‘Karen Community’ celebrates New Year Day – 2755

See how these Portland newcomers look forward to the future, while they celebrate their culture, and their past …

In song and dance, performers welcome Karen New Year Day 2755 on stage at their annual celebration.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

A day shy of their “official” New Year Day, the Oregon Karen Community celebrated Karen New Year Day 2755 on January 9, in the atrium of Ron Russell Middle School in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood.

First, this welcoming and resilient ethnic group pronounce their name “Kuh-REN”, which is the Anglicization of their name in their native language.

Toelwe Po and Kawkleh Wah serve as Masters of Ceremonies for the afternoon-long Karen New Year program.

Shee Nahtoo tells the history of the Karen people.

Giving an oral history of her people, Shee Nahtoo told about their migration, beginning in 2254 BC across what legends refer to a “river of running sand”, although they have lived in Myanmar (Burma) for centuries.

The Karen people – their homeland “Karen State” being a strip of land in southern Myanmar – have been fighting a sixty-year civil war against the Myanmar military regime for their autonomy and cultural rights. From 2005 onward, about 100,000 refugees from Thailand, most of them Karen, have resettled in other countries, including the United States – many of them in the greater Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Karen youngsters gather for a photo before their performance.

“Today, we have music, dancing and traditional food,” said Naw Dee, a volunteer working with a youth group at the celebration.

“It is really important to us, when they gather together,” Dee told East Portland News. “We want our children to learn more than dancing and songs – we want them to learn how to speak our language.

“Most of the time they speak in English, now,” Dee continued. “But, if they don’t learn to read and write in our language, they will forget their heritage. It is so important for us to remember our heritage, and our culture and our language.”

Soe Myintis tells about colors of the Karen flag. “Red is bravery; white symbolizes purity; the color of blue stands for peace,” he says.

Dee said that it is also important to remember that the Karen people have been prosecuted, pursued, and kept in “camps”. “Today, we also remember how hard it is for our people [who are] still back there.”

This is the fifth year that the Karen community has held a News Year’s Day celebration in Portland, and the second in Powellhurst-Gilbert.

During the program, Master of Ceremonies Toelwe Po welcomed their outer East Portland neighbors who’d come to the ceremony. “We want our neighbors to know about us and about our culture. Here in the United States, many kind people don’t know about the long history of the Karen people, and who we are.”

This volunteer makes a salad, which smells a bit like kimchi.

As part of the program, presenters read greetings sent from their homeland, and from other Karen people, now scattered around the globe. The educational presentations are interspersed with musical and dance numbers.

On stage, dancers perform to music with a western-sounding beat.

It is a day of light-hearted festivity and solemn remembrance, at the Karen New Year celebration.

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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