Rahtoo Trawgaye has found refuge in Canada — and more specifically, in Langley.
The 43-year-old father of three young daughters is a settlement worker with Immigration Services Society of B.C., and recently reflected on his adoptive home that is about to celebrate its 150th birthday.
“It’s a very wonderful place to live,” said Trawgaye, who helps Karen refugees like himself assimilate to the nation that took them in.
The Karen people are a linguistically and culturally diverse group in Burma, a southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar.
In the face of a harsh military government, Karen rebels have battled for greater autonomy for more than six decades, finally signing a ceasefire agreement in January 2012. Thousands fled to refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border to escape the conflict, and hundreds of Karen people have immigrated to Langley since 2006.
“My bamboo house was burned down four times,” Trawgaye said, about the perils of the Karen people in Myanmar.
“We ran every time we heard that the army was coming. If the military saw anyone, there would be shooting, killing, burning. Everyone was on the run, escaping and hiding.”
Among the wave of Karen refugees escaping the violence was Trawgaye.
After immigrating from a refugee camp in Thailand in 2008, he has little by little learned Canada’s culture and language over the course of nine years.
It hasn’t been easy, but nothing in Trawgaye’s life has been. Born in the countryside of Burma, Trawgaye spent much of his life there fleeing from Burmese government forces.
“Up until I was 35, I lived in the jungle, hiding and fleeing the civil war,” Trawgaye said. “With the people in Burma, there is a separate thinking and ideas between the military and the ethnic people. My family lived in the control of the ethnic arms group.”
In January 1995, Trawgaye and his family crossed the border into Thailand to escape the fighting.
“So I started my life in refugee care in 1995,” Trawgaye said. “A refugee camp is a very different from the camps you see in the movies. The place I lived was kind of like in a valley, surrounded by very, very high mountains.”
Trawgaye said life was very restricted inside confines of the camp. “We were not allowed to leave the camp, we have no ID, and we couldn’t work, obviously. We couldn’t make our own farm so we just built our small shelter and we have a small backyard to grow some vegetables in.”
But it was safe in the camp and that was all that mattered.
Trawgaye spent 13 years there before applying to come to Canada as a refugee.
“There was no dream, no future in the camp so we’d better choose something,” he recalled. “This was an opportunity to make a choice for resettlement so my family chose that. “
Life in Canada brought its own challenges, particularly the first couple of years.
“The time I arrived in Canada, it was really tough,” Trawgaye said. “My English isn’t like what it is right now — just a few, little words I learned from my jungle school. We had English class at the refugee camp but we didn’t really practise (English) and we had no chance to speak English. Just in a book and in a class.”
Today, Trawgaye relishes his role with ISS of BC. He’s been working full-time with the organization since 2011.
“I started with my broken English for interpreting (for other Karen refugees),” Trawgaye said. “I kept learning and registered in English classes. So I kept going to school and working. I feel very happy to help my community and also, I feel thankful for all the organizations who support our communities, and try to help my people, and encourage me to work with them.”
When he’s not working, Trawgaye is grasping the nuances of a Canadian pastime, hockey. “My wife watches hockey games and we always say together, ‘Go Canucks go!’”
On July 1, Trawgaye plans on bringing his family to the Fort Langley National Historic Site to celebrate Canada Day.