"Imagine being forced to flee your country in order to escape to safety. If you were lucky you had time to pack a bag. If not, you simply dropped everything and ran. Life as a refugee can be difficult to imagine. But, for nearly 20 million people around the world, it is a terrifying reality." (United Nations Refugee Agency).
World Refugee Day just happened on June 20, 2016.
I have have had opportunities to work with refugee communities throughout my career. Over the past few years I have been working with Karen communities in Minnesota. Many people aren't familiar with the Karen or how people come to be refugees. Here is some background.
Who are the Karen?
The Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) are the second-largest ethnic group in the mountainous border region of Burma and Thailand. About 10,000 Karen refugees live here in Minnesota, along with 500 refugees from other Burmese ethnic groups. St. Paul has the largest and fastest-growing Karen population in the U.S. Minnesota towns Worthington, Willmar, Marshall, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault also have large numbers of Karen residents. More than 46,000 Karen live in 41 states in the U.S.
What is a refugee?
Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected by international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk
Burma or Myanmar?
The government of Burma changed its name to Myanmar in 1989 and since then it has been a military dictatorship. The name Myanmar has ethnic overtones that imply Burmese superiority over other groups, such as the Karen. Most of these groups, including the Karen, do not call their country Myanmar; they call it Burma (Cultural Orientation Resource Center).
Why are people fleeing Burma as refugees?
Karen have long been subject to persecution and ethnic cleansing by the Burmese government, and many have lived in Thai refugee camps for years before being resettled to Minnesota and elsewhere. In Burma, many Karen suffered torture and abuse, including forced relocation to labor camps, the burning of their villages and child soldier recruitment. Karen were used as human shields by the military dictatorship, were forced to sweep jungles for landmines, experienced summary executions and systemic rape among many other atrocities. Many fleeing Karen and other ethnic refugees walked for months to reach refugee camps in Thailand and many died along the way. The first Karen refugee camp opened in Thailand in 1984; there are nine of them today.
Watch this video published by the Associated Press to get a sense of life in a refugee camp located in Thailand near the Burmese border. Watch the Refugees from Burma in the United States video featuring interviews with families about everyday life in the US.
Karenic languages are tonal and spoken by about 7 million people across the globe. The Karen languages are written using the Burmese script. The three main branches of Karen languages are Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa'O. Scholars indicate that there may be 20-30 Karen languages but the actual number is unknown. Many Karen also speak Burmese, Thai, English and other languages as well.
What roles can youth-serving organizations play?
The process of adjusting to life in a new country or cultural context is called acculturation. The learning environments found in programs delivered by youth-serving organizations are often places where immigrant and refugee youth can flourish as they settle into a new country. The journeys of immigrant and refugee youth and their families follow complex paths and variations exist in their life courses, the levels of difficulty they experience, and the eventual outcomes.
Youth who are refugees, for instance, are likely to experience the conventional challenges of child and adolescent development as well as the challenges of adjustment to multiple cultures (e.g. Burma, Thailand and the U.S.) and the trauma associated with fleeing one’s home country. The learning environments found in youth-serving organizations can promote social integration while providing a break in the day when refugee youth have a chance to be themselves, sort things out, build developmental relationships with peers and adults, pursue an interest, get support for their education or find camaraderie.
It is important to pay attention to Karen populations and to understand the unique circumstances of being a refugee. Together we can find ways to support children, youth and families as they adjust to life in a new culture and build bridges among cultural groups.
There are many resources for learning more about Karen other refugees and other victims of torture who have resettled in the U.S., as well as the organizations that support them.
-- Jennifer Skuza, assistant dean
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