Zoeann first learned about the Karen situation in upstate New York. She was teaching an unseenamerica class, sponsored by the Workforce Development Institute, at a refugee center in Utica with her friend Connie Houde. Utica has a refugee population of nearly 12% and is known internationally as the town that loves refugees. The class participants were from Darfur, Somalia, Bosnia and Burma. Each week she would ask the refugees a question in English and they would answer with photographs. The most interesting responses were to the question: what is home? One participant named Robert Ban, took photos of his community and explained, “I am not Burmese. I am Karen. We have our own homeland and a very unique culture.” At the end of the Utica unseenamerica class the Karen refugees suggested we do something similar with their families in Thailand.

In September 2007, Justin and Zoeann created unseenworld to bring unseenamerica’s innovative program to Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India and to Karen refugees in Thailand.


We met with Karen refugees for 2 hours every weekday for 6 weeks. Participants were given cameras and photography lessons and taught how to create blogs. In class the refugees discussed culture, human rights, globalization, education, health care, media, advocacy and their dreams for the future. We spoke mostly in English. When a student had trouble finding the English words to express their thoughts they would speak in Karen and other students would translate. The class worked together to write their biographies and captions. Participants also learned how to use the internet to create and publish their own media. We created the class blog together. Some students chose to use silhouettes and pseudonyms to protect their identities. As young leaders, some students were allowed to leave the camp. Their photos reflect life in Mae La refugee camp and their lives outside the camp.


UNSEENWORLD is modeled on UNSEENAMERICA a program started by Esther Cohen, Executive Director of the Bread & Roses Cultural Project, 1199SEIU. All the local outreach was done by our friends at Burma Issues. Karen Education Workers Union (KEWU) offered us classroom space and a great deal of guidance. Olympus gave us cameras. The photographers were young leaders from various organizations including: Karen Youth Organization (KYO), Karen River Watch (KRW), Karen Student Network Group (KSNG), Burma Issues, KEWU and others. The project was funded by small donations from friends and family.