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Interview with Ahmay Ya




Ahmay Ya was born in 1987 in Sanchaung in Rangoon, Burma. She graduated from the University in Burma in 2003-2004. She immigrated to the United States in 2008 as a Karen refugee. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life - her father the revolutionary Mahn Nyein Maung - family and how the Karen people name their children - her childhood in Rangoon - her mother working as a trader while her father was in prison - being questioned by the authorities - escaping from Burma - volunteering to help deliver babies, and helping other refugees - coming to the United States alone - getting an education and working in Minnesota - her father's book Against the Storm: Across the Sea" and her father's imprisonment and release - hopes for herself and the Karen - working with the Karen in Minnesota and mental health issues - "





World Region



Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Ahmay Ya 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.


Ahmay Ya.


Ahmay Ya and her father Mahn Nyein Maung during Karen New Year, 2000.


Ahmay Ya in traditional Thai dress.



Ahmay Ya helping to deliver Christmas presents to Karen refugees in Minnesota.



Ahmay Ya with Karen refugees social healing group art class.


Women, Wine & Wisdom event. From left to right: Ahmay Ya, Linda and Sarchi.





Ahmay Ya Narrator David Zander Interviewer April 1, 2012 Brookdale Library, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota

Ahmay Ya David Zander

- AY - DZ

DZ: It is Sunday, April 1, 2012. My name is David Zander, the interviewer. I am at Brookdale Library, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, with Ahmay Ya, a young Karen refugee. We are going to record her story and the story of her father, Mahn Nyein Maung. Ahmay, please, give me your full name and tell me when and where you were born. AY: My name is Ahmay Ya. I am a Karen ethnic from Burma. I was born April 7, 1987, in Sanchaung in Rangoon. I have one oldest brother, one little sister, and two younger brothers. I am the second oldest. All of my brothers, and sister were born in different places and got different educations in Burma and Thailand. I graduated from University in Burma in 2003-2004, with a B.A., Bachelor of Arts. From Rangoon University. DZ: I didn’t know that. That’s very helpful. AY: When I came to United States as a refugee, they put my name wrong on the year date of birth. It happened to ten percent of the refugee population. Actually, I was born in 1987. They put on my I.D., identification, 1983. They put the wrong date of birth on my identification. DZ: So they said that you were four years older? AY: Yes. They did a mistake. I was not the only person. There were some other refugees with mistaken dates of birth. Some families, they have brothers and sister and the paperwork says they were all born in the same age and the same date. So I was not the only one. DZ: What year did you arrive here? AY: October 21, 2008…I have been here about three years and three months. DZ: You were twenty-one when you arrived?

AY: Yes, twenty-one. DZ: You were born in 1987- that is the real truth. [Laughter] AY: It’s my birth certificate. DZ: In a suburb of Rangoon, is Sanchaung a part of Rangoon? AY: In the City Rangoon, called Sanchaung Street. At that time, Rangoon is the Capital of Burma. It was not the new [sounds like mee-pee-doh] state yet. DZ: Tell me about you family. When you were born, there was just one older brother, because you’re the second eldest. Tell me who were you living with? Your father, mother? AY: My mom left me at three months old. I stayed with my grandmother and aunt from my mom’s side. The reason my mom left me with my grandmother and aunt, they wanted me to begin education in Burma. My mom has to leave me with my grandmother and aunt so I could continue my education in Burma, to have a good education and speak fluently in Burmese. The reason I didn’t have opportunity to live with my parents, my dad was doing the revolutionary work for the Karen people before I was born, since he was twenty. DZ: Just to get clear on why your father wasn’t able to be in Rangoon. It would have been dangerous for him to be in Rangoon, right? AY: Yes. He was a revolutionary; since he was a college student. DZ: Oh, that’s right. So this is just before all the big trouble in 1962 in Burma when the military killed many students. AY: Right. My dad was a student revolutionary for the Karen people before 1988. That’s a long time ago. DZ: Tell me about your dad’s life then before 1987. Where was your father born? Do you know? AY: He’s seventy years old now. DZ: So he was born in 1941, 1942. He’s middle age when you were born. AY: He got married at forty years old, around forty, forty-five, between forty and fortyfive. DZ: You’re right. In 1985, he would be forty-five.

AY: He got married kind of old. DZ: Yes, like me. [Chuckles] Tell me what you know of his life. Where was he born? AY: He was born in Burma. He was born in Ee-oh-dee Division, Karen State in Burma. He became a college student in Rangoon, doing revolutionary and democracy for Burma as a college student involving with the KNU [Karen National Union]. DZ: What were his subjects that he studied? AY: Politics and constitution. DZ: Oh, okay. It wasn’t like he was in medicine and then got involved in the revolution? He was always committed to political reform. Where was your mother born? AY: My mother was born in a small village in Karen State. DZ: Your mother’s name is? AY: Nawksin Shwe. N-a-w-k-s-i-n. Last name S-h-w-e. DZ: And your father’s name is? AY: Mahn Nyein Maung. M-a-h-n N-y-e-i-n M-a-u-n-g. DZ: Can you tell me anything about these names? In Karen culture, you don’t really have a family name handed down as a last name, do you? AY: No, we don’t. DZ: So how did your father end up with Mahn Nyein Maung? How is that put together? AY: Mahn Nyein Maung is a formal name in Burma. DZ: Any famous person that he is named after? AY: Not actually. He got his name from his dad. His dad gave him his names. DZ: And his father’s name was? AY: His father, my grandfather on my father’s side was [chuckles] Utha Aung. U-t-h-a A-u-n-g. He lived to be 103 years old. DZ: Ohhh! We’re talking about your grandfather, your grandfather on your father’s side, Utha Aung. Did you know him?

