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This World Refugee Day, Take a Moment to Listen to Their Stories

Among the world’s more than 22.5 million refugees are an estimated 2.8 million people seeking asylum. In the United States, asylum seekers can wait years for a hearing and even longer to reunite with their families. With no right to government-appointed counsel, adults and children alike face complicated legal proceedings alone.

Last year, The Advocates for Human Rights provided free legal assistance to nearly 1,000 refugees and their family members, including ongoing legal representation in more than 650 asylum cases.  In addition, our National Asylum Help Line has connected more than 1500 callers with legal help.

With the help of hundreds of volunteer attorneys, together with interpreters and community support volunteers, The Advocates helps protect refugees, reunite families, and ensure that no asylum seeker has to go it alone.

We commemorate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2017 by sharing some of our clients’ stories of courage and hope.  Please take five minutes to listen to their stories.  You can help us by sharing their truth.

Learn more about applying for asylum and The Advocates’ legal services here.

On World Refugee Day, please consider making a donation so that we can help more families like the ones featured in this video.   The Advocates stands #WithRefugees.

 

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Recognizing human rights leaders who are changing the world for good

statue 2 web large

The Advocates for Human Rights will present nine awards to human rights leaders at the Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 15, 2017 at the Marriott City Center in Minneapolis. The Human Rights Awards Dinner is an annual event that honors those who dedicate time, energy, and passion to advance The Advocates’ mission of changing the world for good by implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.

 

Mark Hetfield will deliver the keynote address and receive the 2017 Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award. Minnesota House of Representatives Member Ilhan Omar will be honored with a Special Recognition Award; The Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Rapid Response Team  will also receive the Special Recognition Award. Genoveva Tisheva will receive the first-ever Human Rights Defender Award.  In addition, Karam Law, Sarah Vander Zanden, Gerry Tyrrell, David Seng Chor, and Yorn Yan will each receive the Volunteer Awards.

Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award – Mark Hetfield

Mark Hetfield Head Shot RGBMark Hetfield is a globally recognized leader in refugee rights. He is the president and CEO of HIAS. Founded in 1881, HIAS is the world’s oldest organization dedicated to refugees. Under Hetfield’s guidance and leadership, HIAS has expanded from an organization focused on Jewish immigrants to one that assists refugees worldwide, no matter whom or where they are. HIAS stands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety, and freedom. HIAS both protects and resettles refugees, all the while ensuring they are treated with the dignity they deserve. Guided by Jewish ethics and history, HIAS rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are. Hetfield has stated, “HIAS doesn’t help people because they are Jewish but because we are Jewish.”

Hetfield’s 27-year career has been largely spent in five different roles within HIAS. Between his roles at HIAS, he served as senior advisor on refugee issues at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he directed a congressionally-authorized study on asylum seekers in expedited removal.  This study, published in 2005, is the most comprehensive study on expedited removal to date and is still widely used today. Hetfield and his team were recognized for their work with the Arthur C. Helton Award for the Advancement of Human Rights, presented by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He graduated cum laude with a juris doctor degree from Georgetown University, from which he also holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service.

Special Recognition Award – Ilhan Omar

Ilhan OmarIlhan Omar Head Shot RGB made national headlines when she was elected in 2016 as the Minnesota State Representative for District 60B, becoming the first Somali-American lawmaker in the United States.  She successfully campaigned on a platform with strong human rights themes, including: access to quality affordable education; criminal justice reform; a higher minimum wage; empowering women in politics; and promoting environmental sustainability.

Born in Somalia, Omar and her family fled the country’s civil war when she was eight. The family spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States in 1995.  Omar spoke no English at first, but learned quickly.  She was inspired to enter public service after translating for her grandfather at a community political meeting at the age of 14.  After graduating from North Dakota State University, Omar has worked tirelessly for her community and the greater public good.  In addition to representing District 60B, Omar is the Director of Policy Initiatives for Women Organizing Women, a nonprofit network dedicated to empowering all women, with an emphasis on first– and second-generation immigrants, to become engaged citizens and community leaders.

Special Recognition Award – MSP Airport Rapid Response Team

When President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning people from seven msp rapid responsemajority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, thousands of attorneys around the United States turned out to protect those being denied entry. Here in Minnesota, attorney Regina Jefferies signed up to help with the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday afternoon and by Sunday morning had messages from more than 150 lawyers willing to go to the airport. Among them were immigration attorney Kara Lynum and Robins Kaplan’s Summra Sharriff, and attorneys Melissa Staudinger, Alisha Tecli, Hayley Steptoe, Shannon Doty, Nichole Buehler, Tara Murphy, and Kevin Riach, who would become the spontaneous project’s team leads.

