Water guns, water balloons and spray fighting will all be a part of the Burmese Water Festival to be held at Abbey Court Condominiums this month.
To honor the growing number of Burmese who live in Abbey Court, the Human Rights Center will be hosting the festival, originally called Thingyan.
“We promote inclusion and pluralism, and choosing events that are major holidays for our neighbors have been a way of doing that. We have Burmese refugees who live in Abbey Court, they are shy and underserved, so we thought we would celebrate them,” said Dr. Judith Blau, founder of the center.
The festival celebrates the Burmese New Year that is held in mid-April. Water constitutes the main aspect of the festival and its’ representation is a cleansing of the old and a welcoming to the new.
“It is a Buddhist celebration. It signifies the cleansing of the body for the New Year. It doesn’t have any religious intention to it, it’s simply just a cultural ritual,” said Aye Aye, a member of Blau’s sociology class.
Last year the center hosted “Las Pasadas,” to honor Hispanics in Abbey Court. They had a horse, featured Latin music and ethnic food. Some of these activities will be woven into the festival, but the emphasis will remain on the Burmese holiday.
Some Burmese immigrated on their own. Others moved here as part of a federal government relocation program for political refugees. Burma, now called Myanmar is embroiled in conflict and is ruled by dictatorship.
“Within the recent years, there was a crisis about monks being killed by the government because they were rebelling against the dictatorship government. The citizens have been trying to overthrow the government,” said Aye.
“There’s been a lot of political repression in Burma. I suspect that our neighbors were caught up in political repression or ethnic conflicts,” said Blau.
Aye’s family is Burmese and they immigrated to the U.S. in 2003. It was a difficult time for the entire family, but mostly for his parents because of the language barriers.
“Our whole family had no prior English speaking experience. It was hard. But I think it was a lot harder for my parents because they would complain to me about how they were not able to communicate with their employers. There weren’t any translators available in their work field,” said Aye.
Blau estimates that around 10 percent of the Abbey Court population is Burmese and several of their children are regulars at the center, but the population is not limited to Abbey Court.
“There are a few families, but in other communities in Carrboro there are even more. The center sees about six Burmese children. Their families recognize our good intentions and we are honored to serve their children,” said Alfonso Hernandez, a center worker.
Thaw Tu Tu and his family arrived in the U.S. two years ago and none of them could speak English. Now Tu Tu, who attends the after-school program at the center, makes perfect scores on his math tests.
Communication with the new Burmese population has been difficult for families, the center and police.
“It can be difficult when we deal with Burmese in the area because of the language barrier. Fortunately there are students at UNC-CH who are available to translate, otherwise we would be without,” said Major Charles Blackwood of the Orange County sheriff’s office.
But the center will be prepared to communicate with the Burmese during the festival since several of Blau’s students are Burmese and speak the same dialect. Blau’s sociology students will be on hand to direct the festival and take part in the fun.
The festival will offer a variety of activities including tug-of-war, face painting, parachutes, kites, and several water games. It will also include a Mariachi band and tamales. And the festival will take donations for the victims in Haiti and Chile and raise awareness about Fair-Trade.
“As a sociologist a festival affirms social community and relations, builds solidarity and helps to reaffirm human rights through its success on community,” said Blau.
“We want an active and comfortable community for Abbey Court, and we want them to feel at home. We have to realize that coming to America from a different country is difficult,” said Hernandez.
The festival will be held April 24 at Abbey Court Condominiums from noon until four.