NIU’s Pick Museum of Anthropology has been awarded a $19,750 grant from the Dunham Fund for a two-year project to document and share the experiences of Burmese Karen refugees living in northern Illinois.
Led by the museum’s research assistant, Rachel Drochter, the project employs NIU students who will work with a local Karen Advisory Group to transform oral history interviews into a new museum exhibit where visitors will learn about the refugee experience.
“We hope this project will empower Karen individuals to share their own story, while also increasing awareness and humanizing the refugee experience,” Drochter said.
Visitors will be immersed in objects, words, sounds and images representing Karen culture and will hear firsthand accounts about life in Burma, in borderland refugee camps and in Illinois following relocation.
Refugees and representatives from local refugee support organizations also will discuss the challenges of resettlement, from finding housing and employment to taking English classes and to navigating the education and health care systems. Other exhibit sections will take a more global approach and engage visitors in a critical dialogue about factors impacting forced migration, displacement, resettlement and what visitors can do to advocate for local refugee communities.
Currently, the humanitarian crisis of global refugee displacement is at an all-time high.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 60 million forcibly displaced people living in the world today, with more than 140,000 living in refugee camps along the Burma-Thai border.
The Karen people, a minority group from Burma, represent one of the largest populations in these border refugee camps. They have been in an intermittent state of armed conflict with the dominant majority since the emergence of the Union of Burma in 1947. Beginning in 2006, thousands of Karen families began leaving refugee camps to resettle in the United States, and a considerable number have settled here in northern Illinois.
“As Karen families continue to build new lives in northern Illinois, this is an opportunity for campus and local community members to learn about Karen culture, the struggles and successes of resettlement and the ways in which they can support them in this new chapter of their lives,” Drochter said.
The gift by the Aurora-based Dunham Fund, as well as the oral history project, supports the museum’s central mission of fostering cultural diversity.
“This project will create a space to celebrate the growing diversity of our region and empower the Karen to share their culture and become more active citizens in their community,” said Carmen Cordogan, a Pick Museum of Anthropology board member and NIU alumna.
“The Dunham Fund is at the heart of Aurora’s strong mission to bring our diverse population together, and thanks to their generosity, the Pick Museum will be able to continue this shared passion to build bridges with local communities and engage diverse cultural groups as full participants in exhibit development and programming.”
Collections emphasize Southeast Asia, but include textiles, baskets and ceramics from throughout the world. With a dynamic schedule of exhibitions and programs in the newly renovated Cole Hall, the Pick Museum of Anthropology is a cultural destination for residents and visitors to DeKalb.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free, and all are welcome.
For more information on this project, call (815) 753-2011 or email [email protected].