A book of haunting, humbling and awe-inspiring “visual stories” painted about – and by – refugee youth from Burma.

The huddled boy (enlarged 800%) in Forced to Flee’s book cover, above, was painted by a 16-year-old refugee who fled eastern Burma when the Burma Army attacked his village. I discovered it on the reverse of Saw Yar Zar’s actual visual story. When I asked why he had “signed” his painting this way, Saw Yar Zar’s eyes glazed over. While his village was riddled with gunfire he darted into the jungle, screams piercing the distance. Muffling his breath, he huddled in a patch of tall grass. Words whispered by his deceased father during a prior escape played in his mind like a mantra: “Only travel at night.” Hours later, engulfed by darkness and an eerie silence, Saw Yar Zar parted the grass and headed for the Thai-Burma border, in search of refuge…


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Bearing Witness

Saw Yar Zar’s story was painted in a visual storytelling workshop in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. It is one of 200+ paintings at the heart of a potentially impactful book that I need your support to publish, entitled Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma.

Teaching English to refugee youth I learned that every refugee has a haunting, humbling and inspiring story to share. The real teachers were my students, having survived devastating losses yet, somehow, managing to remain hopeful – even grateful.

Forced to Flee illustrates that the emotions conveyed and evoked by a single narrative image can tell a story of a thousand words, open hearts and build bridges of understanding. In this book, refugee youth harness the power of narrative art to personalize human rights issues and promote a just and inclusive peace in Burma. 

The Power of a Child’s “Voice”

What makes the “voices” in Forced to Flee so powerful? The youth painted their stories. Representing Burma’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, the youth “speak” in the universally understood language of narrative art. Drawn into their inner worlds, we gain a child’s eye-view of what it’s like to be forced to flee one’s homeland and live in exile, haunted – and empowered – by traumas of the past.

Initially, youth who participated in visual storytelling workshops that I facilitated along the borders of Burma wondered why anyone would care about their stories. However the more they reflected on the extraordinary challenges they had overcome, the more their confidence grew. By the end of each workshop the youth believed that national reconciliation and genuine peace in Burma would depend upon a shared understanding of the past, however painful, and that the voices of refugees and others who had been treated unjustly deserved and needed to be heard.  

Features of the Book

Offering unique insights into what it means to be a refugee, the book is:

Organized Thematically. The visual stories are grouped into five chapters and an epilogue. In each section, the youths’ paintings answer a question posed in the workshops, such as “Why were you forced to flee?” The Contents, below, outlines the sequence of sections.

Contextualized. To lend historical context, several of the visual stories are by former political prisoners, including supporters of the August 8 1988 (“8888”) uprising and a leader of the 2007 Saffron Revolution. 

Visually Arresting. In addition to the youths’ visual stories, the book’s art program includes maps painted by refugee youth and photographs of the youth, painting. Like the stage setting for a play, every element of the book is designed to engage readers in the youths’ powerful stories.

Emotionally Engaging. The visual stories offer rare glimpses into the innermost journeys of young refugees. Gripped by the immediacy of the youths’ visual narratives, readers gain a sense of what it means to be forced to flee, live in exile and marginalized by society.

Thought-Provoking. Captions quoting the youth “unpack” issues raised by each painting, including land confiscation, rape, forced labor, political prisoners, censorship, child soldiers, human trafficking, religious persecution and statelessness. 

Committed to Diversity. The visual stories were painted by ethnically diverse refugee, asylee, migrant and stateless youth in workshops along the borders of Burma – in Thailand, India (including Delhi) and Bangladesh – and in Burma, the U.S. and Canada.

Empowering. Concluding the book is an epilogue entitled “Bridging Divides” and a four-page appendix – with links to an accompanying website – that offers readers concrete ways to help.

Forced to Flee illustrates that Burma still has a long way to go until genuine peace is in sight. Calling on readers’ shared humanity, the already 100% copy-edited and designed book would inspire readers to support peacebuilding efforts throughout Burma.

Concluding this page is a list of testimonials from early reviewers of Forced to Flee, more reasons to support this campaign!

