ITHACA, N.Y. — A new mural in Ithaca tells a deep story. With the help of local mural artist Dan Burgevin, Karen Burmese teens designed and painted a mural at the corner of Seneca and Geneva streets depicting their families’ journeys as refugees from Burma.

“The mural tells part of an ongoing story,” said Ramona Cornell, 4-H Urban Outreach Program Manager & Coordinator, at a celebration for the mural’s completion.

The mural’s three panels tell the story of the Karen people as they escaped genocide in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The first part of the triptych focuses on a girl hiding in the forest, with burning homes in the background. The second panel shows many Karen fleeing to the safety of refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. A plane on a tarmac directly connects the second panel to the third, the brightest section, which features a glowing sunset and Ithaca landmarks such as the Immaculate Conception church on Seneca Street.

“The one part that really touched me the most was the way they viewed Ithaca, with the most beautiful sunset they ever saw,” Cornell said.

The mural took about a month and a half to complete, with the 4-Hers meeting once a week from May to June 2019 to paint on the Shortstop Deli fence facing the street.

The idea for the mural came at a camping retreat through Primitive Pursuits at Arnot Forest. As part of the Diversity and Inclusion workshop, the Karen children and teenagers began talking about their experience.

“They didn’t want to lose their language,” Cornell said. “We decided that we would figure out a way to capture their stories. The kids said ‘I want to leave a mark, a bold statement in Ithaca that I was here.’”

With the help of a GoFundMe campaign, they were able to hire Burgevin, and consult with Caleb Thomas from Ithaca Murals to turn their initial design for a mural into reality.

Burmese refugees first began arriving in Ithaca in 2006, and some of the teenagers have been involved with 4-H Urban Outreach for 12 years, like Eh Thay Yooi Lee.

Lee, a student at Wells College and one of the first teenagers involved in the mural, described the process from start to finish. One of her friends drew the first three-panel design on cardboard. The panel that changed the most from the original idea was the first panel, which first presented a much more graphic representation of the Karens’ flight from Burma.

Lee remembers what life was like living in a refugee camp in Thailand when she was a child, living in bamboo houses and gathering water three times a day. “I didn’t know anything outside of that world,” Lee said. “I thought that was the norm.”

Lee and her family eventually gained entry to the U.S. as refugees.

“Coming here was really hard. When we got on the plane, we were glad there were people helping us. But when we got to the U.S., there was no food for us, we didn’t know where to get water,” Lee said, describing how her family didn’t know the tap water was safe to drink at first.

Lee’s family first settled in Georgia without a sponsor, and Lee was the only Asian person in her class. Almost a year later, her aunt who was already in Ithaca suggested that Lee’s family should move again to find more support. They packed up to move to Ithaca in just one day and quickly gained a sponsor.

The transition to life in Ithaca was still difficult, but it’s so much better, Lee said.

“I like this mural because it represents my people and my people’s history. I just want my little cousin to look at this and know this is my people’s story, ‘I grew up here, but this is where I came from.’”

All images by Jennifer Wholey

Jennifer Wholey

Jennifer Wholey is a feature writer and Head of Dining Partnerships for the Ithaca Voice. Contact her at jwholey@ithacavoice.com.