The Garden of Refugees

By  |  January 30, 2017
Photo by Tammy Mercure Photo by Tammy Mercure
The purple hulls of lablab beans dangled like a thousand scimitars below a trellis built from young sweet gum trunks. Oblong bitter melons drooped through the bloom-studded canopy, and a thirty-five-year-old man named Eh Kaw Htoo plucked a vegetable from the vine, shaking droplets of cool September rain off the leaves. Eh Kaw wore camo cargo pants tucked into black, rubber-soled boots. Shoulder-length obsidian hair swept across the collar of his white polo, a Goodwill find embroidered with the logo of a high school band.

“I don’t know how you call this,” he said, handing me the chartreuse ridged vegetable. “Take it. Have another.” I recognized the melon from a meal we had shared in Eh Kaw’s living room perhaps two years earlier. Then, it was sliced into half moons and boiled with onions and fish sauce. The dish was pungent, with the melon tasting like tart zucchini, and I looked forward to trying it again.

Technically, the bitter melon was not Eh Kaw’s harvest to offer, but he assured me that he had the authority to do so. We were standing in his friend Semoeneh’s yard in Comer, Georgia, an old railroad stop seventeen miles east of Athens, surrounded by chicken houses, timberlands and pastures, and rows of seed crops. Semoeneh lived in a brick ranch-style house, and his driveway was lined with dragon chili plants. The trellis commanded as much square footage as a one-car garage. In the carport, a stew of venison, potatoes, and melon bubbled over an open flame.

We were in the garden of refugees, Eh Kaw explained: what was his, as well as Semoeneh’s, was also mine. Their Baptist faith compelled them to share whatever bounty God bestowed. Eh Kaw felt blessed that he and dozens of family members and countrymen were planting yards in rural Georgia. Nothing in his past had predicted such fortune.

 

There are eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Karen, who are further subdivided by religion: Buddhist, Animist, and Christian. As a Karen and a Christian, Eh Kaw grew up within a small minority of Myanmar society during a tumultuous time. Nearly seventy years ago, following a long colonization by the British, the new Myanmar government—largely led by heads of the military—began making political decisions that would lead to decades of conflict within the country. The Karen, like many other minority groups, became targets of the new regime and those that would follow.

During his adolescence, Eh Kaw and his family remained mobile, always ready to escape from approaching troops. They joined a refugee exodus in the early nineties and departed by foot for United Nations camps in Thailand. On the journey, they foraged greens from the forest floor for quick meals. They hunted monkeys. They built temporary housing from saplings, the structures held together not by nails or twine but by expertly axed notches in the skinny heartwood.

Eh Kaw reached adulthood in the Thai camps. He met Pa Saw, a short woman with a round face and a voice like a slow cello bow stroke. They married and had a son, Jubilee. In a massive resettlement process that began in 2004, they joined the roughly sixty thousand Karen who left for the United States. In 2008, the young family arrived in Georgia.

Before the resettlement process shuffled them into an apartment in Clarkston, an urban suburb of Atlanta, the family spent three months at Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian community in Comer devoted to refugee work. (The organization’s name was a happy coincidence.) At Jubilee, Pa Saw prepared for the birth of another child, Jack, and Eh Kaw took note of the abundant Eden that surrounded their temporary home. Back in Clarkston, living among other Burmese refugees—the Karen refused to call their former country by its modern name, preferring Burma, an old name that the ruling junta changed in 1989—Eh Kaw bristled in the concrete jungle. He dreamed of pasture and endless forest. So he fled. He promised his wife that he’d find land for their family.

With the help of a leader at Jubilee Partners, Eh Kaw found work clearing trees for a family-owned cattle company in Maxeys, a dairy town about twenty-five miles south of Comer. Eh Kaw spent much of his first year in the United States in the cockpit of a backhoe. He rested at night in a tent, cooking over a twig and branch fire. He ate lunch leaning on the backhoe, took one or two quick smokes a day to break up the cacophony of hydraulic-powered stump removal. He rarely visited his family.

