Karen Refugees of America Essay

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Karen people of Burma are made up of a number of separate ethnic groups that do not share common culture or language. The majority of the Karen people live in Karen State located in southern and southeastern Myanmar and make up roughly 7% or five million of the Burmese population. The majority of the Karen population have settled around or near the Thailand-Myanmar border. The Karen people have a rich history with some under leadership of the KNU or Karen National Union. Those influenced by the KNU have waged war since 1949 against the chief Burmese government, seeking independence. This has led to some Karen people leaving the country and moving to the United States as Refugees.

This literature review aims to understand the nature of the problem that resulted in migration of Karen people to other countries like the United States, what barriers they meet when they are relocated, and what is needed to bridge the gap. The literature review will examine three key areas that will also give a deeper understanding into the origins of the refugee status as well as what happens after they make the change to living in a place like the United States.

Nature of the Problem

From 1830 to 1947, the official British colony of Burma developed. While the country (later named Myanmar) later gained independence in 1947, the country suffered through military dictatorship (since 1962) as well as the start of the Karen Civil War (1964). The Karen people's first leader, J.D. Law provided the foundation from which the Karen struggle against the Burmese government formed (Ooi, 2004).

The Karen struggle has been a source of interest outside of Myanmar and Thailand. Especially with the introduction of Karen refugees into the United States. One article notes the frequency of war trauma, torture and mental health distress among the Karen refugee population screen while entering the United States. "Frequencies of primary and secondary torture were 27.4% and 51.4%, respectively. War trauma was reported by 86% of the participants. Torture, older age, and female gender were significantly associated with increased total distress, posttraumatic stress, depression, and somatic complaints" (Shannon, Vinson, Wieling, Cook, & Letts, 2015, p. 577). The fight for independence amongst the Karen people has taken a toll on the population, showing the potential long-term problems some of these refugees face even after having left the conflict in their home country.

Torture seems to be a prevalent problem concerning the Karen Refugees in the United States, a 2016 study analyzed the potential physical effects of torture among the population. "We identified no unique effects of torture on physical health above and beyond trauma exposure. Overall, in our sample we found a high prevalence of underlying infectious conditions, pain, and hypercholesterolemia, regardless of torture exposure" (Hoffman et al., 2016, p. 1). Although no physical effects of torture were seen amongst the participants in the study, the article stated the mental and emotional effects of torture last and may provide a better understanding of what the Karen refugees may have to deal with after moving to a new home. Resettling in a foreign country can be a difficult task. Another article highlights the ability of the Karen refugees to handle a new environment and culture.

Karen refugees that have relocated to the United States must not only acclimate to new cultures and people, but they must also learn to marry their past traditions with new ones. A 2015 article revealed the ability of Karen refugees to adapt to their new environment by maintaining their cultural identity via family support, faith, community, and Christian values. One way the study identified that Karen refugees maintain their cultural identity is through food. "Findings suggest participants identify with their culture through traditional foodways and desire to preserve native dishes, gardens and celebrations for the sake of familial relations and cultural identity" (Spivey & Lewis, 2015, p. 60). B preserving the food dishes they ate in their homeland, they are able to maintain some semblance of their former lives and identity.

The Karen refugees managed to continue their culture in the United States. This can be seen in the Karen culture of Minnesota. The Karen culture of Minnesota is filled with various aspects of the former Karen culture in Myanmar from how they greet people and even the way they see medicine and food. This next section will provide an important look into the traditional and non-traditional aspects of Karen culture in Minnesota.

Karen Culture in MN

Some Karen people managed to migrate to the United States as refugees, residing primarily in Minnesota. The current number of Karen people in the United States is roughly 64,759 (Arnold, 2015). One of the main settlements for the Karen refugees is St. Paul Minnesota (Arnold, 2015, p. 781). Some common cultural norms amongst the Minnesota population is not having surnames. They refer to each other in relation to kinship. Some changes in the culture is their belief in medicine. They have a tendency to believe western medicine has the ability to cure any disease or illness. The Karen people of Minnesota also do not believe in having insurance if they are not sick. They may use what has been used by the Karen people and various other populations, the betel nut as a means of staying alert and awake while performing job duties or chores.

These are just some things a 2012 case study identified amongst the Karen refugee population. While they discovered the positive effects of relocation for the Karen refugees, they also noted the lack of effort among authorities to help the population integrate better with the culture of St. Paul. "However, it was found that there were also lessons to be learned from the Karen in St. Paul about limiting the detrimental impacts of the program, better supporting the integration process, and broadening participation in resettlement" (Harkins, 2012, p. 184). The Karen refugees still maintained and maintain potentially dangerous habits that could lead them to long-term health problems. As previously stated, the betel nut has been confirmed as being a dangerous plant to use daily.


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Amar, A. (2016). The constitution today. Basic Books.

Arnold, K. (2015). Contemporary immigration in America. ABC-CLIO.

Furber, S., Jackson, J., Johnson, K., Sukara, R., & Franco, L. (2013). A Qualitative Study on Tobacco Smoking and Betel Quid Use Among Burmese Refugees in Australia. Journal Of Immigrant And Minority Health, 15(6), 1133-1136. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10903-013-9881-x

Gilhooly, D. & Lee, E. (2016). The Karen resettlement story: A participatory action research project on refugee educational experiences in the United States. Action Research. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1476750315625338

Harkins, B. (2012). Beyond "Temporary Shelter": A Case Study of Karen Refugee Resettlement in St. Paul, Minnesota. Journal Of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 10(2), 184-203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15562948.2012.674326

Hoffman, S., Robertson, C., Shannon, P., Cook, T., Letts, J., & Mathiason, M. (2016). Physical Correlates of Torture Exposure in Karen Refugees. Journal Of Loss And Trauma, 1-15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2016.1212609

Ooi, K. (2004). Southeast Asia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Shannon, P., Vinson, G., Wieling, E., Cook, T., & Letts, J. (2015). Torture, War Trauma, and Mental Health Symptoms of Newly Arrived Karen Refugees. Journal Of Loss And Trauma, 20(6), 577-590. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2014.965971

Spivey, S. & Lewis, D. (2015). Harvesting from a Repotted Plant: A Qualitative Study of Karen Refugees' Resettlement and Foodways. Journal Of Refugee Studies, 29(1), 60-81. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fev013

Tanaka, A. (2013). Assessment of the Psychosocial Development of Children Attending Nursery Schools in Karen Refugee Camps in Thailand. International Journal Of Early Childhood, 45(3), 279-305. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13158-012-0077-7

Watkins, P., Razee, H., & Richters, J. (2012). 'I'm Telling You... The Language Barrier is the Most, the Biggest Challenge': Barriers to Education among Karen Refugee Women in Australia. Australian Journal Of Education, 56(2), 126-141. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/000494411205600203

Yarris, K., Stasiun, J., Musigdilok, V., & Win, C. (2014). Generation, Displacement, and Deservedness among Karen Refugees in California. International Migration, 53(3), 111-123. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/imig.12167

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