Interviewed Kristi Pinderi, IAR member. This article is a part of the series Surrey LIP Turns Five in 2019.
Kue K’nyawmupoe was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her family, from Karen state in Myanmar (also known as Burma), had to flee the country for security reasons.
According to BMC International Health and Human Rights, approximately 400,000 Karen people are internally displaced and 128,000 refugees from Burma are living in camps on the Thailand-Burma border. The majority (79%) of refugees living in these camps are of Karen ethnicity, the population to whom Kue and her family belongs. Karen people have experienced decades of political violence by the Burmese military. Most of them still suffer from the war trauma and from the tortures they have experienced.
Kue was resettled in Canada a country she had never heard before. Having lived in a refugee camp the contacts to the world have been limited. “Every month”, Kue recalls, “we’d receive food such as rice, yellow beans, fish cans, and fish paste from Thai government. We grew in the camp our own vegetables and other edible plants”.
They didn’t have doctors, nurses or dentists in the refugee camp, but they had health care workers who received basic and limited training. Education system was very basic too.
So, when she first arrived in Canada the cultural shock was immense. She had to learn everything from the start, including learning English. “We had to learn everything from beginning: whether it was crossing the street”, she says, “or taking public transits, or even using the stove, going to the bank and the grocery shopping”.
Things got better, and she eventually managed to integrate in the society. She currently works as an administrative assistant at North Surrey Public Health, as well as a support worker with Strive Living Society. She is deputy Co-Chair of Immigrant Advisory Roundtable (IAR). Asked why she likes to contribute for IAR she states: “I completely understand what is like to feel isolated and not being able to express your needs” and adds: “It is very important to give back to Canadian community because they helped when I needed help the most”.
Question: How did you come to Canada? Why was Canada your choice?
Answer: I came to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee along with my family. I was born and grew up in the refugee camp because my family are Karen ethnic who were forced to flee their hometown in Karen State, Myanmar. I had never heard of Canada before coming here. The reason we left the refugee camp was because the camps are overcrowded with new refugees from Burma (Myanmar). Initially, refugee camps were designed to be only our temporary homes, but none of the families could go back to Karen State because it wasn’t safe. So, we spent 14 years in the refugee camp.
Question: How was your life in a refugee camp?
Answer: I was in a refugee camp in Thailand. The environment, the lifestyle and all kind of systems there are completely different than here. Every month, we’d receive food such as rice, yellow beans, fish cans, and fish paste from Thai government. We grew our own vegetables and other edible plants. We didn’t have doctors, nurses or dentists in the refugee camp, but we had health care workers who received basic and limited training. Education system in the refugee camp was very basic too and our teachers were usually those who finished standard 10th in the local high schools.
Question: The language barrier was an important issue for you, among with culture gap and the difficulties connecting with other people, how do you remember that initial time in Canada?
Answer: I have to say we had to learn everything from beginning: whether it was crossing the street, or taking public transits, or even using the stove, going to the bank and the grocery shopping. It took a long time to get familiar with these changes. I remember the first couple of years in high school, I struggled making new friends and I felt isolated in class because I did not understand what the teacher was saying. I cried almost every night.
Question: You say that you have a deep interest in helping new immigrants. Why is that important to you?
Answer: When I first arrived, we did not have many Karens so I feel like we missed out a lot. The reason why I think it is so important to help new immigrants/ refugees is because I’ve been there, and I completely understand what is like to feel isolated and not being able to express your needs. I also think it is very important to give back to Canadian community because they helped when I needed help the most.
Question: What do you do right now?
Answer: I currently work as an administrative assistant at North Surrey Public Health, as well as a support worker with Strive Living Society. On the other side, I’m one of the Surrey Refugee Youth Team co-chairs. In Karen community, I volunteer as Joint Secretary.
Question: Why did you decide to volunteer for IAR?
Answer: I decided to volunteer for IAR because I believe IAR serves the purpose I’m passionate about – helping newcomers integrate in Canadian society. I also appreciate that with IAR, new immigrants/refugees’ voices can be heard. It gives me the opportunity to look at different options for newcomers to get involved and be a part of Canadian society.