Created By: Ithaca Heritage
The Karen Mural Project was completed over the course of a month in 2019 by Karen and Burman teen members of the 4-H Urban Outreach Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County with help of local artist Dan Burgevin. The mural depicts Karen-Burman refugee families journeying to Ithaca to escape genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The first panel shows a girl hiding in the forest as her village burns behind her. The second panel shows Karen families fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. The third panel features a glowing sunset, a plane on tarmac, and Ithaca landmarks such as the Immaculate Conception Church on Seneca Street. The Immaculate Conception Church was built in 1898, replacing an earlier church that had been built on Seneca Street in 1860. The mural is painted along a fence owned by Shortstop Deli (est. 1978) and was painted with the agreement of store owner Chuck Dong and the Shortstop staff.
The text at the bottom of the mural reads:
"Flowers and butterfly mask the genocide on the Karen People. A girl hiding in the Burmese forest from the brutal military junta. Many Karen crossed the Sarawren to peace and security in Thailand. Starting new families, they obtained refugee status and eventually came to USA where they vote, work, and live free!"
The mural and program were made possible thanks to the Cornell University Public Service Center, Park Foundation, Short Stop, Ithaca Murals, Ithaca Asian American Association, Ithaca Housing Authority and many individual community members.
The Karen peoples of Myanmar and Thailand are an ethnolinguistic group numbering approximately five million people. It is estimated by some linguists that they migrated to present-day Myanmar between 300 and 800 CE. Long-term tensions arose between the Karen cultural groups and the Burman majority during the Japanese occupation of the region during WWII. The Karen National Union was formed in 1947 and has served as a governmental structure for the Karen peoples since then. Conflict between the Karen and the majority-Burman government continued through the end of the 20th century, with country-wide uprisings and general strikes against the Burman military dictatorship coming to a head in August of 1988. In September of 1988, the government announced a new military ruler, imposed martial law, and banned all public demonstrations. The military began a coordinated crackdown on all demonstrators and ethnic-minority groups across the country in the following months and years. In 2004, the BBC estimated that up to 200,000 Karen had been driven from their homes during the decades of war, with nearly 160,000 Karen living in semi-permanent refugee camps on the Thai side of the border.
Karen refugees began resettling in the United States and Canada in the early 2000s. There are large Karen populations in Minnesota, Nebraska, southern California, and central New York. The first Karen to move to Ithaca arrived in 2006.
In 2016, Ithaca’s Common Council voted unanimously to make an official declaration that the city of Ithaca will be a welcoming community for all refugees. In 2017, Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Counties applied to formally establish Ithaca as a resettlement community for those escaping persecution in their home countries. The initial application accepted refugees from eight countries: Myanmar, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Ukraine, Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The list was based on languages already spoken within the community and current settled populations from those regions.
An Ithaca woman who escaped the deadly conflicts of Myanmar in the 1980s wrote the following account of her flight from Burma as a child for the Ithaca-based Immigrant Services Program. It was re-published by the Ithaca Journal on August 18, 2014: http://ithacavoice.wpengine.com/2014/08/ithaca-woman-child-escaped-deadly-burmese-upheaval-1980s/
This point of interest is part of the tour: History & Art in Downtown Ithaca