North Star State Serves as Beacon of Hope for Burmese Karen Refugees Resettling in US

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by Sarah Wang
The 2015 celebration of Karen National Day. Image: Facebook page of the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM).

In 2015, numerous states across the US welcomed Burmese refugees, from Pennsylvania and New York to Oklahoma and Texas. In early 2016, Ft. Wayne, Indiana began the process of establishing the nation’s first sister city relationship with a city in Myanmar.

Minnesota also accepted numerous refugees in 2015, the largest group being the Karen, a minority group from Myanmar, who made up 40% of its total refugee resettlements. Minnesota is already home to the largest Karen community in the country with over 10,000 residing in the city of St. Paul, making it a natural destination for refugees seeking familiarity. Such an established community allows for new Karen refugees to have access to a strong support network as they navigate all of the new customs that come with moving to the United States.

Standing by to lend a hand is the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM). Founded in 2009, KOM rose to the task of helping thousands of Karen refugees who first began coming to Minnesota in 2005 after living for decades in Thai refugee camps. Today, KOM primarily serves Karen refugees in Ramsey County by providing job training and cultural orientation. Health programs also feature, as KOM recently wrapped up a collaborative program with WellShare International, a nonprofit that focuses on community health. The program centered on improving ways to inform the Karen community of the dangers of tobacco use, a popular pastime in refugee camps where, as one refugee put it, there wasn’t much to do but smoke. The program focused on establishing a “four-pronged” approach of youth and adult education combined with working with housing complexes and Karen-centric events to adopt more non-smoking polices.

Various other organizations throughout St. Paul have also stepped up to help the Karen community. In December 2015, 10 Karen high school students joined officers from the St. Paul police department on an ice fishing trip to help build ties between the police department and the young members of the Karen community. Just the year prior, the police force welcomed its first Karen officer, who is also thought to be the first Karen officer anywhere in the US. Also in December 2015, St. Paul’s Public Library published two children’s books by local Karen authors in the native Karen language to encourage young refugees to read and make them more comfortable with learning English. Similarly, St. Paul’s East Side Freedom Library launched a weaving program in March 2015 aimed at providing a space for Karen refugees looking to continue to practice their traditional craft in their new home.

Minnesota has also long been a home to a significant Hmong community, a minority group from Southeast Asia with ancestral ties to ancient China, who began to immigrate to the United States from Southeast Asia following the end of the Vietnam War. In November 2015, Minnesota hosted an exhibit on Hmong culture to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that migration.

Sarah Wang is the Event Coordinator and a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington.