Marner Saw, left, and Saw Morrison discuss a decade of successes, challenges, and lessons learned from other Southeast Asian communities.
By AKIKO TANAKA
AAP contributing writer
ST. PAUL (Jan. 11, 2011) — It has been more than 10 years since the first Karens from Burma arrived in Minnesota as refugees.
The New Year celebration event for the Karen year 2751, eleventh such event in Saint Paul, was held on Dec. 31st and Jan. 1st at Washington Technology Secondary School. To celebrate the new year, two leaders from local Karen organizations spoke about how far the Karens have come in their adopted state.
Marner Saw is Secretary of Karen Communities of Minnesota and Social Service Coordinator of Karen Organization of Minnesota. KCM is a volunteer-based, grassroots organization focusing on sustaining Karen culture and language and providing social services.
Karen Organization of Minnesota is a non-profit organization founded in 2008 that provides social services, employment, youth, and mental health services to the Karens. Marner Saw lived a life on the run since he was seven years old, moving from place to place along Thai-Burmese border seeking safety from the Burmese military. He arrived in Minnesota with his family in 2005, and after two years of holding private sector jobs, has been working for his community, helping to found KCM and KOM.
Saw Morrison, Employment and Social Services Program Manager at KOM, also has been a part of its founding. He escaped to the Thai-Burmese border at the time of 1988 democracy uprising in Burma and worked to bring displaced people from inside Burma to safety. He arrived in Minnesota with his family in 2004.
Currently there are approximately 6,000 Karens living in Minnesota, with the largest population in Saint Paul and Roseville. Significant numbers also live in Worthington, Austin, Eveleth, Faribault, and Marshall, mostly working in meat processing plants.
Saw Morrison says that the Karens are doing well and appreciate the support they receive from public and non-profit agencies in Minnesota. He talked about the positive things about living in Minnesota as “….people who never went to school [in Burma], now adult people are going to school; they have a chance to learn; they have a chance to screen their health, they have a chance to work…”
There are also many successes and accomplishments. “The good thing is that people who didn’t have a house back home, some of them you can see [in Minnesota] that they have a big house, three bedrooms or four bedrooms. They have cars, even though they cannot speak English…Now you will see last year we had 72 Karen high school students graduate. And some of them kept going to college…”
Both Saw Morrison and Marner Saw contrast the insecurity in Burma and Thailand with safety in Minnesota. “…you don’t have to be afraid too much. Back home, when you saw the military, some police, even though in Thailand, you had to be afraid because you were not legally living in this world.
Now you are legally here. Minnesota police will help you; you know that community will help you.” “…[back in Burma or Thailand] if we saw the Thai police or the Burmese we were afraid. Here even if you are not legal here, the police does not ask you for the ID, as for back home, the police asked for ID if they saw your face was like a Karen or Burmese or some people, they asked for ID and caught you. Here is good for us to start our life here.”
Saw Morrison says employment is the biggest challenge, especially in this economy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to prepare those who are not used to the culture and customs of the United States for employment. However, government funding for employment services have been cut so the employment program can provide assistance only during the first year after refugees’ arrival, which is not enough time to prepare them for successful employment.
There are other cultural issues and concerns that the Karens encounter. For example, Marner Saw is concerned about lack of community/cultural input in the court system in cases such as divorce. Another large issue is parenting when children are increasingly becoming Americanized and know to call 911 when parents use harsh discipline that has traditionally been used in Karen families.
Marner Saw says that parents feel that they cannot do anything and feel that they cannot control their own children. Drug use by Karen youth was also raised as a concern, with drug sellers targeting this new market.
Mental health is also starting to be recognized as an issue within the community, with depression most prominent, according to Saw Morrison. Experiences in Burma still haunt them, as well as the stresses of adapting to the life in the new country where they do not understand the language or the culture.
Stigma is a significant issue that prevents the Karens from seeking help. Now KOM works with Center for Victims of Torture, Wilder Foundation and volunteers to address mental health issues.
The Karens are actively learning from other refugee and immigrant groups about how to become successful in this community. Saw Morrison says, “we saw a lot of Southeast Asian people, for example Hmong people, a lot of Hmong people when we go to the school, you saw they are in the reception of the clinic, or all the agencies or the school principal, everywhere, businesses, you can see them.
The question is how did they get there? And the main thing is that they got there because they emphasized education; that is why we are so interested in working to get education for our future…”
Learning from more mature Southeast Asian communities in the Twin Cities was how KOM started as well. “…we went outside and went to visit the Southeast Asian community and agencies, like Hmong American Partnership, Lao Services, Vietnamese Social Services, CAPI or something like that and we did research, and what was the best for us.
First we found Vietnamese Social Services. We went there and they welcomed us and we volunteered there and learned from them how we can stand up and go forward. And they showed us the way, you know, united us, and we were so interested to do 501c3 [non-profit status] to apply for that [since it] was the only one legally that can stand us up as an organization, agency here.”
Saw Morrison emphasizes the importance of continuing to work together with the local community. He feels that the Karen’s journey has just started. “We worked along the way. We had happy time, fun time and sad time; for example, financial hard time, scheduling hard time, leadership hard time, organizing hard time, we worked along the way – he [Marner Saw] and me and the other community leaders.
Now maybe people will say that ‘hey this guy is working, now they are good’. No, we are just beginning our trips, so we understand that [it is] so important that we work together. Not me and I work, everybody and local government and local people also too.” He also stresses the importance of actively reaching out. “And now I feel like my eyes and my heart are open bigger than last couple of years; sometimes when you feel like you are lonely because you don’t talk.
You have to knock and then the door will open for you. You just go to college and knock, you just go to the police department and knock, and talk, and they understand now. So we have to keep continuing.”
Among these successes and challenges in Minnesota, do the Karens miss their home country?
Marner Saw says many miss their country, and if they had the freedom to go back, they would like to. However, younger ones or those with a good job would like to stay. Those who are having trouble finding jobs or with their children, probably they would like to go back if possible. “Yes, for my mother, she does not want to go [back], you know, for me, I want to go” he says, laughing.