I am thrilled to share with you the first in a new series of posts featuring refugee and migrant artists. This post comes from Erika Berg of Seattle, who is publishing Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma, a collection of work depicting the experiences youth have had in fleeing their homes, living in refugee camps, and hoping for a future peaceful Burma. This blog is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.
For over 50 years, Burma – also known as Myanmar – was one of the most isolated and oppressed nations in the world. In 2011, the country’s military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government that has begun to implement democratic reforms. Yet beyond the media spotlight, human rights abuses continue, especially in ethnic areas. (30-40% of the country’s population is comprised of over 135 diverse ethnic groups.)
The huddled boy (enlarged 800%) in ‘Forced to Flee’s’ book cover was painted by a 16-year-old refugee who fled eastern Burma when the Burmese Army attacked his village. I discovered it on the reverse of Saw Yar Zar’s actual visual story. When I asked why he had “signed” his painting this way, Saw Yar Zar’s eyes glazed over. While his village was riddled with gunfire he darted into the jungle, screams piercing the distance. Muffling his breath, he huddled in a patch of tall grass. Words whispered by his deceased father during a prior escape played in his mind like a mantra: “Only travel at night.” Hours later, engulfed by darkness and an eerie silence, Saw Yar Zar parted the grass and headed for the Thai-Burma border, in search of refuge…
26-year-old Jimmy was born in Burma’s most impoverished state, Chin State. Raised Christian in a Buddhist-dominated country, he had fled religious persecution and secured refugee status in neighboring India. Jimmy didn’t know how many political prisoners continued to languish behind bars in his homeland.
Since the country’s military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government, in 2011, most political prisoners in Burma had been released – bearing scars of having been tortured, physically and psychologically. Despite their courage and sacrifices, today’s political prisoners remain faceless to all but family and friends who have dared to stand by them. Jimmy painted this picture to honor his unsung heroes. Without them, he said, there would be no democracy movement in Burma today. And without justice, he added, peace in Burma will remain an elusive dream.
Visit the Forced to Flee Kickstarter campaign page to watch a five-minute video about the visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth from Burma and perhaps help give voice to their stories by pledging $10.00 or more toward the publication of Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma.
Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser