‘Like We Don’t Exist’ tells the story of Karenni refugees, many of whom have made Austin their home

Published 7:56 am Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Civil war stealing heritage, identity

It is odd to think of a people who are lost in their own country – but that is exactly the plight of the Karenni refugees.

The lack of that status, and its ongoing impact, was at the heart of the documentary, “Like We Don’t Exist,” which was shown Sunday at the Historic Paramount Theatre as part of the Welcoming Week in Austin.

The event was sponsored by the Austin Area Commission for the Arts, the Austin Human Rights Commission and African Asian Refugee Services Agency. Austin Human Rights Commission member Daniel Mueller led the event.

“Like We Don’t Exist” filmmaking team of Corey Embring, left, and Ansley Sawyer, introduce their documentary to the Austin audience.

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Austin is today home to many Karenni immigrants who were lucky enough to leave refugee camps situated at the border of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Thailand. Many attended the event Sunday.

Filmmaker Corey Embring and executive producer Ansley Sawyer were determined to provide a voice to the Karenni people who continue to be caught in what has been called the world’s longest civil war, begun in 1947.

Shaw Reh

What began, said Sawyer, “as a short, 5-minute documentary” turned into a 35-minute film about a lost people.

“We have no identity,” said one refugee, living in Camp 1.

The refugees fled their homes to take shelter in the camps when a civil war broke out between the ethnic minorities and the Burmese government after Burma won its independence from British rule in 1947. Although the new government promised independence to the minorities, the promise was never kept and armed opposition and Burmese soldiers have continued to fight. The government has continued a series of attacks to drive the ethnic minorities from their land. The Karenni fled to the camps.

The result has been the theft of identity for a culture whose children born in the camps have limited understanding of their heritage. There are shortages of water, food, health care and there are always concerns about safety. They fear that after 70 years of conflict, their ways and customs will disappear.

And they continue to wait.

Shaw Reh, one of the leaders in the Karenni community in Austin, said the film reflects life for many of the camp refugees, who “have no idea what goes on in the outside world.” Being able to travel to the U.S. for an education was a key for him to leave the camps, and continues to be an option for younger Karenni.

Ojoye Akane

The stories are familiar to both Ojoye Akane, head of the African Asian Refugee Services Agency, and William Okkweari, another leader in the Sudanese population in Austin. Both said there are common themes shown in the documentary, that are shared by all refugees.

“This is what goes on” in the camps,” said Akane. His own sister and her family continue to reside in camps in Kenya, “and I pray every day that God will help.”

He said many Americans do not understand the depth of despair of the refugees, and immigrants are often reluctant to talk of what has happened to them.

“We are afraid you might be overwhelmed” by the often-horrific stories of what his people have edured.

“We do not want to overburden you,” he said.

He urged people in the U.S. to travel to the countries – East Africa and others — where refugees continue to suffer, “and see for yourself what it is like,” he said.

But, he said, look past the surface.

In Ethiopia, there is new building and the cities look prosperous.

William Okkweari

“It looks like there is peace, but it is not peace; it is oppression,” he said.

Okweari, who has established a non-profit organization called “Compassion for Children,” wants to make sure funding gets to families in the camps. He said U.N. help does not often filter to the camp refugees.

“I do not know why that is,” he said, but he agreed with others that providing support to refugees through local efforts might have more impact.

Sawyer said much social media attention was given to the film; they will have the documentary on YouTube in coming weeks.

“We aren’t done,” she said after the showing. “We want to keep connecting” and partner with other organizations that would lift up the stories and help the lives of refugees.

About the film

“Like We Don’t Exist” executive producer Ansley Sawyer said the documentary on the plight of the Karenni refugees will be on You ube in coming weeks. To see the trailer for it go to: http://likewedontexist.com.