Ajino Wah is the program manager at Jin Huo Community Senior Center and the chairman of the Karen Community of Akron. He currently resides in Akron, was born in Burma, and spent 10 years in a refugee camp after having been forced to flee his home in 1997 due to persecution of the Karen people.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Ajino and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on January 30, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): If someone were to ask you, “What is your ethnicity?” — how would you answer that?
Ajino Wah (AW): My ethnicity is Karen.
RC: Where were you born?
AW: I was born in Burma. Right now, known as Myanmar. It’s a country from Southeast Asia. It’s a neighboring country of Thailand. Usually, when I say I’m from Myanmar, nobody has the idea. So, I have to reframe it as the neighboring country of Thailand.
RC: Do you have to correct yourself a lot in this area, in Akron? People don’t really know.
AW: I have to correct myself more often. When I say I am Karen, they thought first I am Korean. Then I have to be clear that I am Karen, same spelling as the name of Karen, the lady. So yeah, more often, when I say I am Karen, everybody is lost.
RC: So, can you describe a little bit what it was like back in your home country and how you grew up in that era, in your childhood? What was it like?
AW: It’s a disaster. My first six years in my village, it was peaceful. I was from a very small village, only 12 households in the village until I turned seven years old. Then, I have to leave my home country. There is oppression that permits the government — they tried to take over my people, the Karen people, and tried to wipe out the Karen people of Burma country. So we have to leave.
RC: What were some of the traditions, maybe specific to the Karenn community that made you different, that identified your community?
AW: The Karen people, they feel love and peace. They like to avoid conflict. They don’t want any war. They don’t want any conflict. They like to live in peace. They try to avoid or they try to live over the corner to have peace, as much as if somebody wants to take over their land and they try to start a war and try to start a quarrel, we want to give them the space so we can have peace to ourselves. And then we are famously known as hospitality throughout the whole world. Most people, when they come to visit Karen state, they love the Karen people because of their hospitality, loving and caring, and mostly peace.
RC: Describe some of that hospitality.
AW: If you come to my village, even though I don’t know you, because you are a stranger, and you need a place to stay, you need food to eat — I don’t care who you are, I’m just gonna get the food for you, maybe prepare a place for you to stay..
RC: So what happened after seven years old?
AW: 1997, there’s a big war between the Burmese and the Karen people. We were too weak, so we have to give up our village, our land, and flee for our life. So at seven years old, I have to leave my village with my mother and my brother, sister and everybody in those areas… I didn’t know much. I just followed after everybody. We can hear gun fights with our people, with the Burmese government. They tried to take over everything, they tried to rule. Most likely us as well, our people — known as ethnic cleansing. They’re trying to wipe out everything of the Karen people of the Burma country. So in 1997, we have to leave our village, come to the refugee camp. I think it’s the border of Burma and Thailand, most likely a little bit inside of Thailand. There’s a camp that we have to move in there. And I live in the camp for 10 years.
RC: What was it like in the camps?
AW: Life in the camp? When I was a child, like teenage years, it’s okay. You enjoy anything — you don’t care about life, don’t care about anything. So I went to school in there. We have a primary school, middle school, and I even graduated in there. So, after you turn into high school and after you graduate and you are thinking about life in there, it’s just like you live inside the parameter, you know a limited parameter when you can’t go out. But when you were young, you are enjoying life in there, as well.
RC: So you were not considered Thai, you’re not part of that nation, as well. So, there was just Karen people in the camp.
AW: Right, and we are not considered Burmese citizens, we’re not Thai citizens either, but some Karen people — they live in Thailand and they got the approval of a Thai citizen. Some live inside Burma and [are] consider[ed] as Burmese, but for us, those that live along the border, a lot of us that are Karen wasn’t considered as either citizen. So, we lived in there as citizens of nobody — just the Karen people.
RC: [How did you remain] strong in staying together culturally?
AW: That’s how we survived through the whole conflict. We survived… on a day-to-day basis. Like back in — my mother, my grandmother begins their day in Burma, but they had to flee for their life, very often, trying to hide… sometimes they have to run. But the whole village, they have to stay together to make it through.
RC: So, what happened that you got to the United States? What was the process like?
