Who are the Karen?

“Seeing the photos of Karen people running again just breaks our hearts and we feel traumatized” shares Hsa, a WellShare Community Health Worker.

Minnesota is home to one of the largest Karen (Ka ren’) populations in the country. They are an historically oppressed ethnic group in Myanmar who for years have been the target of attempted genocide. For over 70 years, the Karen people have been fighting and escaping this Civil war and many refugees describe this cyclical trauma as “reliving history”. Many Karen have fled political violence and persecution, seeking refuge in the U.S. beginning in 2004. Today, more than 17,000 have joined family and found a strong community in Minnesota with many residing in St. Paul and Maplewood.

The local Karen refugee community represents a large percentage of our clients and we are very fortunate to have the support of our compassionate and dedicated Karen Community Health Workers. Since 2013, staff from WellShare and the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM) have partnered to develop a holistic reproductive health curriculum and materials for use in the Karen community. Through group education facilitated by and for Karen women, the curriculum serves to improve participants’ confidence in accessing health care – from understanding what types of care are available to knowing how to schedule appointments, and increase participants’ comfort engaging in conversations about reproductive health and family planning, especially with their health care providers and their children.

Karen refugees face startling health disparities. Access to appropriate, quality health care and positive health outcomes is underrepresented in the Karen population compared to the general population. The Karen face significant higher rates of malaria, hepatitis and gastric ulcers than the general MN population. Karen patients have the lowest rate of optimal diabetes care (32%) below the statewide average and the lowest rate of optimal vascular care at 42% below statewide average. 

The health and wellbeing of Karen refugees is further exacerbated by a legacy of deep trauma that has traveled across generations. Law Law, a WellShare and Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOA) Community Health Worker explains that what we are seeing in the media now is nothing new. Even before the most recent military coup, the military raided Karen villages; burning down their homes, raping the women and killing the villagers. “I’m not surprised by what’s happening in Burma right now. The military has always been in power and they made that clear throughout the years,”  shares Law Law.

Many Karen refugees still have family living under duress in Myanmar and have not been able to contact them since the coup began. Their relatives have sought refuge in the nearby jungles, bringing only a very limited supply of food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, our Karen staff, clients, partners and friends hang in limbo, unable to contact their relatives and uncertain of their fate. This experience is especially difficult for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, shares Law Law. Viewing this trauma remotely triggers both generational trauma and very recent trauma inflicted upon the Karen. “The Burmese military are scary and they have no mercy. We really hope that something will change” asserts Hsa.

WellShare stands with the Karen and we are committed to our partnership to nurture and sustain wellness in such a beautiful, generous and resilient community.

To learn more about and offer support to the Karen refugee community in Minnesota:

To read MPR’s ‘After Myanmar coup, Karen refugees in Minn. fear for homeland’, click the image below.

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