Not too many artists can boast an exhibition in the Seattle Center, especially not after spending four years in a bamboo hut.
But that is exactly what Saw Kennedy did, showing four of his drawings for an event to celebrate refugees on Friday, just two weeks after arriving here from a Thai refugee camp.
Born in a small village in Myanmar, formerly Burma, Kennedy was forced to flee to Thailand to escape his country’s repressive military government. He is one of about 800 refugees to move from Myanmar to the Seattle area since 2006.
The U.S. has seen a surge of Burmese refugees in the past two years, from 2,000 in 2005 to the 18,000 expected to arrive this year. More than 30,000 have resettled in the U.S. in the last two years.
This increase may seem to relate to either Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 78,000 people in April, or the Myanmar military’s crackdown on protests in September, but it isn’t. Instead, the Patriot Act is to blame.
The State Department initially considered ethnic minority groups fighting against the Myanmar government as terrorists, which meant villagers who may have provided soldiers with food or shelter were banned from U.S. refugee status. In late 2006, the State Department waived this rule for 10 Myanmar groups and began accepting some of the 140,000 refugees living in nine camps in Thailand.
Now Kennedy, 35, his wife and his 6-year-old son are settling in with a growing refugee community.
Kennedy and the other Burmese at Friday’s event at the Center House wore traditional tunics from their ethnic group, the Karen. However, Kennedy also stood out with his glasses, ponytail and jeans with holes in the knees instead of the traditional sarong the others wore.
Although his actual Karen name is Eh Moo, the artist chose Saw Kennedy as a pen name after seeing “Kennedy” written on a building in Myanmar.
“When I came here, I heard it’s a famous name, the name of a president, but I didn’t know that before,” he said.
His four drawings each showed different aspects of his former life. In one, a woman sits in a bamboo hut weaving fabric. In another, an older woman sits in the doorway of a hut. Blue, green and red necklaces cover her neck and chest and more than ten large earrings hang from each ear.
Each piece was drawn with such intricate detail that at first glance they look like black and white photographs, which to Kennedy is part of their attraction.
“I spend so long on my paintings that sometimes it’s hard to let them go,” he said. “They’re my babies.”
Kennedy originally established a gallery with his three artist brothers in Myanmar and has shown work at the Vidya Gallery in Seattle.
He also draws portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar resistance leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest since 1989. However, drawings like these are illegal in Myanmar.
Kennedy escaped the country partly for the freedom to draw the suffering of his people. He worries that spies in Thailand reported this anti-government expression, making it unsafe to return to his home country.
Now living in Kent, he hopes to continue to paint, but may not have much time.
Like most other refugees, Kennedy will receive subsidized rent and $400 for four months from the government. Then he must support himself.
While his English and art skills give him an advantage, for others it is difficult to get by.
Many of the Karen men living in Kent rise at 4:30 a.m. to take a three-hour bus ride to Redmond, where they make frozen calzones in a factory for minimum wage.
Kate Earl, a caseworker with Jewish Family and Children’s Services working with the refugees, said they chose this job so they could work together. She said most earn enough to support themselves after the four months are up.
“They come from such dire straits in the refugee camps that they don’t take any opportunity for granted here,” she said.
Earl hopes Kennedy will make money selling his artwork, priced at $400 a piece. But Kennedy said he would do any job, and only hopes to have time for English classes and, of course, his art.
“I have hope that one day, I will be able to do something that is important for me,” he said. “I want to study art, because art is infinity. It has no limit.”