“I was very depressed,” he told me. The dream of land seemed unattainable. He worried over failure, over returning to Clarkston with a jaw full of broken vows. Now, he laughs at his pride, at his big mouth.

A turning point came when Eh Kaw was able to save enough money to rent an apartment and relocate Jubilee to Maxeys. Each morning, he put his son on the school bus then bicycled nine miles to work, a commute via gravel road and mud slush. He scratched up time to visit Pa Saw and Jack in Clarkston. Then Eh Kaw found a new job in a poultry plant in Athens. He rented a house in Comer, and his wife, now pregnant with a third child, and Jack moved in. Eh Kaw had established a homestead on what felt like a mysterious frontier in a strange land. He called for settlers to join him. They came—cousins, aunts, uncles, friends.

According to Eh Kaw, there are now twenty-four Karen families in Comer, about one hundred and fifty people. (Nearly one million Karen remain in Myanmar.) He expects that number to increase. “Many want to come here,” he said, but he’d have to find jobs for them first. “God has sent us here with a purpose, so He will find us a way.”

 

“The only thing Karen buy at a grocery store is rice,” Eh Kaw joked in Semoeneh’s yard. This was hyperbole, as there was plenty of packaged food in Eh Kaw’s pantry, but he wanted to make a point. Eh Kaw often clomped up a creek under darkness to hunt frogs by flashlight. If, when motoring along the rural routes outside Comer, he spied fresh road kill, he would toss the carcass into his trunk. The deer was good eating, as long as flies and maggots hadn’t yet swarmed the still-warm body.

“We hunt, we fish, we know how to build,” Eh Kaw told me. “We’re more redneck than the rednecks.”

When Eh Kaw moved to Comer, some of the Americans he met had described themselves as rednecks. His new neighbors extolled the redneck’s work ethic, religious fervor, and activities: jobs in agriculture and construction, weekends spent hunting and fishing, Sundays in the pew. To Eh Kaw, “redneck” connoted backwoods self-sufficiency.

On that September afternoon, we sped westbound on State Road 72, with Eh Kaw in the passenger seat and me behind the wheel. “Slow down,” Eh Kaw advised, as we approached a vacant clapboard storefront, the awning posts cemented inches from the highway edge. Police cars often lurked in the building’s shadow to pounce on speeders. But cops left the trap unset today, so we motored on. It occurred to me that Eh Kaw knew these counties as if he’d lived in Georgia all his life. I said, “Eh Kaw, you’re like the Karen mayor of Comer.”

He agreed, but he preferred another honorific: “They call me the redneck leader.”

 

I met Eh Kaw in 2012, when I approached him as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald to tell his story to our shared community. Those first meetings enchanted me. In our earliest conversations, Eh Kaw explained that the Karen’s ability to keep gardens, trap rabbits in nearby woodlands, and slaughter chickens helped his people retain their cultural identity.

From the beginning, I loved Pa Saw’s food: roselle green and chicken skin soup, eggplant and anchovies in turmeric, hot dogs and canola greens scooped with rice mounds into sweet gum leaves. The debtless and quasi-agrarian lifestyle she and other Karen adhered to stirred a primal gene somewhere within me. After I reported that first story, we became friends, and in 2014, I attended a party to celebrate Eh Kaw and Pa Saw becoming U.S. citizens. Dozens of people gathered around a buffet table anchored by goat stew—the whole animal (organs but no hide) cooked in a tall pot. A few months later, I went to a joint wedding of four Karen couples, after which we dined at an outdoor buffet on tables hewed from pine trees.

Every few months, I returned to Comer to visit Eh Kaw and the other Karen. On one trip, he took me to various Karen houses to show off their infrastructure.