The team organized everything from attorneys providing direct assistance on the ground at MSP, a habeas team ready to file for anyone detained under the ban, to volunteer training and communications, and liaison with the Metropolitan Airport Commission. Within two weeks, the project grew to more than 300 attorneys and countless community members volunteering to do everything from language interpretation to bringing food to volunteers. Volunteers met every international flight to Minnesota for 6 weeks. Their work not only provided onsite help to anxious family members waiting for their loved ones to arrive. It sent an important message to federal officials that the people of this country will not sit idly by in the face of discrimination and intolerance. Their work embodies The Advocates’ mission to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.

 Human Rights Defender Award –  Genoveva Tisheva

Genoveva TishevaGenoveva Tisheva  will be presented with The Advocates’ inaugural Human Rights Defender Award. Tisheva is the executive director of the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation (BGRF),  a nongovernmental organization that promotes social equality and women’s human rights in Bulgaria through research, education, and advocacy programs.

Tisheva has been a leader in the international human rights movement for over twenty years. A pioneer in Bulgarian gender rights research, she has conducted research on privatization, women’s socio-economic rights, violence against women, the impact of privatization of goods and services on women, and trafficking of Romani women and children.  Tisheva has been instrumental in pushing Bulgaria to the forefront as a leader for the region on law reform related to violence against women.

The relationship between The Advocates and Tisheva extends back to 1994. At the time, Tisheva was the president of the Bulgarian Women Lawyers Association and had begun the work to secure legal reform that would protect women victims of violence and hold perpetrators accountable. The Advocates had just recently published its first report on women’s human rights titled “Lifting the Last Curtain, a Report on Domestic Violence in Romania.” Tisheva approached The Advocates about conducting fact-finding and documenting domestic violence as a human rights violation in Bulgaria. The resulting report, “Domestic Violence in Bulgaria” published in 1996, served as a blueprint for action.

For her work on behalf of women and for social rights, Tisheva was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the Project “1000 Women for Nobel Peace Prize.” Tisheva holds a M.A. in Law from Bulgaria’s Sofia University and is a specialist in international human rights law and international comparative law.

Information and tickets to the Human Rights Awards Dinner are available here.

 

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The Sanctuary Movement Case, 1985

After 19 years of practicing corporate litigation with prominent law firms in New York City and Minneapolis, I was a tabula rasa in what turned out to be important topics for me. I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights law in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. Nor did I have any knowledge of, or interest in, Latin America in general or El Salvador in particular. At the same time I was struggling with the question of how to integrate my newly re-acquired Christian faith with my professional life.

In 1985 all of this started to change.

My senior partner at Faegre & Benson asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church. The problem: how should the ALC respond to the news that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings at Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement?

As I soon discovered, that Movement was a loose association of Christian congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries or safe spaces for Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars in the 1980s. The news about the “spies in the churches” was revealed by the U.S. Government in its prosecution of some of the Movement’s leaders for harboring and transporting illegal aliens, some of whom were later convicted of these charges.[1]

In the meantime, the ALC and my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decided to join together to sue the U.S. Government over the “spies in the churches.” Eventually the U.S. District Court in Phoenix agreed with the churches that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” clause[2] provided protection against certain government investigations.

The court said that the churches “in the free exercise of their constitutionally protected religious activities, are protected against governmental intrusion in the absence of a good faith purpose for the subject investigation. The government is constitutionally precluded from unbridled and inappropriate covert activity which has as its purpose or objective the abridgment of the first amendment freedoms of those involved. Additionally, the participants involved in such investigations must adhere scrupulously to the scope and extent of the invitation to participate that may have been extended or offered to them.”[3]

I should add that the courtroom work in this case was done by two lawyers at the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca–Peter Baird[4] and Janet Napolitano.[5]

This case marked a turning point in my legal career as will be evident in my subsequent posts Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer  and My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989.

By Duane W. Krohnke, a retired lawyer, adjunct law professor, and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.

[1] One of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement was Rev. John Fife of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. He was one of those convicted in 1986 in the criminal case. Six years later he was elected the national leader (Moderator) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..(Wikipedia, John Fife, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fife.)

[2] “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” (U.S. Const., Amend. I.)

[3] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S., 752 F. Supp. 1505, 1516 (D. Ariz. 1990), on remand from, 870 F.2d 518 (9th Cir. 1989).

