Beads of rain stream down the outer pane of the airplane window. I lean over the person in the middle seat to gaze out into the gray. The letters STOCKHOLM ARLANDA stand on a precipice, dimly illumined by backlighting and the glow of the sun rising behind the clouds. As a child I used to slide my finger down the nondescript gray terminal diagram of Arlanda in the back pages of the airline magazine. I would imagine myself coming down through the clouds in Sweden, with IKEA as my reference point. Perhaps it was this childhood fantasy returning to the surface when I said yes to Reverend Tha Hgay and his wife’s invitation to accompany them on their month-long trip to Sweden to visit their children and grandchildren resettled there.
We make our way through customs and board our connecting flight to Göteborg. When we arrive in the airport an Asian man with a Bluetooth earpiece stands waiting at the bottom of the escalator. “A weh may ya po kwa duh—He is my son!” declares Reverend Tha Hgay as he steps from the escalator and rushes towards the man. This is the first time he has seen his oldest son Ler Wah in seven years. A clean-cut young Asian man in a pea coat stands off to the side. “…And this is my grandson!” The young man holds out his hand to me, “I am Solomon.” “Zac,” I reply, thankful to meet someone my age who will be around for our stay.
Solomon came to Sweden with his family in 2008 at age twenty. The Swedish government placed them in Övertorneå in the north of Sweden along the border with Finland. He now lives with his uncle’s family in Alingsås, just outside of Göteborg in the south of Sweden. There are about five Karen families living in this quaint Scandinavian town of 25,000. Thirty minutes away in the neighboring town of Vårgårda there are another five or so Karen families. Solomon’s uncle works as caretaker for an incapacitated elderly man, however most Karen adults in the area are not working but, attending practicums in hopes of soon being hired. The Swedish government covers their living expenses.
We pull up in their Chevrolet hatchback to a dreary public housing complex. “Most of my friends from the camp who live in the U.S. are already married and having children,” he says. Most young Karen people in their twenties here in Sweden attend special schools to learn Swedish, vocational skills, or prepare for college. Educational opportunities in the U.S. are much more sparse for refugees resettled as young adults. Mostly if you are over 18 when you arrive in the U.S. it is straight to the chicken plant. Solomon can already speak Swedish and so after working for sometime in a school in the north, he is now training to be a taxi driver here in Alingsås.
We ascend a spiral staircase to the third-floor and enter a small, but tidy European apartment with two bedrooms and one bathroom. A toddler rushes to the door and gazes up with big eyes for the first time at his grandfather and grandmother. Ler Wah’s youngest son, Daniel, was born here in Sweden just two years ago. As Tha Hgay and Paw Hser settle in and delight in their newest grandchild, I follow Solomon and his two school-age cousins, Naw Ga Mwee and Thaw Eh Mwee out to the football yard behind their apartment building.
Black soil shows through the bald spots in the olive-colored winter grass. As we enter the field and begin kicking the ball around, a young African girl wearing a hijab comes to join us, followed shortly by a Congolese boy and two Serbian girls who look at me strangely. Solomon tells them something in Swedish. “Vad heter du?” the older Serbian girl asks me. “I don’t speak Swedish. I’m sorry,” I tell her. “What’s your name?” she asks again.
There is no Karen church in Sweden and so with a Karen pastor visiting the country, he naturally must visit every Karen home in Alingsås and Vårgårda to pray with the families. On Sunday Ler Wah’s family hosts a thanksgiving worship service in celebration of the birthdays of two of their children. Something they have not been able to do for quite some time. Solomon and I offer two songs for the service, one in English and another in Karen. Tha Hgay stands and preaches passionately to the living room full of Karen from the two neighboring locales. After the service there is a meal served. Solomon hands me a prepared plate with boiled potatoes, vegetable salad, and stewed beef with mushrooms. “No rice?” I ask in amazement. “Svenska a ta aw—Swedish food,” he responds with a smile, “Na aw beahh—Is it delicious?” “May, ya aw beh ra—Yes, it is very good!” I reply, “I have just never seen Karen people in the U.S. serve food like this.”
Just a few days before our departure from the U.S., Rev. Tha Hgay presided over a thanksgiving service at Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s house in celebration of Wisdom and Hae Tha Blay’s birthdays. The fare was typical of a Karen celebration. Hei Nay Htoo spent all day Saturday acquiring and butchering a pot-belly pig and a large goat, then stayed up all night next to the fire grilling pork and tending to bubbling cauldrons of goat meat and meh teh leh aye kah—goat shit soup.
A Karen man with a long face and a goatee sits on the couch across from me and picks at the marzipan and whipped cream on a slice of birthday cake. He looks at me sternly for a moment before starting abruptly in immaculate English, “After we get Swedish citizenship, do you know how difficult it is to get a work permit in the United States?”