Mie Tha La and the road to resettlement

In 2005, following a major offensive by the Myanmar (Burma) government, close to 140,000 Karen refugees were displaced and forced into Thailand. The Karen, a minority ethnic group, were welcomed by the Canadian government starting in 2005, as a part of a Government Assisted Refugee resettlement program. Mie Tha La arrived in Canada in May 2007, after having spent 13 years of this life in a refugee camp. Within 48 hours, he was taken to Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services.

2007 would mark Mie Tha’s first time to Canada, and he was surprised to find that Access Alliance provided all of the services he needed to resettle his family. He received training and workshops on community work, hygiene and self-care, and tips on integrating into Canadian society.

“These Karen refugees compared to other group (were) totally different because all their life they are in the mode of survival,” explained Mie Tha. “In the jungle, in the refugee camp, many of them had never been to formal school at all. They don’t even know how to read or write their own language.”

Mie Tha adapted quickly to his new life, and within a few weeks became a volunteer with Access Alliance and one of Access Alliance Language Services’ (AALS) first Karen interpreters, helping other Karen refugees to resettle in Canada. AALS trained and tested Mie Tha, and while he no longer works with Access Alliance Language Services, he still partners with the organization through the Karen Community.

Thuy Tran, a Health Promoter with Access Alliance, worked with the Karen refugees when they first settled. At that point she had been working with the organization for six years. She was a trainer and facilitator for Mie Tha, teaching him essential skills for adapting to the Canadian workplace.

“I remember some of the Karen newcomers when they came to our clinic, they were not able to sit on a chair, they never had the experience with a chair,” said Thuy. “I came (to the waiting room) and I said, please understand our friends never had a chair in their life. Everyone in the room became melted, they could not imagine a person in Toronto who doesn’t know how to sit on a chair. That was my first experience working with the community.”

Today, there are two to three Karen communities in almost every major city across Canada. In total, more than 5,000 refugees were resettled during the five year resettlement period. Many of the Karen refugees that first came to Toronto, have since moved to other Ontario cities including a large community in Leamington, Ontario. There they have taken advantage of a lower cost of living to pursue home ownership.

In the years following the initial resettlement of the Karen Refugees, Access Alliance performed a community needs assessment to more effectively service the needs of the community, and in 2016, Thuy Tran was presented with an award of distinction from the Karen community for her work in supporting their success in Canada. The road to resettlement is not easy, and can involved many traumas that one wouldn’t expect. However, despite the challenges, the Karen community is one that is healthy, connected, and thriving in Canada.

“On behalf of all the immigrants coming to Canada and in particular the GTA, I would like to extend my gratefulness and thankfulness to everyone working at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services. Doctors, physicians, community workers, settlement workers, health promoters, volunteers and student placement. All the guidance that I received from you, all the caring and helping hands—this became a great part of my life, as a former refugee, and as one that is contributing back to Canadian society. Everything that you’ve done for everyone is not in vain at all. Thank you so much for everything,” said Mie Tha.