Rewards (see top, right, for options)

Your pledge of any amount will be deeply appreciated. Imagine how validated and empowered the youth will feel, hearing that their visual stories mobilized support for peace in their ethnic lands. 

Two points of clarification regarding the pledge options:

1. Which visual stories are in Tier 1 and Tier 2? What do they look like? Please see below, immediately following the reviewer testimonials.

2. If you would like to pledge $1,000 or $1,500? Don’t worry about calculating the cost of my travel expenses before pledging online. We can figure all of that out later, once we have scheduled a date for a presentation or presentation and workshop.

Finally, if you make a pledge, you can count on me keeping in touch.

How Would the $12,000 Be Used?

If we manage to reach our goal (with Kickstarter, it’s all-or-nothing!), the $12,000 would fund production of the book and the development of a website. This companion site would include educational and advocacy resources that expand upon the “Ways to Help” appendix in the book, supporting youth-led peacebuilding efforts in Burma.

Note: This project wouldn’t have been possible without my family’s support; since 2011, my husband Daniel and now 13-year-old daughter Seki have been steadfastly committed to this project. 100% of the costs associated with our travel to the Thai-Burma border (2011), India-Burma border and Delhi (2012), inside Burma (2013), plus the cost of all of the art supplies for 40+ visual storytelling workshops, including in the U.S. and Canada, came out of our family’s pocket.

100% of Royalties Donated

If this Kickstarter campaign succeeds, I would donate 100% of my royalties from the sale of Forced to Flee to inter-ethnic youth groups working to promote peaceful coexistence in conflict-ridden regions of Burma.This book is dedicated to their courage, resilience and irrepressible hope.

FREE Ways to Help

If you could afford to make a pledge, thank you! If you aren’t in a position to, here are ways that everyone can (please!) help: Share this Kickstarter page with your Facebook, Twitter and email contacts. If you belong to Facebook groups or organizations related to Burma and/or refugees, please link them to this page, ask for their support, urge them to rally the support of their contacts. The success or failure of this campaign will depend upon personal recommendations. Finally, if you have media contacts who would like to help publicize this campaign, please let me know. I will follow up. Again, thank you!

Does Burma Really Still Need Help?

For over 50 years, Burma – also known as Myanmar – was one of the most isolated and oppressed nations in the world. In 2011, the country’s military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government that has begun to implement democratic reforms. Yet beyond the media spotlight, human rights abuses continue, especially in ethnic areas. (Thirty-40% of the country’s population is comprised of over 135 diverse ethnic groups.) Today, over 100,000 ethnic Kachin and Shan continue to live in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in northern Kachin and Shan states, forcibly displaced by ongoing conflict between the national army and ethnic armies in Kachin and Shan states. In northern Arakan State, about 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and Arakan Buddhists still live in IDP camps while over 300,000 Rohingya Muslims live in refugee camps and urban slums along the Bangladesh-Burma border. More than 120,000 refugees continue to live in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Millions of migrants still live at risk of arrest and deportation in Thailand. Over 100,000 migrants live along the India-Burma border in India’s northeastern Mizoram State. Over 8,000 refugees, mostly from Burma’s most impoverished state, Chin State, live in slums in Delhi. In September, renewed conflict in Burma’s Karen State broke out, forcing more villagers to flee. Despite democratic reforms, ethnic areas remain militarized; ethnic villagers continue to be forcibly displaced by the Burma Army, which continues to confiscate their land, robbing them of their livelihood.

Advance Praise for the Book

“Words cannot adequately depict the horrors, fear and grief experienced by refugees, political prisoners and exiles from Burma (Myanmar). In Forced to Flee, refugee youth armed with watercolor pencils and drawing paper are able to overcome the limitations of language. If their yellow is a little too bright, and their black a bit too dark, it’s a perfect reflection of the larger-than-life incidents that shaped their reality.” – Kenneth Wong, writer and illustrator

“Forced to Flee manages to interweave the rich tapestry of Burma’s ethnic and religious diversity together with the story of Burma’s struggle for democracy and human rights through words and pictures that tell human stories of fear, pain, tragedy as well as inspirational courage and hope.” – Benedict Rogers, author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads

