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What's a refugee? Who are the Karen?

By Jennifer Skuza

"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.

Karen language

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

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Jennifer,

    This is such a powerful article. You were able to relay to me how much devastation and trauma the Karen people have faced, while also keeping in perspective what I can do as a youth-serving program. Thank you so much for bringing awareness to these people and educating me more about refugees. I found the part about distinctions between Myanmar and Burma interesting. As a Native American, I have experienced similar distinctions with labels associated with place and people. For example, there are sensitivities around "Reservation" or "Chippewa". I realized, after reading your article, that those sensitivities and titles that are imposed on a people are not just limited to my own culture.

    1. Hi Kyra -Thanks for drawing those connections and for sharing your experience with similar distinctions with labels associated with place and people. I have a definition of acculturation that emerged in the 1930s in the field of anthropology that I want to share with you. I think you would find it very interesting. I will reply with it later. Thanks for being a part of this online conversation.

  2. I think you, too, for this post, Jennifer. To counter-balance the video clip that you provide, here's another one about some Karen youth living in St. Paul, and a youth program called "Jungle to Jungle" that has a unique way of helping them transition into their lives in the US:

    1. I just watched the video. It is great. Thanks for sharing the link.

  3. I think that this article provides a really good base for readers to begin to understand the stories of Karen families and young people. I think that it is sometimes easier for educators and even youth workers to neglect to think of the history and trauma that refugees have been through and this article highlights those issues and makes them known. It reminds us to focus on the importance of understanding everyday lives. Thank you for publishing this article and sharing your knowledge and experience about the Karen culture.

    1. Hi Gin - I see your point about the "ease" of neglecting to think of history and trauma. As you suggest, those short-cuts could lead to the failure of programs and/or ineffective practice. Thanks for chiming in and reminding readers about the importance of understanding everyday lived experiences.

  4. Thank you for sharing about the Karen people. Almost all of what you wrote is new information for me. You've given a starting point as to what it's like to be a Karen refugee new to Minnesota. I think that you are correct in thinking that youth workers can play a role in helping refugees to settle into a new place.

    1. Hi Jen - I am glad you made time to read and comment on this topic. I look forward to learning more about how you weave this type of cultural work into your everyday youth work practice.

  5. Great article Jennifer Refugee issue are really many and we are as a society ust scratching the surface. So many issues that we need to talk about and thank you so much for sharing and bringing this subject into larger Community I greatly appreciate it. As Someone who started the project in the refugee camp in Africa and have been worked with refugees here in Minnesota for the last 15 years it is dear to my heart and close to home as formal Refugee myself. Thank you!!!

    1. Hello Shegitu -

      Thanks for posting your thoughts. You are such powerful leader and educator!

      I want to share your books with others who may be reading this blog.

      Shegitu Kebede has written a book about her escape from the violence in her native Ethiopia called “Visible Strengths, Hidden Scars.”

      She also wrote two books for children: My African Heritage and My American Heritage.

      I encourage all to read these works!

  6. Thank you, Jennifer, for bringing our attention to a refugee group that is generally less visible and less well known than some others in MN. It is critical that we take young peoples' whole lives, their full experiences, into account when we are seeking to create programs to welcome them. I am curious if you have found in your experience or research any suggestions about specific practices or strategies that would be effective in making a program more welcoming to Karen youth? Thanks again for the article!

    1. Hi Kathryn -

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Here are some examples of practices to help build a welcoming environment:

      1. As a practitioner, use each youth’s name regularly. Never say “I am not good with names.” Rather get good at learning names.

      This helps everyone in the group feel like they count and it is an important practice for adults to model. Also use name tags at the start of the program, do activities that help each other learn names, or do artistic projects/ activities that help youth express their names in creative ways.

      2. Greet each youth each day of the program and build an environment where each youth does the same thing (every day).

      3. Recognize that leisure is an important developmental context, and here in particular an excellent context in which to help youth develop friendships and feel they matter. So build in downtime in programming and set up the learning environment in a way that allows youth to get to know and value each other.

      2. Encourage the growth of developmental relationships with peers. Young people can form these relationships with their parents and family members, with their friends and peers, with staff members in their schools and programs, and with caring adults in their neighborhoods and communities. The number and intensity of developmental relationships in young people’s lives is linked to a range of positive educational outcomes. Look into the Search Institute's research for more details and ideas for practice.

      5. Invite youth to develop ground rules such as:
      - Respect each person’s viewpoint
      - Take turns speaking
      - Give room for silence
      - Challenge yourself and others to think deeply
      - Welcome disagreement
      - And so on

      6. Give room for youth to build rituals or routines into everyday programming and ensure to help build group cohesion and growth.

      7. Co-develop a ritual with the youth that can be done each time a new person joins the group. Make the ritual special and one that honors the new person.

    2. Thank you, Jennifer, for such thoughtful suggestions--these are wonderful strategies for creating a deep sense of belonging for youth, and especially for youth who have experienced profound displacements and transitions. I appreciate your answers!

    3. Thank you for sharing! Love this entire entry and responses that follow - captivating and very informative.

  7. Hello Jennifer,
    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. The connection you make in refugee youth population benefiting from youth-serving organizations as a safe place for cultural adjustment is an important awareness for the general population as well as youth-serving organizations. Specifically with the growing refugee population, it is critical that youth-serving organizations are culturally sensitive and informed about these realities of refugee youth. With this article, it is ultimately a reminder of the importance of cultural and trauma sensitivity when working with youth as we do not know the background of each young person we encounter. As a youth advocate working in Bribri Indigenous Territory of Costa Rica, I see youth work across cultures built on trust, genuine support and understanding of the realities of youth. As a youth advocate working in Bribri Indigenous Territory of Costa Rica, I see valuable youth work across cultures built upon trust, genuine support and understanding of the realities of youth populations. I am inspired to move forward today in youth work maintaining cultural and trauma sensitivity with all young people I encounter, as for each youth, I do not know the family life, the experiences, the traditions and so on. Jennifer, do you have more information on how this population came to Minnesota and the other 40 states in the US? Thank you so much for sharing this article!

    1. Hi Crystal –

      Here is a 3-minute video that briefly explains the Karen move to Minnesota – most notably the effects of the Burmese military regime. The video also provides information about the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM). Staff working at KOM have some wonderful presentations and resources that provide more in-depth historical background.

      I would love to learn more about your experience in the Bribri Indigenous Territory of Costa Rica.


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