University of Tasmania
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Our words are very little' : the untold story of the Tasmanian Karen

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posted on 2023-05-28, 09:59 authored by Brown, Rebekah J
Karen refugees from Burma via Thailand are model migrants, providing much-needed population and an extraordinary economic boost to Australian regional towns. But while Karens also boost numbers in (mostly) Baptist congregations across the nation, less is known about the spiritual dimensions of resettlement and the human contribution of religious resettlers. Migrant research and policy directives prioritise economic participation, inequality and inclusion as resettlement outcomes. These align with legitimate concerns but poorly account for settlement as a process. Economic optics can neglect the social, emotional and spiritual dimensions of settlement, and the agency of refugees, while migrant optics neglect the impact on, and role of receiving communities (Neumann 2016). Given the religiosity of Australia's refugees a curious blank spot persists in migrant research around behaviours in socio-religious civic spaces. This study investigates a local church as a site of cross-cultural interaction, and the lived experiences of Christian Karen resettlers. This sustained participatory observation constitutes a friendship ethnography, akin to Fine's (2003) peopled ethnography and Tillman-Healy's (2003) friendship as method. Reciprocal relationships, language exchange (learning and teaching) and a traditional conversational style la pa ti dor deh (tea and talking) are adapted as methods to overcome language barriers, and as research beneficence. This study investigates firstly, how religious space sharing and rituals can foster civic participation, and how everyday gestures and objects communicate meaning. Secondly, it explicates how Karen 'do' resettlement, including the role of religious ritual in homebuilding and cultural maintenance. While cross-cultural interactions can be 'hopeful' encounters of care here, discomforts and misrecognition also feature. So, while dominant cultural norms persist inclusion and exclusion co-exist in this socio-religious space, Karens 'found' a place to worship and call home. This study finds church spaces not only 'welcome' refugees, but foster reciprocity and recognition, 'cushion' culture shock, and have integrative potential for receiving and resettler communities.


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