AY: I never see him. I just have the story from my dad. DZ: Was he dead when you were born? AY: Yes. DZ: You were living with your grandmother. Was this Utha Aung’s wife? AY: Oh, no. I was living with my grand mom and auntie from my mom’s side. I didn’t have a chance to see the relatives from my dad’s side. I’m more related to my mom’s side. DZ: As a young child. You’re living with family on your mother’s side with your grandmother and aunt. They were taking care of you since you were three months old. What are your first memories? What do you remember? AY: My first memory? I was graduating from a year in grade school and I was in a competition. It’s a marathon competition in Burma. I was only seven years old. I get third place. DZ: What was the competition for? AY: Running a marathon. DZ: You didn’t run a marathon! Maybe a hundred yards race? [Laughter] AY: One hundred and seventy-five miles. DZ: Yards? AY: One hundred and seventy-five miles. Yes. It’s very far. DZ: For seven years old? AY: Yes. [Laughter] DZ: That would be like running from here to Duluth. AY: Oh, no, it’s around the city, a hundred and seventy-five. [Laughter] DZ: Okay. You’re in a race, seven years old. How long did the race take? AY: One hour. DZ: So that’s only…

AY: Seventy-five miles? DZ: No. No. It would be seven miles at the most. The world record is one mile in four minutes. That’s twelve miles in an hour. So you probably ran half of that speed. AY: Really? DZ: Yes. AY: Okay. [Chuckles] Only seven miles? Sorry. It’s not one hundred and seventy-five miles. DZ: But it felt like it. You were a little girl, seven years old. And you came in third? AY: Yes. I got third place. I get some many prizes. I was standing on the third place. People announced the first, second, and third place. When people call my name at third place, I feel so big and so proud with a big smile. DZ: What did they give you? Did they give you a prize? AY: Yes, they gave me money and toothpaste and a dress and cookies, some money in there. They had different kinds of prizes in there. DZ: Let’s stay with that memory. You’re seven years old. AY: I was so tired. [Laughter] DZ: Yes. When did you start school? How old were you? AY: Before I went to Kindergarten, I was in a preschool - it’s similar to a daycare when I was four years old. DZ: Do you remember anything before this memory of running? Do you remember being in school? AY: Before preschool, that was only four years old. My mom visited me very often. At that time, she was living with my dad in Thailand. When I was five years old, my dad was arrested by Burmese government by doing political work for Burma and his people. DZ: Yes. This is the beginning of his amazing story of being imprisoned on an island and, then, escaping AY: Yes. My dad was arrested four times in his life. DZ: Four times. Is this the first time he was arrested?

AY: I don’t think so. This is the second time after I was born. When I was pregnant… Oh, no! No. [Laughter] DZ: When your mother was pregnant. [Laughter] You haven’t told me you have babies. AY: When my mom was pregnant with me. DZ: Yes, when she was carrying you. AY: My dad was in jail. I think that is the first time. When I was five years old, my dad was arrested the second time by the Burmese government. Every time he got arrested by the Burmese government, it was related to political war for Burma. His people freed him. DZ: You were four years old and your mom visited you and she came to visit you from Thailand. AY: At that time, my mom was a trader. My mom was doing a trader business. My mom has an elephant, so she was trading business goods from Thailand and importing to Burma with elephant. At that time, they don’t have motor transportation. They don’t have a car as transport yet, so they were doing business with elephant. Elephants were the transportation at that time. DZ: I like that detail. So your mom was a trader. She had her own elephant. She crossed into Thailand and Burma transporting import goods from Thailand. Do you know what she traded? AY: Clothing, fruits, rice, and different kinds of goods. My mom was so rich. She has lost lots of money, at that time. DZ: In Pascal Khoo Thwe’s book, a book by a young Padang, From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese. Odyssey, he writes that the Burmese government demonetarized. They said ten dollar bills, and hundred dollar bills have no value. So everybody lost their money, because they had the old money and they couldn’t exchange it for the new money. AY: Oh, I heard that. That was the Chinese-Burmese Rice Revolution. I heard it from my dad. I think for a more detailed story, I need to talk to him and get a little note, so I can get the old story before I was born. My grandmother who was taking care of me, she was surviving, running to hide in the Japanese bombing in Burma in Karen State. At that time, my grandmother and my mom, they are the trading business relationship. From my mom’s side, they are the business persons. They were doing trade for generations. At that time, the money was made of real silver for my grandmother. At that time, British are almost gone from Burma and Japanese are bombing and killing, there is much genocide of our people. At that time, my

