It was the weekend before my first day at Coalition for Refugees from Burma, and I received an email from Mona Han, CRB’s Executive Director, inviting me to a Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony. I had just gotten back from AmeriCorps VISTA Pre-Service Orientation and was very excited to have an opportunity to meet the community I would soon be working with, so I agreed. At first I was so nervous. I did not know what to wear or what to say, but as I boarded the bus to the community center, those anxieties melted away. I got off at the wrong bus stop, so I had to walk a few blocks, but it was warm and the sun felt nice on my face and hands. When I finally reached the doors to the community center, parents were rushing in and out with plates of food and children darted around their legs. Most of the people were dressed in colorful woven cotton shirts and skirts. Mona was inside talking with an older community member and the gymnasium was filled with the smells of Karen ethnic food. In the front of the gym was a long table with white table cloths and candles on it. The ceremony began with the Karen youth walking up to the long table and then the elders seated at the table tying a thin red string to their wrists. Mona whispered “It protects the youth from bad spirits through the coming year.”
After the ceremony was finished, we moved folding chairs and tables to accommodate families enjoying heaping plates of rice noodles, chicken, limes, and chilies. The food was delicious, and I had to try very hard not to eat too fast. A small boy with a Bart Simpson t-shirt on sat across the table from Mona and me, and we talked about school and the CRB summer school he and his brothers attended. Everyone was so welcoming and kind, and I felt incredibly lucky to be exactly where I was. I still work with many of the children and families I met that day. It was a special way to begin my VISTA service term.