In 2007 Mu Mu and her family were the first Karen people to emigrate from a refugee camp in Thailand to Albany.
When they first arrived, Mu said, they rarely left their apartment and found it difficult to adjust to a Western lifestyle.
“Little things like taking the bus or even changing a light bulb or using a stove were all new to us,” she said, noting that previously she lived in a refugee camp in Thailand without electricity. “On top of all that we didn’t even know the language.”
But Mu, who now works at Albany Medical Center, appears to have adapted to life in upstate New York. On Sunday, she snapped pictures with her smartphone while celebrating the Karen New Year with several hundred other Karens. Mu speaks with only a hint of an accent and now volunteers her time to help Karen immigrants from Myanmar and Thailand. An official census of the Karen people living in Albany has not been done, but some estimate that more than 5,000 Karens now call the area home.
The Karen people are a small Christian minority within Myanmar and have suffered through decades of civil war that began as the nation — then called Burma — gained independence from Britain in 1948 and Karen separatists sought to establish their own state. Many Karens have fled the violence, ending up in Thai refugee camps.
Mu said the civil war has ravaged the country.
Though the Karen New Year is actually Jan. 21, the holiday was celebrated on Sunday at the Boys and Girls Club of Albany because organizers could not find a space to hold the event on the 21st.
Talent shows, contests and performances were held in the gymnasium and native food was distributed in classrooms.
X Khoo Thut, of Albany, said the New Year is the biggest celebration of the year for the Karen people.
“This is our biggest holiday, it is so important for us to show the younger people our culture,” he said.
Thut said there are also Karen communities in Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo.
“They all came here today,” he said. “All Karens in New York tried to come here today.”
Thut, who now works at a mattress factory, moved to Albany in 2009 and says he loves living in the city.
“America is really what you make of it,” he said. “You can go to school and learn and then work really hard. I can pay my rent, provide for my family, it is really a great place.”
James Brisbin, a priest at St. David’s Episcopal Church in East Greenbush, said a majority of his parishioners are Karens from refugee camps in Thailand.
“They are great people,” he said. “They are hardworking and really want to succeed when they come here. More Karen people will continue to move here because there is a ready-made community for them to come into, they may have friends and family here and it is more comfortable for them.”
Brisbin added the New Year is extremely important to the Karen people.
“This means a lot to them,” he said. “In their native country this is the biggest holiday so when they come here they want to continue that tradition.”