To Build a Home: The Material Cultures, Gender Relations and the Cultivation of Meaning by Karen Refugees From Burma
Smith, Ei Phyu
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This dissertation seeks to trouble the concept of home being rooted in one place by further understanding how refugees create a sense of belonging across their sites of displacement and settlement. Their mobility and flows consist of punctuated starts and stops and often a history of violence. It is from this past experience that they make new meanings in a new place of residence. Since the late 1980s Karen refugees from Burma have been seeking refuge along the Thai-Burma border region. They flee persecution and gendered violence at the hands of the central Burmese armed forces to be protected legally by international regulations and materially by international aid organizations. Though Thailand is not a signatory member of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to Refugees that would recognize these individuals as Convention refugees, the Thai State does allow them to live in camps with limited freedoms and rights. It is within this context that Karen refugees make a home through their material cultures and relationship to food. These practices are influenced by their power negotiations with various stakeholders and by gender relations. I argue that by analyzing these embodied practices on a smaller scale, we can glean new meanings of home, including the resistance to existing structural regulations, nuances and richness of everyday life while being displaced. It is precisely through the mundane rhythms of living that we learn of how issues such as loss, citizenship, renewal and dissatisfaction all participate in creating a place, a home, that is not rooted to a singular location but rather constructed and deconstructed through life and space.