grandmother was a trader doing trade business and she secretly keep money hidden in fish paste. When the Japanese people see any money, they take all of it from my mom or if they can, they rob her. So my grandma was afraid of that matter, so she keeps secret. She was hiding all the money in fish paste in food. Then once she gets to her village safely, she takes all the money out. Sometimes, the money smells like food or fish paste. I used to see, when I was young, at that time, I saw how money was buried. They used coins, coin money. They didn’t have paper money yet. The coin money was made of real silver. DZ: Interesting. So you remember that. Who told you the story about hiding the money? AY: My grandmother. My grandmother and my aunt who were raising me since I was three months old, so I know all the stories. Yes. DZ: What is your grandma’s name? AY: Daw Moe Moe. D-a-w M-o-e M-o-e. Moe, M-o-e, means in Burmese the rain. Daw means represent for the female, like Mrs. So her name means Mrs. Rain. DZ: Mrs. Rain. Beautiful. Ahmay, are there any meanings to your names? AY: Ahmay is a very old history name in Burma culture. Actually, this is a Burmese name. Most of the Karen people who live in Burma, they always used to have an official Burmese name on an I.D. We are identified by a Burmese official name in Burma. Ahmay is the very wise, smart woman of the little Buddha. His name is Mahawthata. He is a very wise pre-Buddha in Burma history. Ahmay and Mahawthata is a married couple. Mahawthata. Mahawthata is the little Buddha. He used to pass many lives to become a Buddha. He is one of the little Buddha in history. DZ: Right. The fifth reincarnation of Buddha. After Buddha, Buddha keeps reappearing? AY: Yes. He is Buddhist, the little Buddha. We learn about Mahawthata and Ahmay in history in tenth grade. So my name is from the history, very old name. DZ: So what do you know of this ancient Ahmay? AY: Ahmay is very smart, a wise lady who was tested by Mahawthata before she get married. Very interesting story. She is the wisest, smartest woman in the history and she can do everything. Mahawthata was trying to test her before he gets married. Because Mahawthata was the latest Buddha, he had the power of seeing things future, present, and past. So he was trying to find a wise woman to be his soul mate. Then Ahmay passed the tests and was selected as Mahawthata wife. Actually, my name was given to me by a Burmese monk in Rangoon. I was born on a Sunday. In Buddhist culture, people who

were born on a certain day, Monday through Sunday, they used to count by mathematics to match names with the people who were born on a certain day. DZ: Astrology. AY: Astrology. One monk found my name as a match with people born on a Sunday. So I got this name as special. DZ: I think it’s a very good name for you. Does this mean that you also have another name in Karen? AY: My Karen name Nentsemer Ner. N-e-n-t-s-e-m-e-r, last name N-e-r, which means Mrs. Victoria. DZ: Do you ever use it? AY: In the Karen State. I used to have a different name. I also had a Burmese name. Since I was born, my parents taught me not to tell the real parents name. I could get caught and arrested by the Burmese government. So I have a different name in Burma while I was studying. Since my whole life, I have a different name in Burma in the official I.D., trying to have a different name so the Burmese would not be able to recognize who my real parents are. DZ: So you did not use your Karen name, you used Ahmay as an “official” name for student membership? AY: My name is officially Ahmay, given by the monk. DZ: So you used that when you were a student? AY: Yes. DZ: Okay. AY: Nentsemer Ner is my Karen name, my parents named me. DZ: Ahmay, if there are any things that you want me to delete from this interview about names to protect people, let me know. We’ll get the story, but if you need to make deletions… I don’t want to get anything that you are uncomfortable with given the ongoing danger to Karen in Burma. Burmese intelligence is always looking. But the story of your name - it’s a lovely, lovely story. So tell me more about when you were a young girl in Kindergarten, elementary school, running races. Tell me more about your education. AY: I graduated from the Dagon University in Rangoon.

DZ: But before we get to university, tell me about middle school and high school. What did you do from age seven to eighteen? AY: I graduated number one in high school education in Burma. I came first or second place until grade nine. I was back and forth, first place sometimes, second place, earning first place, or second place. I was between first to third place until grade nine. I wasn’t always the top. I was very brilliant and smart, but I always have a struggle in my life. The first struggle, I remember when I was young… I was seven years old. At the time, I was racing. At that time, I was stopped by a military man. He was burying me in his arms tight like this, squeezing me. He was asking me, “Ahmay, who is your father? Is your father a KNU?” He was kind of testing me and asking those questions when I was seven years old. While he was asking me those questions, I was actually in his arm. He was hugging me tight. I was so afraid. When I was studying in Burma, I had to give a different name of my mom and dad name. I didn’t give this real name I tell you today. I used to give them a different name of my parents so they didn’t recognize who my real parents are and what kind of jobs they are doing. In my whole life, I was raised secretly… DZ: So even in your young life, when you were being raised by my grandmother and aunt, you experienced fear, you were afraid of the military. You had unpleasant encounters. AY: Right. DZ: What grade does school end? AY: Tenth Grade, grade ten. Grade twelve is in Thailand. Kindergarten to grade ten counts twelve years. Grade ten, we end. We finish high school. DZ: When you finished grade ten, how old were you? AY: I was fifteen or sixteen. DZ: How old were you when you started university? AY: I was only sixteen, seventeen. DZ: Do you have to pass entrance exams? AY: Yes. We have six majors: mathematics, history, Burmese history, war history, physics/biology, and English. I passed all of them with eighty percent we call grade B. My score allowed me to go to university. I had a chance to study Bachelor of Arts. DZ: Okay. So you went to Rangoon University and you were able to stay there?

AY: I was in dormitory school. I was in the boarding school. At that time, when I went to university in Burma education, the university cost more than… The education cost too much to receive B.A. or master level. After I finish my high school, by the time when I was young in summer holiday, we have a three month summer holiday, I always come visit to my parents in Thai side in the Karen revolutionary area. My education was supported by all the ethnic people, leader, in liberation area and Aung San Suu Kyi group, ABSDF [All Burma Students Democratic Front]. The president of ABSDF used to be Moethee Zun. He graduated from University in New York. He’s currently serving as a member of Aung San Suu Kyi, currently in Thailand. Him and other ethnic nationalities leaders, friend of my friend, they were supporting my education, paying my school fees every year until I graduate. So I got education support from a friend of my dad and other people. DZ: What year did you start university? In 2003 you were 16. AY: 2003 and 2004 education years. DZ: You were in college for four years? From 2003 to 2007, something like that? When did you graduate? AY: In Burma, we graduated in the middle of the year. DZ: Right, in the summer, June. Do you still have any documentation? AY: I bring all those documentation from Thailand. Unfortunately, my suitcase, my luggage, has been stolen by another refugee, another passenger at my destination, New York airport. I was catching two flights to get to Minnesota. I was carrying two bags. All the bags are the same for the refugee status. AY: We have been given all the same bags, so one bag; I have a name on it. The other doesn’t have a name on it. So another passenger was carrying my bag by accident. I never found this person. I lost about $1,000 in that bag, some of my jewelry, new clothing from Thailand, and all my documentations. I can request that documentation through my aunt relatives. DZ: I hope you manage to get copies. It would be a good idea to do that. This will make it much easier finishing a degree, here, because you already have a degree from Burma. AY: Yes. I try to proceed to a master degree that year. The military intelligence, they were trying to arrest me. They found out a KNU leader daughter is studying and graduate from Burma. I and the other five girls were escaping from Burma from the military intelligence. Soldiers with weapons were searching for us in the town. We hid in a hotel room.