[4] Peter Baird, http://www.lrlaw.com/files/Uploads/Documents/Baird%20Bio.pdf; Phoenix veteran attorney Peter Baird dies, Phoenix Bus. J.(Aug. 31, 2009), http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2009/08/31/daily19.html.

[5] Napolitano now, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wikipedia, Janet Napolitano, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano.)

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Cruelty as Policy: Part Two

Child or woman's hand in jailWhat and who are behind the current wave of anti-immigrant feeling, including the cruel policy of “self-deportation” that is the subject of this two part series of articles?

It is important to acknowledge that fear of The Other is a near-universal human condition, and its causes and effects should not be oversimplified. It is also important to acknowledge the existence of elite interest groups which are currently working hard to exploit our fear of The Other and use it to advance their own agenda, an agenda aimed at keeping America a white and Christian nation.

The author of this, the second of two articles reflecting on the cruelty behind the currently ascendant hard-line anti-immigration movement, was raised in Minnesota during the fifties and sixties. Our state was then almost entirely lily white and raised in the Christian tradition. In the author’s high school class of more than 700, there were only two black students and, to the author’s knowledge, two Jewish students. Such an upbringing creates, in nearly every mind, assumptions that become part of an individual’s basic personality: a Minnesotan is automatically thought of as a white person of Christian heritage. People who don’t qualify on one or both counts may be fine folks in their way, but they are different from our concept of a Minnesotan. Carrying such assumptions in one’s mind doesn’t by itself make a person hateful or evil, but it can have consequences on a person’s beliefs and actions that might not be recognized. The assumptions brand our fellow human beings as The Other.

Recognizing that this non-diverse state of affairs once existed in many parts of the country, and still exists in many rural areas and small towns, may help explain the current rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, a recurring wave that has swept the United States several times in its history and has always been regretted afterward. Census data tells us that if current trends continue, the U.S. population will, for the first time, be “majority minority” by 2044. To some people, consciously or unconsciously, this means The Other is taking over, and that can be frightening.

There are elites who seek to whip up such fear, and organize and manage it for their own purposes. In particular, there is a cadre of organizations that are dedicated to a hard-line anti-immigration policy and that promote the cruel concept of “self-deportation” discussed in the previous article in this series. These organizations seek to display the appearance of broad-based support, but in fact were founded by or descended from the efforts of one man, John Tanton, and have been funded primarily by a small number of wealthy donors. (See Intelligence Report, “JOHN TANTON IS THE MASTERMIND BEHIND THE ORGANIZED ANTI-IMMIGRATION MOVEMENT,” Southern Poverty Law Center; Jason DeParle, “The Anti-Immigration Crusader,New York Times; and “Funders of the Anti-Immigrant Movement,” Anti-Defamation League.)

They include the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”); the Immigration Reform Law Institute (“IRLI”); the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”); Numbers USA; ProEnglish; U.S.English; the Social Contract Press and, the funding organization, U.S. Inc. Representatives of these organizations frequently lobby legislators, publish “think pieces,” do grass roots organizing on anti-immigrant themes, appear in the media and promulgate agendas for anti-immigrant actions by governments and private actors.

The man initially behind these groups, John Tanton, is a retired Michigan ophthalmologist who was president of Zero Population Growth from 1975 to 1977. (See johntanton.org, a pro-Tanton website that describes him as a “Pro-immigrant spokesperson for population stabilization and immigration reduction.”)  His passions moved from global overpopulation to immigration and he founded FAIR in 1979. He was a fan of a 1973 novel by Frenchman Jean Raspail called The Camp of the Saints, an overtly racist fantasy in which hordes of sub-human non-whites overwhelm Europe and North America because liberal pansies in the affected governments lack the will to stop them.  Tanton’s Social Contract Press arranged for the re-publication of this novel in the United States in 1995, with money from Mellon heiress Cordelia Scaife May, who also funded a previous U.S. appearance of the novel. Tanton himself was quoted in the New York Times as having written to a friend, “For European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” 

It is a promising time for the hard-line anti-immigrant elites.  A former executive director of FAIR, Julie Kirchner, is now an advisor to the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Jon Feere, a former CIS policy analyst, now works for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Steve Bannon, strategy advisor to the President, has repeatedly referred to The Camp of the Saints in describing his thoughts on immigration policy.  Their thinking permeates actions and attitudes displayed by the current administration.

In such times, it is more critical than ever that human rights defenders such as The Advocates ceaselessly fight to implement national and international laws protecting refugees, and promote the application of a human rights framework to immigration policy.

