In D.C. Recently: Erika Berg Presents Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma

Erika Berg has facilitated over 40 visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth along the borders of Burma and in the U.S. The paintings in Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma bridge language and cultural barriers that have shielded the outside world from haunting, humbling and awe-inspiring truths behind Burma’s decades-long civil war.

At her recent presentation at Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C., she illustrated Burma’s ongoing struggle for democracy through stories (painted) by refugee youth, forced to flee violent conflict and persecution in Burma’s ethnic minority areas. Forced to Flee is a collection of 196 full-color (visual) stories, including informative captions that “unpack” issues raised by the paintings, and six hand-painted maps and 64 photographs. This deeply personal book is a testament to the indomitable spirit of those forced to flee injustice and the transformational power of art.

After Erika’s event, we sat down with her to learn more about what inspired this project, the methodology behind her workshops and the book-plus-website, Erika’s thoughts on the current political environment in Burma, and what’s next for her work.

The cover of Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma

You facilitated over 40 visual storytelling workshops in the U.S., Canada, along the borders of Burma and inside Burma. How did you decide which visual stories to include in the book?

It wasn’t easy. Imagine kneeling beside each refugee child. Feeling entrusted and grateful. Absorbing the gravity of each child’s story as s/he confides in you (through a translator) the story behind her/his story. Then having to decide which 196 paintings – out of over 1,200! – to include. Worse, which 1,000+ to exclude. That said, certain paintings were simply too powerful, too insightful, or too inspiring to cut. Finding the best home for each of them in the book’s 212 pages was my first step toward assembling what ended up feeling like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Next, I jotted down a list of Burma’s most pressing issues, including refugee issues. Finally, I identified the visual story that illustrated each issue most vividly. The fact that there was so much to say in the caption for each painting testifies to how meaningful the paintings are.

Erika Berg at a workshop along the Thai-Burma border

How did you come up with the outline for the book?

The five chapters in Forced to Flee reflect the five questions posed in the workshops. In the book, the five chapters/questions are sequenced to reflect the youths’ journeys: Why were you forced to flee? What do you remember most about your journey to safety? What is/was it like to live in exile (a refugee camp)? What do you miss most about Burma? Finally, what is your dream for the future? The chapters are followed by a “Bridging Divides” epilogue, featuring visual stories that illustrate ways in which the youth would fulfill their dreams. The book concludes with a “Ways to Help” appendix, also available at The appendix equips readers who have been moved by the children’s stories to do something, to invest themselves in the cause, before they have a chance to be swept back into their busy lives.

While in Washington, D.C., who were you able to meet with and what were their reactions to the book? Do you believe this book could become a positive education and advocacy tool? What are your goals with this book?

Before departing for D.C., I rushed copies of the book to those in the best position to help refugees and promote human rights in Burma – then followed up. Across the board, their reactions were positive. So I quickly scheduled meetings with recipients of the book in the U.S. Department of State, USA for UNHCR and Office of Refugee Resettlement. While in D.C., I also met with senators supportive of democratic reforms in Burma. In each meeting, the youths’ paintings widened eyes, dropped jaws and prompted offers of help, including introductions up the chain of command. By sharing experiences like these refugee youth, including whenever possible contributors to the book, I hope to demonstrate just how powerful their “voices” can be. As I told workshop participants, in a genuine democracy, even if you’re too young to vote, or are a refugee who has yet to be naturalized, you can still stand up, speak out and “be counted.” Already, the youths’ stories have increased awareness, challenged negative stereotypes (of refugees), built bridges of understanding and mobilized greater respect and support for those forced to flee injustice in their native lands. The goal of my outreach efforts has been to expand – rather than sing to – “the choir,” including in the Burmese government, As Gandhi said, “When you have a just cause people pop up from everywhere to help you.”

Officials from the U.S. Department of State had an opportunity to view the book

Of all the visual stories that have been painted in your workshops, which one left the deepest impression on you, and why?