AW: It was like there’s a UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] that came to the camp — they see the situation in there, they see the conditions, how our tent to tent is only about two feet apart. And there’s the thousands of thousands of people in there. And the condition is not too clean. The air is not good. Sanitation — the environment is very terrible. So, they came and they saw it. Now, I think, I don’t know much back then. So maybe they were talking with the leader of the refugee committee. And then I think they started to take people to third countries in 2005, 2006.
RC: When did you come here?
AW: I came here in 2006.
RC: So, what was that like? Where were you when you first came? What happened when you got off the plane?
AW: Like, this is a freedom! You live in the camp for 10 years — your whole life — you don’t even know. You can’t even go anywhere. You live in there, you want to explore outside, but you can’t get outside the perimeter of the camp. If you did, if you got caught by the guard, you can be sent anywhere. And then you don’t know what happened after that. So, coming to the United States is like you are free from your cage. You don’t care whether you are going, wherever they take you. They just slowly get you out of the camp and you go into the United States. The United States was like — back there, you can hear the United States is described as heaven. Like, you barely see anybody come from the United States. So you only hear the name. Now, you got a chance to come to the United States and so what else? What else? This is it.
RC: And what is it like now that you’re here?
AW: We came through Los Angeles and then to Denver and then went to Akron. Akron is my city. I have never left since…
RC: What do you like about the city?
AW: I’ve been through a lot of stays here in New York, Indiana and everywhere. But I think Akron was my favorite because they’re not huge, right? They’re not too big. And they’re not that small either. I think it’s good enough for me.
RC: Are there a lot of other Karen communities here?
AW: We are, I think, about 1500 — a little bit over 1500 population.
RC: So, how do you guys maintain contact?
AW: Culturally, we live close by each other. But the longer we live here, people are trying to explore, trying to spread apart. They make more money, they have more income and then they try to look for a better home and a better school. So right now, we see a few other families that move out of the area. Mostly we live on North Hill, Akron, which is the main area that the Karen people live.
RC: Yeah. So proximity is sort of what draws you together. Do you guys also come together for celebrations, for traditional holidays and that sort of thing?
AW: Yes. First of all, it’s people [from] nine different camps. So some people come from the same camp. Let’s say six of the same families come from the same camp, and they like to hang around with each other. There’s another camp that they come from, maybe 50 families from another camp, they could be related or they could be a longtime friends. So, they want to maintain the relationship close.
And then because our community is small — and our nation, our people — barely anybody knows. So we have to maintain our culture, our traditions, in order to keep the Karen culture — the Karen people — alive. Otherwise, if we don’t celebrate the festival, where we have the tradition of the culture that we have, when we figure out the next 10 to 15 years, there will not be any foreign people. And then the kids might not care much. We have to pass on the legacy of our culture to our next generation. That’s why we hold on to the Karen year, the Karen Memorial Day, and then the Coronation Day. We’ll try to share the history, the suffering, the conflict, the what we [have been] through, how hard it is, because we still have a lot of the current people back home suffering right now. They’ll fight for democracy and self-determination.
RC: What do you miss about your homeland now that you’re here?
AW: My homeland, I miss everything about my homeland, like peace. Back in the day, I had my parents, we have a big land, all the fruits that they grow. And any food, you can name it in our garden. We live along a river [that] is beautiful. But since that has been taken over by the government, Burmese Government, everything got destroyed. I don’t know what to miss anymore.
RC: Have you been back?
AW: I have not yet.
RC: It will be difficult to go back.
AW: Very difficult to, Yes. Politically, I don’t think I’d be able to go to Burma.
RC: Your staying here, politically speaking, is it through a green card status?
AW: No. We came here and after five years we can apply for citizenship.
RC: So now, you’re American then?
AW: I can be called an American citizen. I am a citizen of somebody.
RC: In North Hill, I know there’s lots of diversity there. But is it difficult or relatively okay to get the right tools or the right ingredients or the right things to celebrate and to preserve your culture in Akron? Maybe start with some of the foods. What is it like? What is the Karen traditional cuisine like?
AW: Talking about the Karen traditional cuisine, we have suffered so much back in the day… some of the Karen people, like my parents, my grandparents — they don’t really have time to create their own cuisine. One day, you just dig on the ground to survive. But our cuisine or tradition… originally… it’s really hard to talk about what the Karen people have been through on a daily basis.
RC: Do you find that you’re developing your culture still in Akron?