“Forced to Flee gives me chills and thrills. Chills for the resistance of human beings against immense violence and injustice under an oppressive culture; thrills for their resilience and continued aspirations for peace and justice.” – Khin Ohmar, Coordinator, Burma Partnership

“I sat down to read Forced to Flee, and my heart changed… Erika Berg leads the reader on a journey through the book, but also a journey through Burma. Along the way we meet people with stories that will stir your heart. When I was done reading the book, I felt as if I had been running a marathon. The emotions it stirred in me led me up on mountaintops and down to the deepest, darkest valleys.” – Oddny Gumaer, Founder, Partners Relief & Development

“Forced to Flee brings out the true emotions of those who long for peace, love and freedom as well as the pain and atrocities they have had to go through. It is indeed a powerful book as each picture depicts a touching story that serves as an eye-opener for those who do not know about the lives of the refugees, while it will deepen the lasting impression it has made on those who already do.” – Dr. Alana Golmei, Director, Burma Centre Delhi 

“The visual stories in Forced to Flee remind us that faith and dignity can transcend all forms of oppression and deprivation. From extraordinarily diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, a common sense of identity and a desire for a better future shine through. Reconciliation is possible. And refugees have a very important role to play.” – Jack Dunford, Director, The Border Consortium, 1984-2012

“Forced to Flee illustrates that the ethnic people of Burma have been detained, abused and forcibly displaced by the Burma Army not because of anything they have or haven’t done but because of their native ethnicity and their resource-rich native land. Only when their ethnic diversity is embraced and they are granted equal rights under the constitution will sustainable peace be possible.” – Khon Ja, Coordinator, Kachin Peace Network

“Forced to Flee illustrates the incredible resilience of Burma’s ethnic youth in the face of horrific human rights abuses… The country’s leaders could learn so much from the visionary solutions so eloquently expressed here by the youth. They provide such hope for Burma’s future.” – Rachel Fleming, Advocacy Director, Chin Human Rights Organization

“This long-awaited collection of watercolor paintings by refugee youth, informative captions, behind-the-scenes photographs and contextual material is profoundly moving…Forced to Flee exudes sacred wisdom, beauty and hope. I remain deeply touched and inspired.” – Imam Jamal Rahman, speaker on Islam and interfaith relations

“Visual storytelling is a powerful window into the complex range of issues and emotions that embody Myanmar’s current transition. This book is riveting for those who know the country, and those who are yet to be captivated by it. The pictures speak many thousands of words.” – Aela Callan, filmmaker and journalist

“Forced to Flee… reminds me of what Edward Said said of the state of mind of people who have been exiled from their native country. No matter how warmly they are welcomed in their new country, they continue to experience this median state, neither completely at one with the setting in the host country, nor fully disconnected from the old setting back home.” – Saw Kapi, Director, Salween Institute

“I was moved to tears by this beautiful and profound book! It is a must-read for those working in the field of migration or mental health. With first-person insights and experiences, it reminds us of what is lost and what remains for those forced to flee.” – Beth Farmer, Director, Northwest Health and Human Rights

“Forced to Flee was inspired by the stories of youth who have fled persecution in different corners of Myanmar. By documenting their struggles and aspirations with art materials, these brave survivors of injustice challenge Myanmar’s leadership to end impunity and promote human rights, including in remote ethnic areas.” – Wai Wai Nu, Director, Women Peace Network Arakan

“What a thoughtful, comprehensive and sensitive book! Forced to Flee is powerful testimonial, at once historical and deeply personal. Never before have I seen such an intense and credible portrait of the journey of refugees from Burma. This is a magnificent work, larger than Burma’s democracy movement and the inter-ethnic conflict. Its message is universal.” – May Ng, poet

“In Forced to Flee, refugee youths’ real-life stories illustrate complex issues related to ethnic conflicts, religious tension and political persecution in Burma. The book doesn’t just describe the issues; it promotes the voice of refugees who have lived in exile for decades while remaining committed to bringing freedom and peace to their displaced communities.” – Hayso Thako, Principal, Shalom Arts and Leadership College, Mae La (refugee camp)

