Karen refugees in Minnesota have a critical ally

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Pictured: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Madeline Lohman & Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Hta Thi Yu Moom facilitating a meeting to strengthen community between Karen diaspora members and other residents of Roseville, Minnesota.

 

Minnesota has seen an influx of Karen refugees from Burma over the past decade, the majority settling in St. Paul. The transition to life here can be bumpy as they struggle to learn English, find jobs, navigate government bureaucracy, and sometimes deal with family upheavals.

But the new residents have a critical ally: the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), the nation’s first Karen-led nonprofit. “You can come here any time as long as the office is open,” says Eh Tah Khu, KOM’s co-executive director, “and we’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are an ethnic minority group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand who have been fighting for independence for many years. Subject to ethnic cleansing, forced labor, killings, and other human rights abuses by the former military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar), many fled to refugee camps in Thailand before resettlement in the United States. (Burma moved to a civilian-led government last year.)

KOM says about 12,000 Karen now live in Minnesota, some drawn from other states because of the high quality of refugee services here. Minnesotans should be aware that many Karen have “been through trauma,” Eh Tah Khu says, and “have never been able to raise their voice for any reason.”

Eh Tah Khu arrived here from Thailand in 2010 with his wife and son and joined KOM as youth development coordinator in 2011. He became co-executive director last year, sharing duties with Alexis Walstad.

KOM — with money from state and federal grants, foundations, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way — offers a wide range of services to Karen and other Burmese refugees. They include job training, English classes, youth programs, weaving, public transit orientation, and community health services.

The organization evolved from the Karen Community of Minnesota, a volunteer group that Karen leaders started in 2003 in St. Paul. They set up KOM as a separate organization with 501(c)(3) status in 2008. Based in Roseville, it now has 25 paid staff members, including two at an office in Marshall; three AmeriCorps members, and about 80 volunteers. It serves more than 1,500 clients a year.

But KOM is at a turning point. Some of its government grants pay specifically for services to new arrivals. But the United States has stopped resettling refugees from Burma, so Eh Tah Khu worries those grants won’t be renewed as his group focuses more on long-term services.

He is frank about other challenges facing the organization. Because KOM is so accessible, he says, “we are overloaded with walk-in clients.” They need help with everything from paying speeding tickets to enrolling in MNsure to filing divorce paperwork.

More mental-health services are badly needed, he added, noting that there are no Karen-speaking therapists, psychiatrists, or psychologists in the area. The community is also grappling with problems like drug use by young people, parents feeling they have lost authority over their children, domestic violence, and divorce (which is rare in Burma).

But Eh Tah Khu says KOM’s strength lies in the partnerships it has forged with a long list of service providers and educational, government, religious, legal and other groups over the years (you can see them here). “We know that without community support,” he says, “we can’t do our work here.”

Karen Organization of Minnesota
Website: www.mnkaren.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mnkarenorg/
Volunteer opportunities: KOM needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with activities including youth mentoring, interpretation/translation, data entry, public transit training, and driving. Apply here or contact Rebekah Jacobson at rjacobson@mnkaren.org.
Learn more: KOM holds presentations on Karen culture and history on Friday afternoons every other month. The next session takes place on February 24.

By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. This is the first of the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota.

Their stories untold: Widows voices yet to be heard

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It was an afternoon in July 2013 in a rural community in Kumasi, Ghana, when 87 widows shared the ordeals they suffered at the hands of so-called “customs” after their husbands passed away. During an annual human rights survey by Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), I discovered a cultural practice which very much still stood strong in our society yet was a total infringement of the human rights of widows.

Although their stories differed slightly, all of the women agreed that widowhood rituals served no benefit, but rather brought more hardships to widows. I recall the tears in their eyes as this meeting brought back dreadful memories. A 34-year old widow burst into uncontrollable tears as she recalled how her husband’s relatives took all of the farm lands (the family’s main source of income) because, according to custom, the husband’s nephew was the rightful heir. She was forced to consume nothing except a soft drink once a day continuously for 40 days as part of the cleansing ritual. She recounted that the resulting stomach problem she developed was considered punishment for her alleged crime of killing her husband with witchcraft. Eventually, she and her seven children who were between the ages of two to 14 years were pushed out of the small house they lived in. With no one to turn to, she resorted to begging on the street and hard labor where she faced continued sexual and labor exploitation.

