Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
After about 17 years living in a refugee camp along the Thailand/Burma border, Tenny Paen is ready to carve out a new life for himself in Canada, and he has Stratford-based Friends of DARE Network to thank.
Five members of the local non-profit group, along with two residents of Price Edward County, have sponsored Paen for one year to come to Canada. He arrived two months ago and is living in Stratford with local veterinarians Leesa Gillies and her husband Steven Wolfgram.
He’s learning English through the Centre for Education and Learning and has filed the paper work to obtain health insurance as well as his permanent residence card from the immigration department.
He wants to improve his English, get his driver’s licence and a part-time job, though he’s not sure yet what he would like to do.
“I'm sure whatever Tenny does he will be successful at it,” says Pam Rogers, a DARE Network advisor who spent 12 years in Asia helping the Burmese refugees who have been forced to flee their homes due to the long-standing civil unrest between the county’s military regime and its ethnic tribes.
Rogers, of Stratford, founded Friends of DARE Network in her hometown to raise awareness and funds to support the drug and alcohol rehabilitation and preventative education the grassroots group provides to refugees in the camps. The organization also assists Burmese youth with art, music and sports development.
While the situation in Burma appears to be improving – the country’s legally elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is free after nearly 15 years of government-imposed house arrest – Rogers says the country will remain unsafe as long as it is under military control.
“On the ground, in the ethnic states, not too much has changed,” she notes. “Right now it's about politics and money more than peace.”
To date, Friends of DARE has raised roughly $50,000 for DARE Network, and Rogers hopes to build on that total this Sunday at the fourth annual Shakestail Festival, being held on her farm in Staffa.
The event celebrates the bond between people and their pets, and will include prizes and contests for the four-legged participants. There will also be sheep herding, disc dog and animal behaviour demonstrations, a silent auction, and a mini farmers’ market.
Rogers met Paen in one of the nine camps that exist along the Thai/Burma border that service the anywhere between 150,000 to 180,000 refugees who have safely escaped the horrors of their homeland hoping for a better life, if they’re lucky, like Paen, in another country.
Paen and his family were driven out of their village in the Karen region of Burma when he was only six years old due to fighting between the Burmese government and the Karen army.
“We run with other people. We run into the forest to hide ourselves in the jungle,” Paen recalls.
Over the next 11 years, Paen and his family were forced to move various times due to attacking militia forces, living in villages and makeshift camps.
“They came into our village fighting, shooting and burning,” he says.
Living in the jungle, Paen lost his three-year-old sister to a fever, and one of his brothers to a snake bite.
For three years the family lived in one village, but tragedy still found them. Paen’s father was a fisherman, and every morning he and others would go check their nets. One day he didn’t return. They found his body a few days later shot and dumped with the others in a hole.
The family finally made their way to a village on the border between Karen State and Thailand where Paen was able to attend high school by walking two hours to a school in Thailand. But in 1995, the village fell to troops.
Together with about 6,000 others, Paen and his family fled one last time to Thailand. During the exodus, Paen, 17 at the time, was shot in the leg and separated from his mother and siblings. He was moved to a refugee camp and registered with the United Nations.
For the last two years before coming to Canada, Paen worked with DARE Network as an addictions trainer. He was also taught how to use a computer and helped create DARE T-shirts and posters.
When he left, his sister took over his job.
Paen’s mother, he’s learned, has immigrated to Dallas, and his brother lives in Buffalo. He hopes he will get to see them again someday. He is also hopeful that he will get to visit Burma in a few years time, as long as the fighting in his country has subsided.
Sunday’s Shakestail Festival in support of DARE Network will be held at 7372 Line 21, Staffa, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Rogers has named the property Kawthoolei Farm, which in the Karen language translates to “a land without evil.”