DZ: Let’s describe that, your escape; let’s get your escape story. You’re in Rangoon and you’re suddenly very, very afraid for your life… and the other girls. What did you do? AY: Since I was young my grandparents, auntie, and my parents taught me not to tell my real parents name. Even myself, I need to have a different name. Then, one day, they find out. They get some connections. I’m not sure how did they find out my parents were serving the Karen people in the political movement in Burma. They try to arrest me. DZ: What did you do? AY: They found out. At that time, I was studying with other KNU leader’s daughter and son in Rangoon. They were a friend of my dad who was serving for the KNU. They found out. At that time, the KNU in Burmese government has a big conflict and they were fighting and many thousands of peoples are dying. At that time, I think one of the big battalion in Karen area field attack by Burmese government. At that time, Burmese government was searching all the KNU relatives, family members, all over in Burma. They are trying ethnic cleansing and trying to arrest all the KNU members and families, relatives in Burma. At that time, we were so scared. DZ: Yes. How physically did you escape? Did you walk? Did you take a bus? What did you do? AY: My mom was taking us out of Burma. We were running and we take a bus. DZ: You took a bus from Rangoon? AY: We took a bus from Rangoon some of the way to Thailand. DZ: All the way to the border? AY: Yes, all the way to the border. DZ: Bus to border. So you didn’t have to go on trails, trader paths? You actually could take a bus? AY: Not all the time. There was not a bus stop all the area in Burma. Some area, I have to walk one or two days. I’m walking. I was passing the mountain we call Dawna Mountain. I was walking in the forest for two days with a backpack with my stuff with other five girls. We were hiding and walking in the jungle. DZ: Was your mother still with you? AY: My mother was not actually. My mother cannot be there to take us. They could be easily arresting my mom. My mom was a connected person waiting us at the Thai border area where there is safety for us to be there. My mom arranged one person to escort us, to take us all the way, to be a travel guide. I trust the man from my dad.

DZ: Dawna Mountain. Is it a very, very big famous mountain? AY: Yes. Dawna Mountain is all over the Karen State until the end of Burma. In Dawna Mountain, you can find so many resources, such as gold, jade, stones, and forest. DZ: So it’s a mountain range. AY: Yes, the biggest mountain in Karen State. DZ: You took a bus, and, then, you had to say, “Well, now, the next stretch is walking.” AY: Two days and a half. I’ve been walking through the sugarcane field. At that time, we have no food. We were eating sugarcane. I was in the sugar cane field. I’m hungry with my other friends. There was a travel guide; his is a man. He is very well known in the jungle area. We officially cannot go through the official area. There might be a soldier at gate, a checking point. If we go through that point, we could be caught and put in jail. So some areas where there are a lot of military, we had to escape then came from the jungle side where there is no checking point. I was so hungry. We are passing through the sugarcane fields. I was getting one sugarcane plant and I was breaking it and ate it. I was so thirsty. It makes me feel better. I share with my other friends. We said, “Wow, it’s such a difficult life to be a revolutionary family.” DZ: When you were on the bus, were there any police checkpoints? AY: I was hiding my face with sunglasses and a hat. DZ: Did the bus have to stop at any checkpoints? AY: Yes. The bus stopped some points and they were checking our I.D. My I.D. in Burma… all the students who were in college or getting education, they have a student I.D. This is the only official I.D. we use in Burma. So we were presenting our student I.D. to them. DZ: So you had a good document. AY: Yes. We handed our I.D. to the bus driver. The bus driver would present all the I.D. to the checking point. We don’t have to be officially face to face the authority. DZ: Did you all reach safety, all five girls? AY: We all reached safety to Thai side but it was a fearful experience. DZ: When you got across to the Thai side, where in Thailand were you? Were you at Mae Sot?


AY: Yes, I was in Mae Sot. Yes, we were in the Tak area. DZ: Your mother met you at the border? AY: Yes. My mother comes get us in the border area on the river. We have a Mae Nam River. DZ: Yes. Now my geography is much better. I see Salween [River] is up north, but there are other smaller rivers like the Moie. AY: (Draws a sketch map of the shape of Burma) This is a map of Burma. DZ: Oh, you’re good. [Chuckles] Rangoon is over here someplace. AY: Yes. Rangoon is right here. This is Rangoon. This is [sounds like Tow-moo] and these are all the KNU areas. I came all the way two days and a half walking in the jungle and bus. DZ: So you took the buses and, then, you walked and you crossed safely into Thailand. You safely reached Thailand. AY: Yes. When I get to Thailand… Actually, since I was young, seven years ago, in the summertime, three months, holiday summer school, I came back to see my parents and getting some money, searching some money to pay for my education. So I always in touch with my parents. This is how the military found out. This is some part they find out… also the ethnic cleansing in Burma for the KNU family members. I’m kind of familiar with the people from Thai side, from their liberation area. I get support from Aung San Suu Kyi, ABSDF group. AY: All Burma Student Democratic Federation. The president was Moethee Zun. At that time the president was Moethee Zun. Moethee Zun [sounds like Aln-yea] and Doctor Naing Aung. I was very young at that time. They are the student from Aung San Suu Kyi group. They are NLD. We call NLD, National League of Democracy, the Aung San Suu Kyi group. They are a branch of Aung San Suu Kyi group who escape to Thailand connected with KNU. KNU are supporting this group in the liberation area and they all together became ethnic minority and fighting against Burmese military to support Aung San Suu Kyi. DZ: I have read a lot about how the Burmese military are trying to find the students and then kill them. They drop leaflets telling the students, “Oh, you can come home safe. You are our children.” But lots of people die, lots of students killed. AY: The Burmese military betray and they break the promise many times. DZ: Yes, they issue false promises. Karen are still very suspicious of their promises.


AY: That’s how they do genocide to the Karen people and other in Burma. DZ: How did you come to America? Here are two things I’m trying to understand. To get to the U.S.A., you had to come through a refugee camp. But you were also working for Doctor Cynthia Maung outside the camp. How did these two things overlap for you? Let’s try to understand when you were working for Doctor Cynthia. AY: I was volunteering at Doctor Cynthia clinic much younger when I was sixteen years old. Every time I came back to Thailand to see my parents in the summers. I was volunteering. Before I went to university. Every summer, I came back to volunteer for three months with a senior nurse, doctor, and the medics at the clinic. The first time I met Doctor Cynthia, I was only fifteen years old. I don’t even graduate high school yet. I think I was fifteen or sixteen. My dad took me to meet Doctor Cynthia in office. Then, my dad introduced me [to] Doctor Cynthia as a role model for the Karen. She is serving refugees a long time on the border area. DZ: Doctor Cynthia’s clinic. Tell me about the clinic. Where was it? It was on the border? AY: At that time, the clinic was very poor and the building was so small. The clinic was based on the Thai side, by the eastern Burmese border with more on the Thai side. We call it Mae Tao Clinic. Some people call it Mae Tao Clinic… most now know it as the Doctor Cynthia Clinic. Doctor Cynthia Maung, M-a-u-n-g. She got the last name like my dad. She was a doctor. Doctor Cynthia Maung is a Karen woman who graduated as a doctor in Burma. DZ: And your father knew her very well. Introduced you to her. You volunteered. When did you help deliver babies? AY: When I was sixteen. I was volunteering. At that time I can’t deliver a baby yet. I was helping in operation room to the senior nurse and doctor catching the baby and cutting the umbilical cord, cleaning baby, wrapping, and weighing. How many pounds is the baby. I measure weight and height according to international standard. If the baby is premature, they have low weight, so it can cause to chronic, so we have to take very good care of the prenatal baby, like those born seven months. Prenatal. DZ: How many babies did you help deliver? AY: (Thinks) More than thirty babies. DZ: That is beautiful. I understand that part of your story now. You were volunteering, going back and forth to Burma. You were younger. Then, later you had to escape. You escaped back to Thailand. How did you get into the refugee camp? AY: Before I get to refugee camp, I was volunteer with Doctor Cynthia Clinic learning, trying to explore my goal in education, trying to connect with international schools,

trying to apply… in the process of applying scholarships and trying to get my international education process moving forward. I also worked for the IRC, International Rescue Committee. It’s a worldwide organization. Under IRC, I worked for the Department of Homeland Security for the U.S. Government DHS. Department of Homeland Security do refugee processing. DZ: You were thinking about leaving to get a higher education? AY: Yes. My life in Thailand helping with the refugee, migrant, a long time on the border at Doctor Cynthia Maung Clinic, give me a lot of opportunities and great learning experience. At the same time, I wanted to improve my skills to international standards. So I was in the process of searching and trying to connect for my education support for better situation somewhere in the west or United States. It could be in England, Australia, or United States. I apply for the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] to seek refugee status. DZ: What did you have to do to get refugee status? Did you have to get into a refugee camp? AY: Yes. After I apply UNHCR, I was sent to Nu Poe Refugee Camp by UNHCR. DZ: Which refugee camp was it? AY: Nu Poe Refugee Camp. The UNHCR arranged transportation all the way from Chiang Mai to this camp by bus. DZ: Was this mostly Karen in Nu Poe? AY: Nu Poe is mostly Karen. In Thailand, we have nine refugee camps a long time on the Burma border area. Majority of the refugees are Karen population. The rest are other ethnics from Burma. DZ: How long were you in Nu Poe? AY: One year and seven months. DZ: Not too long, but long enough. AY: Yes, long enough. DZ: When did you leave Thailand? AY: I left Thailand October 21 2008. At that time, I had to go through the interview process, medical screenings. I pass all the interview, medical screenings. Then, I was selected to come here.


DZ: Did you know where you were going to come in the US? AY: Yes. I contact Robert Zan. I ask my dad for help to contact Robert Zan so we have connection through email through my dad. My dad helped me to contact Robert Zan. At that time Robert Zan and his daughter were working for the VSS [Vietnamese Social Services], refugee services. Robert Zan and daughter, Mu Mu Zan and her friends, they come to greet me at the airport, Minneapolis airport. I was giving their names so if I would settle in some way in Minnesota to make sure I know somebody in Minnesota. My dad used to tell about Robert Zan and his father, Mahn Ba Zan. I read their books since I was twelve, thirteen years old, so I was familiar with this family through the books. DZ: So you’ve been here since late 2008. I think for readers, what’s interesting, you came by yourself, unaccompanied. You’re not coming with family. No family. All you know here are good friends, like Robert Zan, Priscilla and Benjamin Aung. Which relief agency did you come through? AY: Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services in Minneapolis. DZ: Did they have a Karen person on staff? AY: Yes. At that time, [Saw] Josiah, who is a pastor, he used to be my case manager. At that time, he was a case manager. A year later, after I settled Minnesota, he switched to a new position. Now, there’s a new Karen case manager. DZ: Josiah has his own Karen church now on Oxford Street just north of I94 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was at your Karen New Year celebration at Wilder [Amherst H Wilder Foundation]. I sat next to Josiah. AY: He is very great man. DZ: Tell me about religion growing up. What religion were you exposed to in your family, grandparents? AY: My generation… My grandmother, Karen parents and my parents are Buddhism, so I try to practice Buddhism according to my generation. I’m also helping and participating in Christian, because when I get here, most of the Karen are Christian. DZ: The Minnesota Baptist Church has been very influential in settling Karen Baptists in Minnesota. But there are Karen Buddhists here too and a few Muslim Karen. Growing up as a girl in Buddhism were you an initiate? The boys seem to spend time in the monastery, go in and have their head shaved and live with the monks. Do the girls do anything similar?


AY: For the girls, yes. They have, we call, a Buddhist nun. They also need to shave hair. [Chuckles] DZ: Did that happen to you? AY: No. Never did that. I was born in a city and I’m not very religious. I just trying to be flexible and participating in every religion. I used to have Islam, Indian, Christian, Buddhism friends in Burma, so I was exposed to other religions, too, and was giving them respect. DZ: Excellent. Yes. The young Karen writer Zoya Phan shows the same tolerance to other religions. Aung San Suu Kyi… Is she Buddhist? AY: She is a Buddhist woman. She is very respectful in doing the Buddhist thing and making offerings to monks. DZ: Let’s pause. [Break in the interview] DZ: Here we are picking up the interview again with Ahmay. Ahmay, I met you shortly after your arrival and I have a photo for this book where you are speaking at a program for the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans in the State Capitol. You were very calm. You were speaking to a lot of people for an event in the Rotunda. I was able to invite you there, because I called the Ronald HUBBS Center and spoke with Tom Olson. I said, “Do you have a student to come and talk about education?” That’s my memory of how we met. But Ahmay, I did not know you were such a new arrival in Minnesota. How did you go to the HUBBS Center? Let’s start there. AY: When I get here as a single adult, I feel like the purpose of getting to the United State, my first priority, is getting good education. Within three months arrival to the U.S., I enroll myself with the HUBBS Center. I was searching the resource file for free education at the Vietnamese Social Service office. Finally, I was directed to the HUBBS Center by Mu Mu Zan’s brother. He is a son of Robert Zan. He directed me to classes at the HUBBS Center, which is located on University Ave not far from the VSS office where they provide social services to Karen through the Karen Project. Then, I went to HUBBS Center by myself and enroll and taking picture I.D., a student I.D. Then, I get enroll in the schools and taking some English classes, writing, reading skills. I enrolled in the nursing assistant class. At that time, I had nurse experience in the past so I thought I would try to continue my skills in medical field to improve my skills. Then, at the time I met you at State Capitol, I was in a nurse assistant student program at the HUBBS Center.


I was selected to be a speaker by Mister Olson. My class teacher, Teresa Miller, was one of my favorite class teachers and supported me. They coached me to tell my story, my personal story, and I got supporting help from the HUBBS Center adult education for my presentation, giving me some idea of the presentation. I wrote my personal story and combined with some other adult education ideas from Olson and other schoolteachers from the HUBBS Center. This is how I get a chance to talk and present my story at the State Capitol in 2009. DZ: You have been in America just over three years. What’s been the most difficult thing for you? AY: When I came here as a single adult, I don’t even have a relative here. So I have to struggle with so many things, such as education, language barrier, and employment. So I have been facing difficult struggles throughout the years of my first arrival. DZ: And I have seen you get into social service work. Tell me a little bit, like when you started at SEARCH (Southeast Asian Refugee Community Home, an agency on East Franklin in Minneapolis) Was that your first job in refugee employment services? AY: Yes. DZ: Tell me what work you have done in the last three years. AY: For the last three years, I was traveling to a couple states, like North Carolina; Florida; Michigan; California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Indiana. I’ve been traveling to some of the states in the U.S. trying to find out which state will be good to settle for me with getting good education. I’ve been searching, exploring in the United States, alone by myself. At that time, I bring some money, my personal, own jewelry from Thailand. Then, I spent that money paying for my flights and traveling in the state in my first years. DZ: Do you have friends in Florida, Karen friends? AY: Yes. I have a friend in Florida. They are connected to the ABSDF, the student group. We used to work in Thailand together. They were a member of ABSDF. But when they get here, they just became… They are not more connected to the ABSDF since they get here. DZ: Now let’s tell the dramatic story of your father’s capture and escape. And the amazing events of this last winter. This last year has been very difficult for you. When you left your father was a free man. Tell us a little about his first escape. Tell me, first, about what you heard in your family about your father’s first escape? How old were you when your father first escaped? AY: When my father escaped, I wasn’t born yet; my father was not married yet. DZ: Ohhh. This was in his youth then.