Each home we visited was organized in a similar fashion to Semoeneh’s property but adapted to the particular footprint of the lot. The houses were made of materials ranging from cinder block to clapboard, and every yard teemed with life: vegetables, poultry, the odd goat, droplets of brook water falling from minnow-snatching nets, a horde of shoes at the back door arranged as a roll call for those snoozing inside.

As we toured refugee homes in Comer and in various unincorporated communities in adjoining Oglethorpe County, Eh Kaw shared his pride over how his people braided themselves through their adopted habitat. Eh Kaw had brokered many of these home sales himself. As for the jobs the homeowners depended on to meet the mortgage each month—Eh Kaw had secured those, too. Thanks to him, Karen milked dairy cows in Oglethorpe County and slaughtered chickens in plants around North Georgia. Eh Kaw shaped steel in a machine shop. And he eyed the future.

The Karen had survived jungles and refugee camps, traveled across an ocean, and learned to adapt in a new land. Now they sought to build their own church. Eh Kaw had once shown me a rickety sanctuary constructed of understory pines and ten-penny nails, located in a forest outside of Comer. Once, this had sufficed for the Karen’s religious ceremonies, until the parish blossomed. The congregation then moved into the basement of a Baptist church. But they quickly outgrew this space, as well—Karen hymns and sermons, delivered in their native Sgaw dialect, deserved to ring out from a tabernacle.

Under the direction of his pastor, the Reverend Tha Hgay, Eh Kaw would shepherd church construction. The Reverend envisioned a 50,000-square-foot building, with room for up to four hundred worshippers, a cemetery out back, plenty of parking up front, huge windows filtering natural light, wide double doors, and a gable that sought the heavens.

 

Building a church out of nothing sounded simple enough to Eh Kaw. He’d constructed many provisional structures; a church would only be bigger. The land was purchased by the Karen Baptist Church: fifty acres of pine forest in Vesta, twenty minutes from Comer, adjacent to the homesteads of Eh Kaw’s mother and father, his brother, and the pastor’s son. Eh Kaw knew there would be permits, plans, and paperwork. He knew he had to call a plumber, an electrician, and someone to dig a well. He wanted to do much of it himself, but he had no idea just how many permits, how many phone calls, how much time it all would take. When we hung out in September of 2015, Eh Kaw said he hoped to have the church built by the following April. Eh Kaw would miss that mark by many months.

Throughout the winter, and well into 2016, I accompanied Eh Kaw to meetings with county zoning and building officers, with surveyors and graders, with fabricators of steel buildings, with men who called him “Echo” and asked if he’d like some agua. Each interaction increased Eh Kaw’s frustration over American bureaucracy, though he remained determined to make progress.

In late May, he rented a backhoe and had it delivered to the church’s land. I drove to the site on a fiercely hot morning and joined Pa Saw, who sat on a felled tree trunk in the shade. Together we watched as Eh Kaw controlled the machine from the cockpit. The track rollers rumbled over a landscape denuded of woods, and he stopped to sink the bucket into the dirt, whacking the ground again and again to dislodge root systems.

Karen teenagers scoured the grounds, stuffing empty rice sacks with branches and twigs; once full, the bags were emptied of their contents onto a growing pile near the edge of the clearing. The Reverend Tha Hgay, a gray-haired man dressed in a white tshirt, flip-flops, and a purple sarong wrapped around his waist, commanded the young volunteers. When they lingered too long on water breaks, he raised his downy voice to bark them back to work.

During a recent Sunday service in the basement, the Reverend asked his congregation to offer prayers so that God might deliver unto the Karen their church. This invocation incensed Eh Kaw. After the sermon, he rebuked his pastor in front of the congregation, a confrontation between civil and religious leadership.

“Prayer is to glorify God, not help humans,” said Eh Kaw. Besides, he continued, the church was already theirs; no need to pray for it.

There were just a few more steps.


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André Gallant is a writer and photographer, and the author of The High Low Tide, forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in 2017. He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, GA. To learn more about his work, visit andre-gallant.com.