“The never-before-seen ‘visual stories’ in Forced to Flee remind us of the brutality and, at the same time, the tenderness of humankind. This colorful collection of refugee voices and visions offers readers rare glimpses into what it feels like to be forced to flee one’s native land and live on the very margins of the global society.” – Margot Pires, Director, Austria Burma Center

“Forced to Flee reflects the real Shan people’s life in Shan State and along the Thai-Burma border. I think people who live in cities throughout Shan State should read this book. Then they would understand that in the more remote rural areas of Shan State people continue to suffer from human rights abuses and can only dream of peace.” – Larn Tai, Shan Youth Power

“This book is a testament to the indomitable spirit ofthose who have been forced to flee injustice in Burma, and to the transformative power of art… By highlighting the stories of those who – despite democratic reforms – continue to struggle and suffer in the shadows, the book promises to mobilize greater support for human rights throughout Burma.”– Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization UK

“For many years, Erika Berg has worked diligently to open communications between traumatized refugees and the seemingly indifferent communities where they have sought refuge. Forced to Flee portrays and honors a genuine, heart-to-heart collaboration.” – Larry Dohrs, Chairman, Board of Directors, U.S. Campaign for Burma

“The world has been bedazzled by Burma’s opening. This dominant narrative often obscures the stories of persecuted peoples whose plight continues . . .Forced to Flee highlights their stories, reminding the world of their plight and that, in many ways, Burma’s reforms have truly yet to begin.” – Dr. Voravit Suwanvanichkij, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

“A fantastic read, an emotional journey through the modern history of Burma. The illustrations in Forced to Flee portray the events and issues vividly, leaving them etched on our hearts and minds. A must-read testimonial to the courage, sacrifices, resilience and hard-won accomplishments of refugees, everywhere.” – Andrea Jones, ESL teacher

“Forced to Flee deals with Burma’s past and tensions that continue to underpin everyday life for its citizens – land confiscation, repatriation, resettlement and religious intolerance. This visual book will engage ‘readers’ at all levels – school students through to university graduates and even influential policy-makers.” – Phil Thornton, author of Restless Souls

“Forced to Flee will help readers understand the living situation of the more than 125,000 refugees still living along the Thai-Burma border who were forced to flee their homeland and now are growing up in overcrowded camps without enough nutritious food, health care or education. This book captures their struggles, portrayed by refugee youth who experience them daily.” – Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary, Karen Women’s Organization, Burma

“Forced to Flee is a powerful tribute to the often unheard stories of refugee youth. The pictures are brutally honest and totally haunting, yet the viewer is left amazed and inspired by the resilience of children.” – Margaret Hinson, Director of Refugee Services, Jewish Family Service Seattle

“Human suffering is all too pervasive throughout our world, and it does not diminish when we look away. Forced to Flee reminds us that it is the duty of all of us – regardless of who or where we happen to be – to enhance the well-being of the most vulnerable amongst us and address the roots of their suffering.” – Garrett Kostin, Director, Burma Study Center

P.S. Tier 1 and Tier 2 Visual Stories

The Four (4) Visual Stories in Tier 1 are:

  The Four (4) Visual Stories in Tier 2 are:

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Having been a book publisher for 24 years, I’m confident that any issues that may arise – for example, a printing or shipment delay – would be surmountable.

I am hopeful this campaign will be successful, so I have already arranged for a reputable distributor in the U.S. – within driving distance of where we live, in Seattle – to distribute the book throughout North America and Europe. This distributor is willing and prepared to distribute the book worldwide. However, ideally, I will be able to recruit a second distributor in Asia, to expedite shipments to Burma.

I will let backers of this campaign know where and when the book can be ordered prior to its publication in early 2015.

At the same time, I am applying for grants (wish me luck!) to develop a companion book to Forced to Flee, tentatively called BURMA Visions for Peace. I will keep backers of Forced to Flee’s campaign posted, including about possible opportunities to collaborate.


Have a question? If the info above doesn’t help, you can ask the project creator directly.