By Shabana Ansari

When political upheaval in Myanmar forced 17-year-old Trudy Mawlay and her two sisters to flee their country and live in a refugee camp in Thailand, little did the girls know that a happier and more productive life was waiting for them halfway across the world.

It has been 10 years since the sisters left the refugee camp to arrive in Canada along with other members of the Karen community, a minority ethnic group which has been displaced due to the ongoing insurgency in Myanmar. 

“The early years were so hard. I started going to high school without knowing the language or understanding the culture. Naturally, I struggled very hard to make sense of my surroundings and to make new friends,” recalls Trudy.

Over the years Trudy has transformed from a quiet teenager unsure about herself to a confident, well-educated young woman who now works tirelessly to support the youth in her community.

Trudy manages the Ottawa Karen Youth Centre (OKYC) which opened earlier this year to provide young Karen people with a “positive environment to develop their social identity, healthy relationships and interpersonal skills.”

“The community has been engaging with each other since 2008 through regular interactions at festivals and social events. But it is only recently that we received the funding and support to rent office space and start the Centre. We are now more organized and focused in our work and activities.”

Trudy was a volunteer in the earlier years and assisted in arranging events, meetings and outdoor activities, while studying at University.

“I was one of the youths that benefited greatly from having a sense of community in a new country and environment. And it is very satisfying for me to be able to help other young people connect not only with each other but also with the multicultural Canadian society in general.”

Trudy says that most members of the OKYC come from Karen families where parents work full-time and often don’t have the time or resources to be engaged in their children’s lives.

“We try to fill this gap by providing children and youth with fun activities like sports and outdoor trips, homework support and even the opportunity to learn the Karen language.”

Staff members and volunteers of the centre reach out to the youth either on social media or through their parents.

“We are a small community and all of us know each other. We keep the parents involved and informed about the activities their children are participating in through phone calls or home visits.”

Trudy adds their aim is to decrease the isolation of the youth within the community and to provide a safe space where the they can share their knowledge and experiences.

“The idea is to help them maintain their cultural identity while integrating fully into Canadian society so that they can contribute positively to the country we all now call home.”