Pawsansoe Karen Bree was 19 years old when she arrived in the U.S. as a Karen refugee from Burma on June 19, 2008. She escaped the ethnic conflicts in Burma after experiencing several acts of violence by its government. Her family was forced to relocate countless times to avoid death, building bamboo houses at each new location, until eventually fleeing to a refugee camp in Thailand.
In Thailand life did not improve much for Paw and her family. They were never allowed to leave the refugee camp or return to their home country. She spent more than 13 years in the refugee camp with a small amount of land, no running water or electricity, and no access to education beyond 12th grade. Paw hoped to be able to see the rest of the world and attend school.
Paws situation changed when her sister grew ill in Thailand. A family friend working in the United Nations heard of the illness her sister, Lay Naw Soe, was dealing with, resulting in Lay Naw Soe along with 2 other siblings being sent for treatment in the U.S. After turning 18, Paw was able to join them.
Paw was resettled by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees where she attended the Newcomer Program to learn English. Unfortunately this program did not offer a high school diploma, a setback for Paw, who dreamed of continuing her education. This setback served as a motivating factor for her to work harder.
After two years of studying English she enrolled in Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). While at MVCC she was an active student, founding the club American and Refugee Students for Closer Connection to increase understanding and support between the two groups. She ultimately graduated in the top ten percent of her class in 2013 and was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship. She continued her studies at Hartwick College, graduating with her B.A. in International Relations in 2015. During Paws time at Hartwick College she studied abroad in 6 countries: South Africa, Cuba, Thailand, Chile, Nepal and Jordan.
Two siblings and Paws mother remain in Thailand. Her father passed away in 2011 while Paw was already in the U.S. Sadly, as is the case for many refugees, due to the situation she was not able to return to see him again before he passed. In 2014, Paw returned to Thailand as part of her study abroad program and worked on building a library for displaced children on the border of Thailand and Burma. Paw is now pursuing her M.A. in International Relations through Webster University, which will take her to five more countries including a return to Thailand to follow-up on the library project. Paw has a long term commitment to help other refugees and displaced people who were in the same situation as her. Fortunately, she was able to pursue her dreams and hopes she can make this a reality for others.