The Karen in Minnesota

Within the borders of the country of Burma (now called Myanmar) are many minority ethnic groups including the Karen, Karenni, Rohingya, Shan, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and others. These groups have their own language and culture, many govern their own territory, and some even had their own monarchy. These groups have been fighting for their freedom for almost 60 years. They have suffered horrific human rights abuses through the ethnic cleansing operations of the ruling Burmese military junta who sees their existence as a threat to their absolute power. As a result of the ongoing war against minority ethnic groups, more than two million people have fled Burma as refugees.

The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are the largest ethnic group participating in an insurgency against the military junta of Burma. The junta’s position against the Karen people can be summed up in a statement rumored to have been said by a Burmese military official, that “In twenty years, the only Karen person you will see will be in a museum.” Currently, about 150,000 refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, are living in protracted refugee situations in camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border. Some refugees have lived in the camps for twenty years. Hundreds of thousands more Karen people live precariously in the border areas or in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps on the Burmese side of the border.

In 2005, the U.S. opened the option for resettlement for registered refugees from Burma living in nine refugee camps in Thailand. Many Karen families who fled Burma and Thailand have settled in Saint Paul, MN, which has become home to the largest and Karen groups in the U.S. The number of Karen living in Minnesota is estimated at about 7,500. St. Paul is also home to the first Karen-led nonprofit agency in the U.S., the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Important Facts:
• More than two million people have fled Burma as refugees
• about 150,000 refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, are living in protracted refugee situations in camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border
• An estimated 7,500 Karen now make St. Paul, Minnesota home.

Additional Resources

A cultural profile of the Karen people has been written by the Center for Applied Linguistics. It provides insight in to the beliefs and behaviors that characterize this ethnic group.     CAL Karen refugees (pdf file 5.2 MB)

The Thai-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) has been working on the Thailand-Burma border for over 25 years. TBBC is a consortium of 12 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from ten countries providing food, shelter and non food items to refugees and displaced people from Burma. TBBC also engages in research on the root causes of displacement and refugee outflows. Programs are implemented in the field through refugees, community based organizations and local partners. The TBBC is an excellent source for information about refugees from Burma and situations in the refugee camps (including photos and maps).

The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement. They bring help, hope and love to people in the war zones of Burma. Ethnic pro-democracy groups send teams to be trained, supplied and sent into the areas under attack to provide emergency assistance and human rights documentation. Together with other groups, the teams work to serve people in need. The FBR website offers videos, maps, photos, and reports about the situation of ethnic minorities from Burma.

The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) is a local, independent group documenting the human rights situation in rural Burma by working directly with rural villagers who are suffering abuses such as forced labour, systematic destruction of villages and crops, forced relocation, extortion, looting, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual assault and summary executions. This is another resource for maps, photos, and reports about the situation of the Karen in Burma.

Season of Fear is an excellent video filmed in the IDP areas in Burma.

Drum Publication Group is a small, independent, Karen community based organization dedicated to promoting education and preserving the cultures of the peoples of Burma. They have downloadable Karen language resources (learn to speak Karen!).

Karen Konnection is a website with the purpose of helping the newly-resettled Burmese Karen to connect with American Baptist-USA and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches throughout the U.S. It hopes to help churches and church leaders hosting Karen congregations to connect with each other to share resources and ideas, and to help the Karen scattered across the country and around the world to re-connect. This effort is the new work of Duane and Marcia Binkley who are being jointly appointed by ABC-USA and CBF to oversee this Karen support initiative. The Karen Konnection website is an excellent resource for churches working with the Karen.

EthnoMed is a website which provides information about cultural beliefs, medical issues, and related topics pertinent to the health care of newly arrived immigrants.  The EthnoMed website has cultural profiles and medical-related resources for several ethnic populations including the Karen.

Karen language course (learn to speak Karen!)