To minimize the extent to which fear of The Other exists in this country, and in all the world, would be a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the wealthy elites who use that fear to support an agenda to keep America white.

Another Minnesotan, a Jew raised in a white Christian town in the northern part of the state, wrote a song after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. It was called “Only A Pawn in their Game.” Bob Dylan caused some controversy with the song, which seemed to mitigate the fault of Evers’ murderer, but Dylan’s point was that the racism of poor whites was being manipulated by elites with an agenda of their own. As is often the case with Dylan, the lyrics sound with considerable force today.

He’s taught in his school

From the start by the rule

That the laws are with him

To protect his white skin

To keep up his hate

So he never thinks straight

‘Bout the shape that he’s in

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game

Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in their Game”

 

By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors.

Read the first article Cruelty as Policy: Part One here.

 

 

 

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Welcome Home Blog Series:  Providing opportunities for Cambodians in Minnesota, honoring survivors of the Khmer Rouge

This is the second in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Additional articles can be found here.

UCAM flags

Minnesotans celebrated the Cambodian New Year in April at a day-long event in Mendota Heights featuring live music, drums, traditional dances, and Cambodian cuisine.

But those festivities bracketed a more solemn activity, an annual “Day of Remembrance” to honor victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. This year, the ceremony paid tribute to survivors who worked with the Advocates for Human Rights to provide information about human-rights abuses for submission to a war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (ECCC).

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Each received a Certificate of Recognition for telling their stories, a process that allowed them to put their experiences on the record.

 

 

Many Cambodians keep their memories bottled up, which is not healthy, says Yorn Yan, executive director of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota (UCAM), which worked with the Advocates on the project. So he tells them: “Number one, you document your own story, then you feel better.” Second, “Then your document will stay with you forever and your children, your grandchildren will see it, it’s not a fake story. That’s a benefit for society in general.”

Yorn Yan’s father was among an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge during their 1975-1979 reign. He fled to Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 and eventually made his way to Minnesota, along with three brothers, two sisters, and their mother.

UCAM, which sponsored the New Year’s event at its offices, is a nonprofit that aims to promote opportunity for the state’s Cambodian community, which numbers about 10,000. UCAM was created in 1993 from the merger of two existing Cambodian organizations. Yorn Yan has been executive director since 2005, taking the reins after it suffered a crisis.  He has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and administration, is author of the book New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America, and board president of the National American Cambodian Organization.

UCAM has nine employees but gets support from 300 volunteers, including a number of medical and mental-health professionals, and serves about 1,500 clients a year. Funding comes from the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.

It gets half of its revenue from fees for services provided by its Adult Day Care program, which offers health, social, and other services to Cambodian elders. Many of them are in poor health from the strains of living through civil war, the Khmer Rouge, and life in refugee camps. They have high rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health problems, and other chronic diseases that lead to strokes and heart attacks.

The Khmer Rouge era began just 42 years ago, Yorn Yan says, so many people age 50 or above continue to suffer trauma.  “The starvation, the killing, the loss of loved ones, all of those bring poor health,” he says.

UCAM’s other programs are Elder Independent Living, Youth Development, Health Education, and  Immigration. Under a five-year strategic plan it adopted in 2015, the organization is working to transition from one whose primary function was refugee resettlement to one that works to strengthen health, social, education, and economic opportunities for Cambodians and other refugee groups in Minnesota. One of its goals: develop new programs to help second- and third-generation Minnesota Cambodians understand their cultural values and traditions while still providing services for the elders.

When asked about main challenges, Yorn Yan says UCAM is trying to “do more with less” since the demand for services remains strong but federal and state funding has shrunk over the years.

The Advocates’ work with the Cambodian community began in 1990 when the organization helped conduct a mock trial at the Minnesota State Capitol of the Khmer Rouge leadership for the crime of genocide. The mock trial led to the Khmer Oral History Project, during which The Advocates’ volunteers interviewed 15 members of the Cambodian refugee community on videotape about their experiences during the years of the genocide, their experiences in refugee camps, and their emigration to the United States. Those interviews took place in 1992 and are available online at the Minnesota History Center. This year, the Center for Justice and Accountability asked The Advocates to interview participants in the Khmer Oral History Project and submit their information to the ECCC. The Advocates also worked with UCAM to identify Khmer Rouge survivors interested in sharing their information with the ECCC.

