Minnesota’s newest arrivals, the Karen refugees from Myanmar in Southeast Asia, also known as Burma, celebrated the 2747 Karen New Year on Sunday, January 13 in the Great Hall of Arlington Senior High School in St. Paul. Rev. William Englund of First Baptist Church in St. Paul welcomed the large gathering of Karen families and their Minnesotan friends and supporters. To the Karens, he said, “At first you are our guests. Now you have been our hosts. But, more importantly, you are our friend.”
The Karen New Year Celebration Organizing Committee of St. Paul, MN organized Sunday’s festive celebration of tradition, friendship and peace. The program included speeches by community leaders and presentations of Karen traditional music, songs and dances. Dinner was served in accordance with the First-Crop-Eating ceremony of their ancestors to celebrate the New Year and to unite and build friendship. The Karens, as well as many of their Minnesota friends, were dressed in traditional Karen clothes.
The Karen is one of the ethnic groups in Burma. Since the end of World War II, the Karens organized under the Karen National Union, have been fighting against the Burmese government for an independent state. The current political conditions make it unsafe for Karens to remain in Burma. Under the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program, Karen people have been settled in many states throughout the U.S. with the largest number in St. Paul. Utica, New York and Dallas, Texas have the second largest groups.
The Committee’s chairperson, Wilfred Daniel Tun Baw, thanked the American people for their generosity and compassion in offering the Karen people a home. He also expressed gratitude to the many organizations that helped with the resettlement of his people from refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border to the United States. Among the celebrants and supporters on Sunday were representatives from various Twin Cities churches who have provided enormous assistance to the Karens.
Almost all of the approximately twenty five hundred Karens in the Twin Cities live in St. Paul’s North End, and many of them attend the neighborhood First Baptist Church of which Rev. Englund is pastor. The first Karen arrived in Minnesota in 2000, and the largest group arrived in 2006.
Baw explained that grueling conditions of torture, oppression and rape caused them to flee their country. He also reported that there are over 150,000 Karen people in camps along the Thai-Burma border waiting to be re-settled, and in addition, there are over 300,000 internally displaced within Burma.
Gus Avenido, State Refugee Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, one of the speakers on the program, wished the Karens happiness as they welcome the new year, and that they have the opportunity to grow their family. Moreover, he wished that they will have all they have been wishing for over the last several years.
Celebration of the Karen New Year is significant for its people both here as well as in Burma, said Mahn Robert Ba Zan, one of the first Karens who arrived in Minnesota in 2000, and who assumes the voluntary position of leader. Because of ill health, he did not attend the celebration on Sunday, but on the telephone, he explained its significance.
“No sooner had the Karen New Year day begun to be celebrated, the situation for the Karens and their perceptions have changed,” Ba Zan wrote in his book that was distributed at the event. The celebration of the Karen New Year is an occasion to unite, to develop feeling of kinship and to break down allegiances to clans, sub-ethnic groups and regions.
The Karens are settled here legally and are on a path to obtain U.S. citizenship should they choose to do so. In wishing the Karens a happy new year, Avenido also expressed his hoped that they will have the opportunity to realize all their dreams in America.