My name is Novia Josiah-Isaac. I’m a Karen former refugee, and my parents are from Burma, but I was born in and grew up in Thailand. My father arrived here first, because he came as an asylum seeker before we arrived, and then he sponsored us two years after that. Then we came here. As you know, the political situation in Burma right now is not good with people trying to fight for democracy. Even 70 years ago, the Karen people were being oppressed, a lot of Karen have become refugees because of the oppression that they experienced, including my parents. I didn’t grow up in a refugee camp, so it’s a different experience for me. I don’t fit into the classic refugee story where people talk about growing up in a camp, experiencing a refugee life.
I grew up outside of the camps, but there’s still a lot of trauma around that. One thing that I remember, that I think a lot of people outside the camps experienced, is you are not legally in Thailand, even though you have refugee status. So any time they capture you or you get arrested, they can send you back to the border. And I grew up close to the Thai/Burma border, so my dad has worked with NGOs, and we have refugee status. We have some privilege to go to school, which is a private school because you can’t go to the public school since you’re not legally a citizen, so that’s where I got my education. Knowing that you are not part of Thailand, but I also didn’t remember anything about Burma, so I had a feeling of not belonging. I remember that when I was young, I told my parents not to speak Burmese because they could get arrested. That’s part of the experience of not belonging. I speak Thai because of my education, but I was not legally Thai. Then we arrived here in the U.S. in 2004 in Minnesota right away. So this has been my home since 2004.
It’s like a dream. Everything is so different. I came here when I was 15, I remember it was two days before my birthday. The environment, the people, the language, everything was different. Culture shock. But you can feel the freedom, I can feel like there’s so much opportunity to pursue here, starting a new life. You don’t have to be afraid of the police catching you and sending you back to Burma, because now we are legally here. And people encourage us to pursue education, we have the same rights as other people.
The language barrier, because we don’t speak English. I had some educational background in English, so when I came here I was able to speak and understand some, but not fluently. And just knowing that everything is uncertain because you don’t have the right in Thailand, but here you do have the right. There’s a lot of new systems to learn, new things to learn and get caught up with like the education system, the healthcare system, everything here is different.
Personally, not directly. Working with refugees and being a part of the refugee community, there are a lot of stereotypes. Like, “Oh, they are here for free benefits, they’re uneducated, they’re coming from war,” which is not true. A lot of refugees work hard to not rely on government public
assistance. But the system has kind of set us up in a way that is hard to get out of that. But at the same time, there are other typical stereotypes like being Asian and being good at math, so students at school will assume they can rely on me for math.
It used to be when you pursued the American dream, have a good job, have an
ducation, being well-off. But as I grow up, I feel like success is about taking care of yourself and giving back to your community. That’s a big part of who I am and how my family raised me, because my dad was a social worker. We grew up helping our community when I was young. So I think success and what gives me energy is to be well-off and educated, yes, but at the same time giving back to the community, and to help people who are underserved and raise the community together to be the best they can be.
Getting my education, that’s the big one. I survived college and grad school, I have a good job that is aligned with my values and my ethics. Being the first Karen social worker at my job who can speak different languages and help the community.
My advice is to continue to pursue your dreams and to work hard, but also to not only focus on yourself but give back to the community. We all do better when we work together when we lift the whole community. Another thing I would encourage for the younger ones, pursue education, network with other people, and also embrace your identity as a refugee. Use your identity, incorporate it into the work that you do. For example, don’t forget about your history and who you are. Be the voice for people who are back home or who don’t have a voice.