AY: It was in his youth. He was with the famous writer and political men from Burma. Some are still alive. I could name them. This was in the 1960s? DZ: But now your father is very famous, because of escaping from an island, an impossible feat Your father is known as the “Karen Papillion,” named after the French man [Henri Charrière called “Papillion”] who escaped from a difficult island. AY: He made his own boat. For six months making a boat, hiding in the jungle for six months. They were hiding. Some of the friends and my dad were making a boat in the jungle by hiding from the military. It took them for six months to make a boat. DZ: Where is this island where he was imprisoned? AY: It’s somewhere in the Andaman Sea or Indian Ocean. Coco Island. When my dad escaped he had to cross the Ocean. It had been a French owned island. DZ: He made a small boat. Was he alone when he escaped or were there others? AY: He was with other friends, two or three friends. DZ: So there were a couple of men. AY: Right. He was with three or four friends. I kind of forget. I have to ask my dad and read his book. DZ: Tell me about the book he wrote. AY: Yes. He is a writer. He published his own book in 2002, autobiography about his life experience. It was very interesting to me what I read in his book and hearing from his story about some part of his life experience making a boat to escape from Coco Island. DZ: Did he write it in Burmese? AY: Yes. It is called Against the Storm: Across the Sea it is written under his pen name of Ye Baw Shoune. This is the title of his book. This book is to be continued. He has been very busy with political things. He is a writer in Free Asia Weekly. DZ: When was the last time you saw your father? AY: The last time I saw my father was in 2007. I forget which month. Before I resettled, he visited me in Nu Poe refugee camp one time for his public speaking to the refugee population. DZ: Let’s get the story of this last year and the drama of his recapture. Last summer he was free. He went to China to go out to the Kachin border. But when he tried to go back

into Thailand, the Thai turned him back to the Chinese. The Chinese handed him to the Burmese military. Is that a correct…? AY: Yes. Finally, I get a real confirmation from my dad… through the phone. I ask my dad, “What did you made a trip for?” He said, he served as a diplomat among all the ethic nationalities in Burma and, also, he is a KNUCO] member. So he has two responsibilities, two duties, serving in democracy movement. He made a trip to China to observe conflict between Kachin and Burmese Army. DZ: That was more his diplomatic unity role? AY: Right. And giving advice to stop the war between Kachin and Burmese. DZ: Why did the Thai government or customs not let him back into Thailand? AY: He had a passport issued in China. He didn’t explain to me what the passport issue was. But there was a passport issue. So Chinese government, they try to deport him to Burma. My dad told them he is in the democracy movement against Burmese government. If Burmese find out he was a political man, they would arrest him and torture him. But the Chinese and Burmese government has a good trade relationship, doing business. They did not listen to my dad. The Chinese didn’t really care about democracy happening in Burma. They are not willing to support people who are working for democracy. So my dad was sent back to Thailand. He tried to enter Thai airport three times. Each time he was sent back to China. DZ: [sigh] AY: He tried to apologize. He apologized to Chinese government immigration. They refused. They denied my dad’s request and the Chinese handed him over to Burmese government, as a favor. They fly him to Burma on a plane. DZ: When this happened, there were reports in the news, but you did not know where your father was. He just disappeared. Do you remember what month this was all happening? Was it July, 2011? AY: July 24, 2011.That was the day he was denied entry to Thailand. He went back and forth for three times. DZ: This year, there was a trial. Were the two trials last October? AY: He has more than two trials. Every Thursday, they had a trial for my dad. DZ: [sigh] Tell me about the sentencing. AY: There was a lawyer that was his lawyer [U Kyi Myint]. That was interesting piece for me. I ask my dad, “How did you get lawyer? Where did you find him? Does he work

for the Burmese government or is he from other places?” My dad told me, “I didn’t call a lawyer. I didn’t have a connection to communicate with people from outside. I was isolated by Burmese government.” The lawyer heard about my dad from the media. He tried to follow my dad trials by himself. The lawyer acted alone No one called the lawyer. The lawyer heard about my dad news from the media. He was willing to support my dad’s case. That Burmese lawyer is a political man. He used to be in prison for two times involving the political movement. That is the reason he try to rescue my dad, take on my dad’s case, which means he have a big respect to my dad actions and how work to democracy movement. So there was a trial and sentencing. The sentencing was in February. Before the sentence, I have to mention one thing. While my dad was in jail, the Burmese government find out he is the leader of the KNU and the democracy movement for Burma. He is the most wanted man by the Burmese military junta. They were giving prison arrest, more like house arrest. They have been treating my dad nicely in prison according to my dad, Dad replying to me on the phone. They didn’t torture or they didn’t mistreat my dad. My dad had a chance to sit with other Karen and other people from Burma political prisoners in prison. They were taking care of my dad, offering food, taking care of his health. At that time, my dad was giving lots of respect to Burmese government. They come see my dad in prison and giving my dad advice for peace negotiation among ethnic nationalities and Burmese government. My dad was advising to the Burmese government. This is the way and this is the secret. My dad was giving direction and advising them for peace negotiation. How to restore peace and end the conflict. And who to contact for peace negotiation. My dad was directing the way to contact peace negotiation and who to contact. He was giving very important information to the Burmese government. They did it according to my dad’s advice. It was successful. At that time, my dad is in legal process while they are getting advice from my dad secretly in prison. They talk to my dad, “Mahn Nyein”-they call my dad “Nyein”-“don’t worry about your release. Your release is in the Burmese military hand. If you can help us in the process of trying to negotiate with the peace negotiation among ethnic nationalities and Burmese government, your release will be a free gift. We will have a peace gift for your release. Don’t worry about your release.” DZ: Tell us about the sentence. What was the bad news? There was a sentence from a judge. AY: That was breaking the promise from the government; the government betrays the promise between my dad and the government. They said, “You now have seventy years sentence.” A week before my dad was released, they charged my dad with a life sentence, plus three years. A week before he was released. DZ: Then, one week, we hear he had released. Ahmay, I know you and I have followed this for about nine to ten months. It’s been so hard to trust the reports, and get the truth. Is he really released? Has it really happened?


