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  • It is February in Vermont. The kind of cold where you move with hunched shoulders from house to car to school, dreading a nearby door's potential to open. There are 2 new students at school. Brothers who have just arrived from Thailand. They barely speak English, but the younger one begins to tell me about Thailand. He tells me about the guitar he left behind and looks up Karen songs on YouTube before the bell rings. When I arrived at their house with a guitar from Craigslist, one immediately put the strings on, tuned it up, and started playing. For over two hours, they passed the instrument around, playing, singing, and translating the words of the songs for me. They sang Karen songs about how “they don’t have a country, the young people are scattered all over the world, but they still need to remember…” Word spread, and soon another family was at the door, as well as an old woman, hunched over in her heavy jacket. The people watching would suggest song after song for the young people to play. Their father, who they said plays really well, seemed too shy to play in front of me, but I had the sense that the guitar would be played long into the night, passed from hands to hands to hands.

    The Burmese refugees are various ethnic minorities who are being persecuted by the Burmese government. In the Vermont community, there are Karen (pronounced kuh-ren), Burmese, and Muslim minorities. Karen refugees have faced considerable persecution and many who are old enough to remember Burma before fleeing to Thailand, speak about horrific violence. For many, their education has been very interrupted and sporadic. The community in Vermont is largely from a camp called Nu Po, just 5 miles from the Burmese border in the jungle highlands of Thailand. Roughly 14,000 people have made Nu Po their home for the last 10 years. It is divided into 16 sections, named Section I, Section II, etc.

    The Karen are the largest of 20 ethnic minority groups who are facing ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military regime. The UN estimates that 200,000 Karen have been forced to flee from their homes in Burma to neighboring Thailand.

    (This song, "Coming to Vermont," is written in Karen by two students. It is about their new life in America. It says to people who can't speak English that the American people are helpful. It is also about how hard it is to understand a new language and thanks those who have helped them thus far.)
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