AW: Yes, we are. We are trying to develop our culture, trying to make us visible to the community and connected with other communities and then the city, as well. Trying to get visible to the authority of the city of Akron, make known the Karen people, especially Karen. I got a cap from my brother in Thailand. He sent me some caps that say “I love Karen.” It’s a very nice cap, but I can’t wear it. It has to stay home… back home I can say, I love Karen, and it will make sense to my people and other people at home, but here if I wear, “I love Karen,” then it’s gonna create a different concept for other people to look at my cap. So, for that reason, we had to try twice harder to make people know that we are Karen. It’s a mess.
RC: So, how would you — does it sound like Karen when you pronounce it in the Karen language?
AW: If we say in the Karen, it will say Knyaw, K-N-Y-A-W. That is Knyaw.
RC: I think that a lot of immigrants, a lot of Asian Americans, they do have this sort of ambiguity with the pronunciation of their names versus the reality of how we pronounce it in our original language. My last name is Chang. But the way you spell it looks like Chang. Right?
AW: Right. Yeah.
RC: So it’s totally different. And it sounds like a lot of others, but it has a very specific meaning in Chinese that can never be translated here. But there’s a very similar thing here. Karen is obvious, definitely not KarEN. Karen is also not Knyaw, which is how you would actually pronounce it. So, I think there’s a kind of interesting fight for people to recognize this as specific.
RC: So when you immigrated here, was it with your family? Are there any things that you brought here, from all those years being in the refugee camps to America, that’s still significant to you?
AW: I did not bring anything. I came with me and my wife. I met her young. I was 20. So, we came just the two of us together. She was pregnant when we came. So, that’s the only thing I bring with me. I don’t have a nice clothes. I don’t have a nice shirt. I only bring a few shirts to wear and then everything after I came.
RC: What are some of the things that you feel really concern the community here in Akron — an issue that is close to your heart, that you would like to see addressed?
AW: We want every community to be treated equally. To be close, inclusive into the region, to the city. We don’t want the authority or the people in power to look at this group as powerless. We don’t want it to be like that. We want even the immigrant — you’re a small number or you’re a big number, you immigrate, you speak English — we want them to look at it as the same to be treated as the same. For example, if I am in an incident with an English speaker and I don’t speak English, I want the authority people to take both stories. Listen to me even though I don’t speak. I don’t want them to be just one side story and then think right away, it’s my fault because I don’t speak. I don’t want that to happen. Because I’ve seen that — I heard that story. It’s kind of a heartbroken story… I want them to treat other people the same as all.
RC: Is that why you’re working with ASIA [Asian Services in Action]?
AW: Yes, for that reason, I have seen that we need to be heard. Some stories need to be told. So I decided that I wanted to work with ASIA to advocate for my community — for the AAPI community, for other underserved communities. That’s when I started working with them. And after a year and a half, working with ASIA and then as part of ASIA as well, but [also] Jin Huo [Community Senior Center], and I love working with the seniors. I like to bring them together here and see the happy face, the way they’re talking to each other. They interact with each other. It’s making me happy, especially since I love happy seniors.
RC: Do you have children?
AW: I do have children. I have three children.
RC: Is there a vision that you hope that they would be as Karen Americans in this country? What’s your hope for them?
AW: To let you know a little bit [of background], most of the Karen elderly that come to the United States, they do not speak — most of them are very, very afraid to come to the United States. But the number one goal for them coming to the United States is for the education of their children. So, for me — the same. I want them to take advantage of it and get as much education as they get. Then, maybe, my hope is to work here one day, if it can be useful for the people back home. They can be a doctor here and then they can also go back to build some medical facility, build a school — that’s the plan. I have talked to my children: just try their best. So this is my hope, my goal for my children.
RC: Obviously, you want them to be able to maintain their Karen pride.
AW: Yeah, I want them to — I’m always talking to them, with the younger generation — they don’t feel the value of the Karen language. They don’t feel the value of the Karen tradition and the culture, but I make them understand right now. I told them they might not understand how important the current language and the culture is — to maintain, to be able to speak, to be able to write. One day, maybe they will find the value of it.
RC: What makes you proud to be Karen American, or just Karen if you didn’t identify yourself as Karen American?
AW: The Karen American is okay, too. I’m very proud of — what can I say? — of everything. But a few things is to have a freedom, to have a family on my own, to take care of my family. Like I said, I used to not even dream about this life when I was a child. But this is once in a lifetime. So, I’m proud of everything that I accomplished as of today. I don’t know what else to describe. It’s much too wide.