AY: We have confirmation that he is free again. DZ: Tell us the good news. What has happened to your father since he got released? AY: The day I read from the media about my dad’s release, I feel so grateful and I feel the news is amazing. I feel grateful and prideful when he has been released from life sentence. He was put on a train with government officials and taken across the border to Thailand. They didn’t mention about how they get to Thailand for security purpose. The real confirmation was there was two government representatives one from immigration, another one from Prime Minister and other security, including ten people, security guards taking my dad into Thailand and handed him over to the real KNU organization, his Karen organization. DZ: To wrap this story up now. Ahmay, I’m so happy that your father has been released and so happy with the good news. Maybe peace will come to Burma. Recently (2012) there were elections. Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest and elected to parliament. What are your hopes and dreams for you and the Karen people? AY: My dreams and hope for the Karen peoples and all peoples in Burma is this is the beginning for everyone to develop democracy progress in Burma. There was a great progress now so all people has to come unity together and build a real democracy government in Burma and, also, people all over, all Burmese and Karen from around the world, they connect and make networking international and supporting democracy movement in Burma. We want all people in Burma to have guaranteed human rights and trying to begin a united state of Burma among all ethnic minorities, Burmese government, and Aung San Suu Kyi together at the same time. DZ: What do you want to do for you, for your life? You already have had university training. We’re trying to get you through college here. What are your goals for your education? What do you want to do? AY: I’m still improving my skills to support the community and democracy movement in Burma for a positive change, for a political positive change in Burma. Since I am single adult person, I have been struggle a lot and facing lots of difficulties while serving the community. At the same time, I realize that I need to improve my skills and education and bring all my people to be educated and develop a positive change in the community. In Minnesota, I want to win a big scholarship to support my education so I can spend more time on my studies and get my good education in the United States. Then, I can do more things with my equality and good education for my people. Then, I will be able to speak out for the human rights and democracy supporting Burma, working together with all ethnic minorities in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi Party, and Burmese government at the same time. This is my goal and hope for the democracy in Burma and human rights. DZ: One last thing… Your job now, you are at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Tell me about your job at Wilder. What are you doing right now?

AY: My job at Wilder is currently as a mental health case manager [for Southeast Asian Services]. We are providing mental health service to the community. As a mental health case manager, we are coordinating, responsible for the Karen and all people from Burma with housing, education, employment, assessment, coordinating to base on the needs for the community improvement within mental health. DZ: What kinds of problems do you see Karen clients having that they need help with? AY: As the Karen are a new growing population in Minnesota and around the state, the Karen and all people from Burma as new arrivals, they are still learning to new culture and the environment. The main issues we are facing from the community are transportation, language barrier, education, and culture shock, and domestic violence, and mental health. From my perspective, the Karen people are fighting their independence for more that sixty-three years. They have been tortured, raped, killed, village were burned. They used to walk as mine detectors in the front line of the war. They were used by the Burmese military as human shields. They used to work as forced labor for more than sixty-three years. For those civil war reasons, the Karen people and other peoples in Burma didn’t have a chance, access to good education, health care, and socializing in their life. So when these people came to the U.S., the effect of more than sixty-three years trauma is affecting their whole life. So these people are now living in a torture memory, even [though] they are in the United States they suffer from posttraumatic stress. DZ: The Burmese soldiers came in a village. They use the villagers as shields in front of the soldiers. There were mines, ammunition to carry. So some of your clients experienced that? AY: Yes, they were used as forced labor. Most of our clients have been going through this experience. I would say ninety-five percent of the community has been going through this very traumatic shock experience in their life. As a case manager, we have to be the mediators across cultures, Karen and American, so we will be the cross cultural mediators, bring support to the community, help them connect to the United States culture, help them be flexible with the new environment in the new resettled life in the U.S. DZ: I’m very happy you are working at Wilder. Wilder has over forty years experience of helping Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and now Karen that have been tortured, brutalized. You are in the best place to develop that mental health service that meets the cultural needs. AY: I have been seeing more domestic violence in the community. Since we didn’t have the opportunity to a sex education, social, and health care, people need to be educated on domestic violence so we can reduce the risk of domestic violence along with


complications of homicide, stabbing, and those kinds of issues within the community. Mental health affects everyone. DZ: What you are referring to is a very tragic event that happened here in St Paul [November 19, 2011] in the Karen community. There has been a stabbing. Is that the only case or have there been others serious like that? AY: There used to be domestic violence in the community and it is still happening. The homicide stabbing case was the first, the biggest, horrifying tragedy case in the Karen community. DZ: I hope that for the Karen, it will be like for the Hmong, getting people like you trained, having a network of Karen mental health workers. You are the key people. It is not western counselors. It will be Karen counselors. I just have one more question. How would you like to finish this interview? Is there anything I haven’t asked you that’s important or is there any closing thought that you have? AY: I think you have already asked what my goal is in the future. My goal, my dream, my big dream is to win a big scholarship that can guarantee to proceed my higher educations. I am the stronger person and I’m very dedicated to what I do and I believe. My community needs to produce more educated people. That way, we can have a positive environment in the United States. DZ: Ahmay, it is wonderful to spend time getting your story. I think your story will be very helpful to everyone, to people wanting to understand Karen. But, hopefully, it will be helpful to you, too, that somebody will read this and help you with a scholarship so you can pursue a degree here too. [Chuckles] Thank you. AY: You are welcome.