A flurry of images just flashed before me, each accompanied by the face of a refugee child. Countless paintings demand your attention and tug at your conscience… Yet the painting that is shining most brightly, at this moment, is actually quite ordinary, in appearance. What makes it so special is its powerful backstory. It’s on page 122 of the book and here is the caption: “I will never forget Aye Mi Mi Kyaw, the 12­-year-­old girl who painted this visual story. We met in a stilted wooden shelter for young survivors of trafficking. Her entire right cheek was covered with scar tissue, as if from a serious burn. Out of the hundreds of youth who participated in our workshops along the Thai-Burma border, Aye Mi Mi Kyaw was the only child whose eyes remained lifeless when I asked if she had a dream for the future. Kneeling beside her, I remembered that half an hour earlier, she had returned from school with another little girl, named Hla Lay, now seated kitty-corner from her at the shelter’s communal table. ‘Are you friends?’ I asked, smiling at Aye Mi Mi Kyaw and then at Hla Lay. Beaming, the girls spent the rest of the workshop painting themselves, together, in brightly colored dresses. Each painting included a little house for two.” Aye Mi Mi Kyaw taught me how healing fantasizing can be. Often, workshop participants’ dreams related to why they had been forced to flee Burma, or what was hardest about living in exile. The children also taught me how empowering dreaming can be. In Delhi, 15-year-old May Yu Mon painted her experience of being raped by her employer (page 86), leaving both of us and the translator in a tearful huddle. When asked about her dream for the future, May Yu Mon’s expression transformed, as if by the flick of a switch, from shell-shocked to radiant. Sitting bolt upright, her eyes twinkled through her tears, now tears of joy. She had dreamed of a rape crisis center designed for refugees which would offer free health, psychological and legal aid.

May Yu Mon shares her experiences through her painting

Do you intend to continue this project and publish subsequent books?

Publishing Forced to Flee and developing the accompanying website,, was only the first half of the project, which enabled some of Burma’s youngest and most marginalized survivors of injustice to feel heard and encouraged to contribute to Burma’s democracy movement. The second half of the project has just begun and will depend upon the support of ever-widening circles of allies. Now, my challenge is to create and tap one venue after another to spotlight the youths’ stories, generate media coverage and, ultimately, promote a paradigm shift in how refugees are viewed and support peace building efforts in Burma. Survivors of human rights violations deserve to be heard. If the government is genuinely committed to healing divides between the country’s majority Burman population and the ethnic minorities – who represent 30-40% of the population yet have suffered the vast majority of human rights abuses – they will recognize in their hearts that the youths’ voices also need to be heard. As history can testify, the more solidly grounded peace is in truth, the less likely it is to break down in the heat of future conflict.

Many of the visual stories in the book that were displayed during your presentation reflected the continued use of force by the Burma Army. What are your thoughts on the current political reform process in Burma? Is there still more to be done before Burma can be considered a safe, democratic nation?

Much more! Until the 2008 military-drafted constitution is revamped to reflect the best interests of the people, rather than the best interests of the military, democratic reforms will continue to be as superficial as they have been fickle. As is, Burma’s constitution reserves 25% of parliamentary seats for the military. As over 75% of Parliament needs to vote for a constitutional amendment for it to pass, the military continues to enjoy virtual veto power over progress. In addition, the Burma Army is not accountable to the President; the military is free to occupy, exploit, wreaked havoc on and forcibly displace entire ethnic communities, wherever the country’s rich natural resources exist. Given the insatiable needs of neighboring India and China for natural resources, the Burma Army has battled local ethnic armies for control of those resources, forcibly displacing villagers, robbing them of their land, livestock, livelihood, freedom and peace. At the same time, those who have dared to challenge such injustices have discovered that the government’s definition of free speech also depends upon its own best interests.

What originally inspired you to explore the stories of refugee youth, particularly from Burma?

In my former job I was responsible for finding potential foster parents for refugee youth without an adult caregiver. Each child had been discovered – in a refugee camp or an urban area – by the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some referrals left me in tears; others left me sobbing. If a referral had been published, I thought to myself, people would have lined up to become foster parents. However we couldn’t divulge specifics. So recruiting potential foster parents was a never-ending challenge. Then it occurred to me: Youth already in our foster care program, including those who had yet to learn English, could help find foster parents for other “unaccompanied minors” by painting their stories. My employer couldn’t imagine the benefits. So after taking a month off from work without pay in 2011 and again in 2012, to facilitate visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth along the borders of Burma, I quit my job and began applying for grants and facilitating visual storytelling workshops full-time.

In the book, Chapter 5 illustrates the dreams of workshop participants. Can you give an example of the aspirations of refugee youth and describe how their dreams were rooted in their experiences as refugees?

I was struck by how those who had fled most recently tended to have the biggest dreams. For example, see 16-year-old Saw Yar Zar’s painting on page 151. The caption reads: “ Ethnic Karen, Saw Yar Zar dreamed of a world where impoverished ethnic villagers were considered as worthy of human rights as wealthy city dwellers, a world where their voices rang just as loud and clear.” Saw Yar Zar’s village had been burned down by the Burma Army.

Saw Yar Zar’s painting envisions all human beings receiving equal treatment and equal rights, regardless of their status.

An issue plaguing Burma today is religious intolerance. You mentioned that several of your workshops, inside Burma, focused on this issue. Could you please describe those workshops, the reactions of the participants, and your opinion of the situation regarding communal violence?

