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Myanmar refugees celebrate Karen new year

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — The dancers, dressed in traditional robes of red and pink and purple, waived their arms gracefully above their heads as they hopped from foot to foot.

A few hundred Karen, a minority ethnic group from Myanmar (formerly Burma), gathered in an LDS meetinghouse Saturday to celebrate the 2,748th year since their people settled in that country, even as decades of civil war has since forced them out.

"When we lived in Burma, we did not have the opportunity to celebrate our new year," said Patar Mi, a Karen refugee who now lives in Salt Lake City.

The Karen new year, traditionally observed on Dec. 27, marked the harvest in Myanmar. The celebration was a prayer to the gods, asking for prosperity and protection in the coming year.

Now, there is no harvest for the Karen, but the prayer remains the same, said Kyaw Eh, who lives in Logan.

The government of Myanmar has long persecuted the Karen, attacking the people and culture and forcing thousands into camps along the border with Thailand, the refugees said.

"We are Karen," Pu Sha told the crowd of about 300. "We have our own traditions. "When you are somewhere else, you have to hold onto that. Never forget that you are Karen."

After leaving his family to study in the nation's capital, Tmay Podwel, 20, returned home to the Myanmar countryside just days before soldiers raided the village and burned it to the ground.

He was again separated from his family and fled into the jungle and made his way to a refugee camp in 2001. Podwel, who now lives in Salt Lake City, has not seen his family since.

In Utah, Karen refugees have continued to experience hardships, as they face language and cultural barriers.

The last time a traditional Karen song was performed in this building, the LDS Haven Ward meetinghouse near 2300 South and 300 East, was for the funeral of Hser Ner Moo, a young Karen girl who was kidnapped and murdered near her South Salt Lake home earlier this year.

"I hope the coming year is happy for you and easier than the past year," Gerald Brown, director of the state's Refugee Services Office, told the crowd Saturday. "The challenges that you have faced ... I really believe

that all of you are heroes to make it through that journey."

E-mail: afalk@desnews.com