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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.