Ready the Kleenex

photo by pearson251

So. I teach ESL to southeast Asian refugees. I love my job. I do. It’s amazing and humbling and I spend a good deal of time playing bingo and teaching chants about ‘be’ verbs. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

Several of my students are KaRen, an ethnic minority from eastern Burma. In the past fifty years, the KaRen have made several attempts to lead insurgencies against the military dictatorship and failed. When these attempts failed, the military began to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the country of KaRen, forcing more than 120,000 of them into refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.Though only intended for temporary use, many refugee camps housed KaRen for 10-15 years. The camps are halfway between a shanty town and a prison, where refugees live in tents or huts, aren’t allowed to leave the camp without a permit and aren’t taught the language of their host country. Refugees bide their time until they are allocated to a new host country, something that they often have no say in.

This is the history of my students. Now that they have been in Minnesota for a few months, they know how to take the bus and where they can buy coconut milk. They’ve experienced snow and escalators are officially old news. Now that they’re experts on American life, they get quite excited at the prospect of new students who they can surely ‘break in’ and impress with their knowledge of this cold, new place. They were all a’fluster when I told them on Monday that we’d be getting new students the next day.

On Tuesday, I ushered three demure KaRen women into the classroom when one of my students jumped out of his seat and started yelling … because thousands of miles away, years ago, in the mountains of Thailand, they all lived in the same camp. And now here they were again, in my tiny classroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Needless to say, I had to busy myself with my dry erase markers for several minutes so I wouldn’t weep over the joy of it all.

More teaching fun:
In which the existence of beavers is questioned
English names chosen by my Chinese Students
Adventures in Non-traditional Adulthood: Teaching ESL Abroad



What an an amazing story. The world really is a small place in some respects. Kevin Beacon eat your heart out!

Sarah Von Bargen

Dutchess: I know, right?! When I first started teaching these students, I was all “They’re not speaking Korean…What? Where’s Burma? Is that even a country?”

(Burma’s Myanmar now so don’t feel if you don’t know where it is) 🙂


Oh wow, that is so cool =]
I would have cried so hard even if I tried to busy myself with dry erase markers.

How do these people get to opportunity to come to America. Do they live in America now? Or is it temporary?

Sarah Von Bargen

Jackie: My understanding is that most ‘first world’ countries accept refugees and St. Paul is place where a lot of Southeast Asian refugees are sent becuase we have a pretty homogenous ethnic makeup (compared to NYC or LA) so this is a way for the government to mix things up a bit for us. Also, MN has some of the best social welfare programs in the country so, despite its 6 months of winter, its actually a good fit for a lot of refugees.

And, yup, they do live here permanently now.


OMG That gave me goosebumps. Thanks for sharing Sarah how beautiful. What a privelige to teach them! Bet you’re a fantastic teacher xx


thank you for visiting my blog! <3

i read on your profile that you spent a summer in brazil… that is so exciting! i went to brazil for the first time in february and i am absolutely in love with it and portuguese and everything about it. where did you go?

this is such an interesting post. i've read a lot about the conflicts in sierra leone & sudan and it's amazing how people come across each other again after decades or thousands of miles away… it's amazing! that sounds like a wonderful moment 🙂

Sarah Von Bargen


I was in Rio Grande Du Sol, the southern most state (Where Gisele Bunchen and Ronaldino are from). I taught English there and when I finished my contract I traveled through Rio, Sao Paulo and Amazonia. It’s an amazing country, right?

Christina Lee

so powerful!!! My husband’s bro lives and works in Thailand and is coming for the holidays-we are so pysched to see him-I hope I remember to share your story. Whenever I see pictures he has I always think SE asian people are gorgeous!


What an amazing job. In Cincinnati I volunteered at a place that taught ESL. I loved it. The refugees I helped teach were from a bunch of different countries in Africa. It was amazing to talk to them and hear their stories.

Beautiful story; it's so sad, but inspiring at the same time. What wonderful people that you get to teach.


I am a mentor for two youth organizations that help out at risk teens and refugees in San Diego. We have a KaRen group from the Thai camps. This post totally resonated with me. I'm a volunteer and have never been hit by the passion bug so hard then when I'm around these teens.
I love your posts. I felt lodged in the colon of life and my friend had suggested your blog. Smilesaver : )


i worked for 4 years on the TBB in Mae La and Mae Ra Moe camps. The Karen and Shan women (i work in the area of sexual violence) are amazing and perhaps the most inspiring leaders i have ever met.

I am glad that you are there to ease the stress of the 'new arrivals'. I have had many a SOS phone call from distraught families who, when they arried in US / Canada / Australia are overwhelmed with the changes – language, food, housing, ammenaties and most of all loss of community.

It is heartbreaking to be asked by a family who made the very hard and emotional choice to opt for third country relocation to then desperately want to retunr 'home' to the camps.


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