The Karen Community in St. Paul


St. Paul is home to the largest Karen refugee population in the U.S. There are approximately 3,000 Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) living in St. Paul, most of whom arrived in the 2003 resettlement wave. Many more families are expected to come to Minnesota over the course of this year in order to reunite with family members already living here. Most Karen live in the Arlington Avenue and Westminster areas or in Roseville.

The Karen of Burma
Film and Discussion at Arlington Hills Library

In part of the Saint Paul-itics series, the Arlington Hills Library and First Baptist Church will present the 30-minute film documentary “Don’t Fence Me In: Major
Mary and the Karen Refugees of Burma” at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, August 6th, Arlington Hills Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., Saint Paul.

Following the film will be a discussion panel including members of the Karen community living in Saint Paul, and representatives from their sponsor organization, First Baptist Church. Learn about the Karen culture, what brought them here and the effects of immigration politics.

For more information please contact the Arlington Hills library at 651-793-3930, 2245 Como Ave., Saint Paul, MN 55108.

Life in Burma

The Center for Applied Linguistics, which provides cultural profiles on refugees in the U.S., called Burma “the source of one of the world’s most protracted refugee crises.” The government has long been accused of human rights abuses, including forcibly relocating citizens and using forced labor.

In 1948, Burma (also known as Myanmar) received independence from Britain. In 1949, an ethnic minority called the Karen began fighting for independence. The Karen continue to seek independence today, almost sixty years later.

Around 150,000 Karen currently live in refugee camps in Thailand, in order to escape persecution at the hands of the military government.

In 1990, following a regime change, the country held democratic elections. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a much-loved leader who was assassinated shortly before independence, ran for presidency and won received about 80% of the vote. The military government responded by putting her in house arrest, where she remains to this day. The government rules with a tight fist, maintaining nearly as many standing troops as the U.S. for a country the size of Texas.

Last fall, Burma received international media coverage when Buddhist monks led a peaceful protest against the government and were met with military crackdown. In May, a cyclone in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta left as many as 78,000 dead and 56,000 missing, according to the BBC.

For additional information on the history and culture of Burma and Karen people, please see the Burma Cultural Profile published by the Center for Linguistics at

There are two Karen community organizations in St. Paul. The Karen Community of Minnesota (KCM) promotes cultural activities as well as political activities in the home country. Every year, the KCM puts on a New Year’s Festival. Held this year at Arlington High School, the celebration featured free Karen food, dance performances, and a diverse gathering of people, many wearing traditional red or blue woven shirts and dresses.

The Minnesota American Karen Society (MAKS) supports Karen family and spiritual development and helps connect Karen people to social services. The First Karen Baptist Church, which is located on 400 Oxford St. in St. Paul, is also an important center of community.

The chairperson of MAKS, Saw Josiah, on both a personal and a professional level what Karen refugees go through. Saw Josiah and his family spent more than a decade living in the refugee camps in Thailand, where he worked for Doctors Without Borders. Like many young Karen in the refugee camps, his daughters were born in Thailand and have never been to their home country. Conditions “in the camp is okay, but outside is very hard,” said Josiah. Karen refugees are not allowed to work in Thailand—outside of the camps—and maintaining a living can be difficult.

Saw Josiah’s family came to the U.S. in 2000, and since 2004 he has worked as a case manager at the Minnesota Council of Churches, Refugee Services, where he guides them through the web of federal and social services for their first three months in the U.S. Family members and other members of the Karen community play a vital role in helping each new family through the massive adjustments of learning a new landscape, language, and social system, as well as finding a job.

“Most of the families are struggling for their lives when they arrive [in the U.S.]” said Josiah. “It’s a big change for them. It’s very hard to find employment. Some move to Nebraska or South Dakota or other states for jobs.” Considering that they came to St. Paul to reunite with family, moving to another state can mean the loss of important community.

Emily K. Bright writes poetry, fiction, and human rights articles in Minneapolis, where she also used to teach orientation courses for refugees settling in the Twin Cities.