moved out. You found an apartment. BS: Yes. DZ: How long did you have to stay with your sister-in-law? BS: Just about a month. DZ: So they helped you the first month and then you found an apartment. BS: When I was in the camp, I worked in a women’s organization, Karen Women Organization, as a social worker. And we looked after the elderly and the orphans. We got support by APHEDA. DZ: So in the camps, APHEDA helped ... there was a Karen women’s organization ... And you were a social worker... Australian People for Help and Education. So an Australian Agency, Australians helping economic development. Orphans ... Were there lots of orphans in the camp? BS: Two hundred orphans. DZ: tell me why there were two hundred orphans. BS: Some of them, their parents live in ... Village. So their parents cannot send them to school. So they want education, so they came to the camp and our Karen Women’s Organization finds a funder. Each camp has two representatives. They live in a town of Thailand. So the representative lives in Thailand and [is the] contact to the funder. DZ: So they’re not really orphans whose parents are dead, they are ... BS: Some were. Orphans, their parent’s dead, yes. But some, the parents sent them, told them... Go get education. And some have only one parent, some have only a mother, some have only a father. 29

DZ: The Karen Women’s Organization. Has it reformed here in Minnesota? ET: I don’t think so. We don’t have it here. DZ: How did you get connected to Southeast Asian Ministry? Does your husband volunteer or does he work here? BS: He works here. [Chuckles] Yes. ET: Yes, her husband working here. BS: Yes. Part time. DZ: Does he still do the office cleaning? BS: Yes. DZ: So he has two jobs. Two jobs. Closing comment DZ: Is there something you would like to say to people who read your story? What do you want people to remember about your life story? BS: You should improve your English. I am working on improving my English, learning on the internet, a program called US learns. Here in the US we are safe. We have freedom here, not like in our country (Burma). And we have free education here. We can learn English for free. In our country we have no schools for adults. My goal is one year to be a citizen. All of my family needs that – to become citizens. If I try hard it will be easy (to pass the citizenship test). I would tell newcomers, America is good for the Karen people. You can get jobs; get education, safety and freedom DZ: Thank you.