By Bhavana Gopinath –
Since 2001, Coleen Scott has dedicated her life to helping the marginalized Karen people of Thailand. She and the organization she founded, Karen Learning and Education Opportunities (KLEO) run Jen’s House, a safe house and school for Karen children in the Chiang Mai region in Thailand. These children would otherwise have had little or no access to education. When not in Thailand, Coleen spends her time in Ottawa tirelessly raising funds for KLEO’s various programs. She is respectfully known as “pipi” (grandmother) among the Karen refugee population in Ottawa.
All of this emerged from the worst agony a parent can endure: the death of a child.
Coleen’s daughter Jennifer had a degree in psychology and was an Early Childhood Educator. While travelling in the mountainous areas of northern Thailand, Coleen and Jen had met many Karen and had been drawn to the simplicity of their way of life. The Karen desired education for their children, but opportunities were few. Wanting to make a real difference, Jen quit her teaching job in Taipei, Taiwan, and lived in the village of Thung Siao to teach Karen children.
Jen died in 2003 at age 28. In her memory, Coleen and her husband Robert Campbell sought donations for Jen’s school. They went to Thailand to deliver the supplies they’d bought, and hoped to find solace in the very place where Jen had been happy.
That trip was a spiritual journey for Coleen. The Karen people that Jen had lived with, having endured many traumas themselves, understood Coleen’s pain. Among them, she was able to grieve her only child at her own pace. The Karen in Jen’s area knew Coleen in their language as “Jen’s mother.” This reaffirmation of her parental identity comforted Coleen; Jen would not be forgotten.
“Karen” actually refers to several linguistically diverse ethnic groups who live in southern and southeastern Myanmar, and in Thailand. As an ethnic minority, they have been persecuted, and have had to flee their homes and farms due to violence. They live as internally displaced people in Myanmar or in refugee camps, or resettle in other countries. In Thailand, many Karen face social and language barriers and live in poverty.
Coleen decided to continue Jen’s work. With the generosity of her friends and other volunteers, she established Jen’s House in Thung Siao to educate the Karen who lived in the surrounding mountains. Local house-parents take care of the children, and graduate students volunteer their time to educate them. Today, Coleen says proudly, Jen’s legacy endures: four students from Jen’s House are graduating from university with degrees in political science and law.
In 2006, the Canadian government sponsored some Karen refugees to relocate to Canada. These Karen faced some unique challenges: having spent most of their lives in remote mountains, some had never even seen a car or running water from a tap. Many were functionally illiterate in their own language, so it was much harder to learn even basic English.
Some Karen already living in Ottawa requested help from Coleen. Coleen learned their language, and she and KLEO helped the refugees navigate the complex processes and paperwork that come with starting afresh in a new country.
KLEO also collaborates with Just Food to help Karen farmers in Ottawa establish themselves. These Karen farmers’ knowledge has been passed down through generations. They are intrinsically organic farmers; they believe that using chemicals to grow food is disrespectful to the land. The Karen Farm in Blackburn Hamlet grows high quality produce.
KLEO and OCDSB also run a program to offer Karen language and heritage classes for Canada-raised Karen kids.
KLEO’s dedication has made a significant difference in the lives of several Karen families. However, Coleen believes that she was the fortunate one in these exchanges, and that having the Karen in her life has been enriching and enlightening. “I don’t know where I’d be without them,” she says. While Jennifer’s death has left a “hole that never heals” in Coleen’s heart, she is comforted that her daughter’s spirit lives on through her work.
As part of their annual fundraising, KLEO will hold a book sale at Dovercourt Community Centre on Saturday, September 24 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and on Sunday, September 25 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Volunteers are invited to help Karen in Ottawa with English-language skills, or help with Jen’s House, or contribute monetarily. Coleen says that even a small contribution of $10 a month from say, 300 people, will help cover the expenses of the kids at Jen’s house. All funds go directly to helping the Karen.