Twenty-two members of the Cambodian diaspora in Minnesota, including many who had participated in the mock trial and oral history project, provided detailed information about the crimes they experienced between 1975 and 1979 for the ECCC’s investigation. The interviews were conducted by James O’Neal, vice chair of The Advocates; Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director; and Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney. They were aided by volunteer translator David Chor.

David Chor and Yorn Yan of UCAM will be recognized for their contributions to documenting the stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Minnesota’s Cambodian community with volunteer awards at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 15, 2017.

UNITED CAMBODIAN ASSOCIATION OF MINNESOTA
Website: http://ucamn.org/
Email: info@ucamn.org
Volunteer opportunities: The group welcomes volunteers, especially with legal or medical credentials. Contact Yorn Yan at YornYan @comcast.net.

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

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Cruelty as Policy: Part One

Child or woman's hand in jail

Euphemisms can be well-intentioned. Perhaps the most famous of all New Yorker cartoons depicts a mother offering a plate of greens to her toddler. “It’s broccoli, dear,” she says. The toddler glares at the plate and says, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

Euphemisms can also mask evil intent and remarkable cruelty. Consider the term “self-deportation.”  Promoted to one degree or another by various proponents of curtailing immigration, this is typically described as the notion that the flow of immigrants into the United States, and the percentage of the U.S. population represented by undocumented immigrants, can be reduced by taking away economic and other incentives for them to enter or remain in this country, so that they never come or they decide to leave after arrival. A quick scan of such a description might suggest that self-deportation is a relatively moderate political goal that relies on voluntary acts rather than draconian changes to existing law.

Think about that. The decision to flee one’s home country permanently and come to a strange land is not made lightly. Many refugees seek to escape starvation, persecution, torture or certain death, which could be due to their ethnicity, gender or gender orientation, political beliefs or religion, or it could be simply because conditions in their country of origin make it impossible to stay. Such people often have a legal right to asylum.

What the concept of encouraging “self-deportation” embraces is intentionally making conditions in the United States worse for undocumented immigrants than the conditions in the country from which they fled. Not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare. On purpose.

Consider one of the most egregious ideas, that undocumented parents be separated from their children at the border, with the parents placed in a detention center for adults and their children in a children’s detention center.  This proposal, which had the stated goal of deterring families from making the journey in the first place by threatening to have their children pulled from their presence and separately incarcerated, was seriously advanced by the Department of Homeland Security until public outcry forced it to be walked back. The Advocates for Human Rights was one of 184 organizations that have signed onto a letter to Secretary John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security, registering outraged protests over this proposal. Among other objections, the letter points out that family unity is a fundamental human right under international law, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the proposal “harsh and counterproductive” and pointed to the inevitable emotional and physical trauma to children from family separation

The proposal to separate families by no means exhausted the ingenuity of the “self-deportation” advocates. An anti-immigrant organization that calls itself the Immigration Law Reform Institute has promulgated a menu of 24 methods by which state and local legislatures can make life miserable for immigrants while supposedly minimizing the danger of being found in contravention of federal immigration authority. The related Federation for American Law Reform (cutely called “FAIR”) has published a similar list of anti-immigrant actions to be taken by the federal government, entitled “Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition.”

To refer once again to the New Yorker, the issue of April 3, 2017 contains an article by Rachel Aviv entitled “The Apathetic.” It tells of the heartbreaking suffering of refugees, especially children, resulting both from the trauma which they flee and from the prospect of deportation. In Sweden hundreds of children aged eight to fifteen, all refugees and most from Russia or the former Yugoslavia, have fallen prey to what Swedish psychologists are calling resignation syndrome. In response to the emotional trauma resulting from the prospect of deportation and return to their countries of origin, these children simply fade away. They stop speaking, lose muscle tone, stop eating, and become mute, incontinent and unresponsive to stimuli, including pain. The article compares this syndrome, the particular symptoms of which are likely culture-related, to other severe psychological reactions to the emotional trauma suffered by refugees, such as when one hundred and fifty Cambodian women who had seen family members tortured by the Khmer Rouge lost the ability to see, or when Laotian refugees would cry out in their sleep and die, apparently frightened to death by their dreams.

Think about these refugees and what sort of trauma could cause the body to shut down in this fashion. Then think about comfortable, intelligent Americans who advocate that our country should intentionally create an environment for those refugees that is less nurturing and less attractive than they already face, and do so in order to promote “self-deportation.” Does putting America First require us to make ourselves ashamed of our country?

I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors. 

Welcome Home Blog Series: Karen refugees in Minnesota have a critical ally

madeline-at-roseville-karen-community

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 June 16.

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.