Burma in Minnesota | The Center for Victims of Torture

Burma in Minnesota

Volunteer Laurie Bangs
Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Laurie Bangs is a retired high school English teacher who taught abroad for the past several years. She now volunteers for CVT as a bus tutor and a befriender.

A favorite little oasis of mine from the doldrums of Minnesota winters is the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul. The Conservatory is a huge, glass gazebo-like building -- a circular hot house with several arm-like wings branching out, housing plants from every corner of the globe. Fig trees and coconut palms, lush mosses and stag-horn ferns, orchids and palmetto palms. It's a wonderful place to go when I need a break from the dry crackling cold and relentless gloomy, gray skies because stepping into the Conservatory is like stepping off a plane in the tropics. The air is moist and warm and redolent of the fresh green smells of chlorophyll. As a befriender to a CVT client, I’m helping her learn to navigate life in the Twin Cities, so the Conservatory seemed like a perfect place to take my client from Burma on a chilly December morning.

When I knocked on my client's door that Monday morning, her husband answered. By his knit cap and warm jacket, I deduced that he was coming with us. The more, the merrier! During my time as a CVT bus buddy and befriender, I've learned to be flexible with my plans.

I was delighted by several changes and additions since my last visit. When we opened the door to the new tropical exhibit, the moist fertile air had an immediate impact on my client and her husband.  “Burma!” she cried. The trees, the smells, the grasses and the gurgling streams transported them back to their tropical home, a home they remember fondly but from which they had had to flee about 20 years ago. 

Their journey, like so many Karen refugees, first took them to a refugee camp in Thailand where they lived for 19 years before coming to the United States. As we meandered through the garden, the couple chattered to each other in Karen as they recognized familiar plants. Their hands would go out to stroke the leaves of a bush or caress a tree trunk and they would speak its Burmese name as if speaking to a dear old friend. As we wandered they explained to me in simple English which plants they ate, which they used as a broom or as “a hat for a house” (roofing material), and which were nature's pharmacy. The plants of their homeland, which were exotic and merely decorative to me, were particular and useful to them.

After snapping a few photos of ourselves with my phone against this verdant background, we found a bench in a niche where we sat and ate the snacks we had brought. I thought this would be a good time to launch into a brief English lesson on question starters. “Where is the tree?” I shrugged my shoulders, lifted my palms and turned my head from side to side as if I were searching for something. “There is the tree!” I pointed.

My client and her husband dutifully repeated after me. But when she looked up into the upper reaches of the tree at which she was pointing, her face lit up. She stood up and pointed more particularly at a spot high up in its upper branches. What did she see? Following her finger, I saw it too, a bright yellow fruit in the shape of a star. “Tha-kee-Ku,” she said.

Tha-kee-Ku,” I repeated. She smiled at her husband as if to say, “Finally, she's catching on.”


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