Widowhood within  some cultures in Africa and other countries is characterized by degrading and inhumane rituals that can amount to torture. These rituals inflict grave abuse of widows. The encyclopedia of Death and Dying in its report, “Widows in Third World Nations” reported that

“…in Nigeria … a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, “the first stranger she meets on the road,” or some other designated male. This “ritual cleansing by sex” is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this “ritual cleansing” is not merely repugnant but also dangerous. The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night…”

Widows suffer other types of violations, as well. Widows may be deprived of their home, agricultural land, business assets, and sometimes their children.  Notwithstanding the promulgation of major Treaties like Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that guard against these violations, these practices still persist. These harmful practices inflict both physical and psychological violence on women and create an opportunity for abuse and infringement of their rights. It supports unequal power relations between men and women. Through these disproportionate cultural practices, many widows are exploited by male relatives of their deceased husbands. Instead of protecting and supporting these widows, they deny them any access to their husband’s land or property.

Among some tribes in the northern part of Ghana, widows are subjected to a customary practice called “Widow Inheritance” which is a form of Levirate marriage (a system in which the brother of a deceased man is made to marry the widow of his brother). In this case, the widow is forced into a marriage regardless of her consent. This permits the deceased man’s family to choose a male relative to marry the widow, preventing the widow from making her own decision to remain unmarried or married. It essentially promotes forced marriage. If a widow insists and succeeds in remaining unmarried after the death of her husband, she is bound to face maltreatment and rejection by her husband’s family and community. She is usually accused of witchcraft, having bad luck, or having a hand in her husband’s death. On the other hand, when they accept to enter into a marriage, they are faced with a lot of hostility by the wives and children of the men they marry. Also they stand the risk of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Also the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to equal protection under the law and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health and requires the “free consent” of both parties to enter into marriage. The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa specifically addresses the issue of widows, spells out that state’s parties shall take the necessary legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights through the implementation of the following provisions:

“…widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading
treatment…a widow shall automatically become the guardian and
custodian of her children….”

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects a number of human rights, including that men and women shall have the same right to enter into marriage and the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent. CEDAW also mandates state’s parties to recognize women’s equality with men before the law with the same legal capacity as in civil matters. Importantly, CEDAW requires state’s parties to:

“[M]odify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped
roles for men and women.”

Widows are supposed to be protected from degrading, inhumane treatment, and unwarranted disinheritance under these laws. Despite most African states being parties to these international and regional treaties, the plight of widows remains unaddressed in most countries and the pains they suffer seem to be viewed as normal and inevitable by the societies in which they live. In every community there are widows neglected to the harshness of hunger and poverty. Harmful practices such as the widowhood rituals are challenging to modify, and attempts to change or eliminate them demand the collaboration and cooperation of traditional authorities, community leaders, government, and the society at large.

By Abigail Ofori-Amanfo, a 2016-17 Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota who is completing her professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights. A women’s right activist, she works to educate rural women and girls in Ghana on their rights and what steps they can take to prevent them from being violated.

Learn more about the best practices in drafting legislation on maltreatment of widows.

We are advocates. We can do this.

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The first days of the Trump administration have been bewildering. “Alternative facts” have been presented with a straight face. The media has been told to shut up and listen. Muslims have been turned away at our airports. Refugees’ travel plans have been revoked. People, including very young children, have been detained for hours, handcuffed, stripped-searched, and treated like criminals. Children have been separated from their mothers. People have been coerced into signing away their visas and then not allowed entry into the United States.

The list goes on.

For many, these actions make us feel like the United States is in freefall.

But we have a clear road map for the days ahead. The human rights principles which emerged in 1948 set out a simple benchmark: dignity. Every single person in the United States – no matter who we are, that we believe, how we look, or where we were born – has a right to live with basic human dignity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides non-negotiable standards which we, as human beings, have a right to expect and to demand. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of torture. Freedom from arbitrary detention. The right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. Freedom from violence.

The human rights framework does more than provide a list of rights we can check off as they are violated. It provides an approach to organizing and action.

Protect those who are marginalized. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, with its unequivocal protection of peaceful dissent and protection against the tyranny of the majority, is but one of the ways in which the power of majority rule is balanced.

Ensure those affected by decisions can participate in making them. The right to vote is at the heart of American democracy, yet millions of people – primarily American Indians and African Americans – have had this fundamental right stripped from them.

Address the root causes of injustice. Eradicate the conditions which perpetuate human rights violations.

Hold people accountable for human rights violations and abuses. Tyranny thrives in a climate of impunity. A strong judiciary and independent media are hallmarks of free societies.

Last week I spoke with a new volunteer who’d just retired from a successful corporate career. She shared that she took part in the Women’s March – the first time in her life she’s ever turned out for such an action. She’s ready to act.

The human rights framework gives us clarity of demands and of action. We are advocates.

We can do this.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights

Featured photo: Jenna Schulman (left), The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger, and two of her friends at the Women’s March on Washington.