After having facilitated workshops along the Thai-Burma border in 2011 and in 2012, our family traveled into Burma in 2013. I had been haunted by an outbreak of violent conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s northern Rakhine State that had spread like wildfire across the country. In 2012, we had landed in India less than a month after over 200 Rohingya had fled Rakhine State and set up camp beside a garbage dump outside Delhi. Facilitating a visual storytelling workshop with children in that encampment had left me with more questions than answers. We traveled into Burma in search of answers to questions I posed in a series of Interfaith Visual Storytelling Workshops that were hosted by interfaith youth leaders. The questions were, what commonly divides communities in conflict? How can trust be nurtured between communities in conflict? And, what does peaceful coexistence look like to you? The youth who participated in these workshops defied widely held ultra-nationalistic and racist attitudes rooted in fear and ignorance of “the other.” Visual stories painted in these workshops, which were hosted by young interfaith leaders who continue to model ways to heal Burma’s deep-seated divides and promote peaceful coexistence, can be found in the book’s epilogue, “Bridging Divides.”

Have any of the refugee youth who participated in your workshops gone on to promote social change, particularly related to their experiences?

I wish I could have kept in touch with all of our workshops participants! Even if I had been able to speak the same language, the vast majority of refugee youth lacked internet access – with one exception, a class of 28 English Immersion Program students in Umpiem Mai refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border. Their teacher enabled me to keep in touch with her students. After returning to Seattle, I asked the students what “Freedom” meant to them. Three weeks later, I received a manila envelope filled with 28 hand-written essays. Shortly thereafter I received this “I Have a Dream” video, which the students produced with the help of a videographer friend of mine living along the Thai-Burma border: Inspired by their speech, I sent the link to the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). A month later, ORR used the youths’ video to open their annual conference, a gathering of representatives of resettlement agencies from around the country. My only condition was that every viewer complete a questionnaire I had written, so that I could share their feedback with the youth at Umpiem Mai. While I haven’t been able to keep in touch with most of the youth, in most cases, I have managed to regularly update most workshop hosts. In addition, former workshop participants, in the greater Seattle area, have co-facilitated workshops with me and participated as panelists in book-related presentations. Who could be a more persuasive advocate of freedom and peace than those who have experienced, first hand, what it’s like to be stripped of it?

You live in Seattle. What brought you to Washington, D.C.?

I couldn’t imagine a better place in the U.S. to expand the audience for the youths’ stories. However, that wasn’t the primary reason for our family’s first trip to our nation’s capital. It was our 14-year-old daughter’s spring break. Two weeks earlier, Seki had served as a Senate Page in our state capitol. In Olympia, she received a behind-the-scenes view of our Washington State representatives debating issues and championing bills they cared about. After receiving a crash course in state government from a senatorial perspective, Seki was eager to tour the U.S. Capitol and meet U.S. senators. While in D.C. we also visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many of my husband Daniel’s ancestors had perished in the Holocaust, which intensified our family’s experience – and made the Museum’s purchase of six copies of Forced to Flee all the more meaningful. I’m reminded of the bold-faced statement on the front of the Museum: “THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU SAW.” In visual storytelling workshops along the borders of Burma, over a thousand youth representing Burma’s most marginalized, oppressed and persecuted ethnic people had reflected on what they had seen and dared to share their life stories. The least those of us privileged to bear witness to their voices and visions can do is vote for their cause.

2 thoughts on “In D.C. Recently: Erika Berg Presents Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma

  1. The clash between the Rakhines and the Bengali Muslims is not new. At one time, almost the whole of the eastern part of Bangladesh was a part of the Arakanese Empire. They were later thrown out by the Indo-British Armies and in another war,followed by the Treaty of Yandabo in the year 1826, large number of Bengalis were sent to Arakan across the border as settlers and these are the people now known as Rohingyas. After living in Arakan for nearly 200 years they are now being thrown out as illegals.
    Another interesting incident took place at this time. During the early days, the whole of Burma was divided in many small independent provinces. Not too long after the arrival of the Bengali settlers in Arakan, the king of another province attacked and there was a genocide. In order to save themselves, the Rakhines fled across the border to Bengal, where one Captain Hiram Cox received and helped them to get settled. Grateful Rakhines, in order to thank the Army Officer named the area as “Cox’s Bazar”. On the sea side this area is a resort now, attracting a large number of tourists and the Rakhines, called Moghs or Mongs still live there.
    There should be peace in Arakan now as Rakhines are living on both sides of the border but unfortunately that is not a fact. Arakan is as ubsettled as it was before.

  2. I have already written what I know about the problems being faced by the people known as Rohingyas in Myanmar. I thing an inquiry should be made to the British Government in this connection because they can check their old records and tell you exactly what you want to know.

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