Dancers from the Karen, Nepali, Hmong, Mon and Congolese communities will perform at the Karen New Year celebration on Jan. 4.
One of those Karen dancers is Hsa Win, 20. Between college classes and preparing to become an American citizen — which Hsa did in November — he leads a group of Karen dancers, including everything from learning dances on YouTube to making their costumes by hand.
Hsa was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. His parents were born in Myanmar. They are Karen, a Southeast Asian ethnic group that does not have a state of its own. As a kid, Hsa loved to dance, but his neighbors in the refugee camp would make fun of him — he was too flexible; he looked like a girl. He quit.
When he got to the U.S., Hsa reconnected with Karen dance through YouTube videos. Now, he leads a group of seven Karen dancers in an effort to keep the movement alive.
“In my community, not many people have an interest in dance. So I’m afraid that if we don’t have these, other communities are not going to know, who are the Karen people?” Hsa says.
It’s hard enough to get other people interested, Hsa says. It’s much harder to get them to stay committed. He worries that if the Karen community doesn’t preserve and promote its culture, Akron won’t know who they are.
“I’m afraid that in the next 5 or 10 years in the city of Akron, we are not going to be well known,” Hsa says. Later in our conversation, he adds: “We need to take this seriously. We need to do this for our community.”
Hsa is an active member of the Karen Community of Akron (KCA). He’s also organizing the new Karen Youth Leadership Club, which aims to connect Karen teens and young adults to volunteer opportunities and helping them develop leadership skills. The group meets at the Exchange House. Hsa cites KCA research to say there are close to 1,000 Karen people in Akron, most of whom are moving to the city for work and settling in North Hill.
Hsa and his family are happy in North Hill, although they wish the neighborhood had a Karen restaurant, Hsa says. He and his mother used to imagine themselves moving to the U.S. and opening a restaurant. Now, Hsa is learning to cook Karen food, also via YouTube. But he doesn’t want to run a business right now.
“You have a lot of responsibility. Academics. You have to also look after your family. You have to take a role if your parent’s not available. I’m the only person who’s able to speak English,” Hsa says. (It’s his fourth language, after Karen, Pa’O Karen and Thai.) “It is hard, but I get through it.”
Hsa enrolled at the University of Akron after high school — he was the first in his family to graduate, in 2018 — but stopped as costs mounted. He hopes to work toward his associate’s degree at Stark State instead. For now, he’s the only person in his household who can drive, so he’s working and saving up to buy a more reliable car. His younger sister is still in high school.
On Nov. 4, Hsa passed his citizenship test. On Nov. 19, a naturalization ceremony made him a U.S. citizen.
“Someday — if I still live in the city of Akron — I told my community that I want to run for the city council someday,” Hsa says. “It’s a long-term goal. I want to represent all the refugees, and the citizens, in my ward.” He name-drops Phil Lombardo, who will begin representing Ward 2 in 2020.
“I tell my friends if we stay in the house and don’t do anything, not too many American people are going to know who are the Karen people,” Hsa says.
Karen New Year will take place at the Main Library on Jan. 4 from 1-5 pm. Free.
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.