Language Barriers Among the Karen People Essay

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GAP stands for Guadalupe Alternative Programs and stands to serve St. Paul's Latino youth living on the West Side for the last fifty years. Programs like GAP have existed to promote the wellbeing of St. Paul's, Minnesota's Latino student population by offering services like counseling, educational programs, emergency resources, and job assistance (GAP, n.d.). While GAP still assists the Latino student population, times have changes and the Latino population has decreased, opening GAP services to diverse ethnic backgrounds. This has led to a recent issue of understanding the needs of the current population of GAP students.

The current population consists of English language learners, refugees (Karen refugees), and low income students. Social work interns at GAP recognized external factors that may affect GAP students. This has led to the desire to promote wellness among the current student GAP population. This research study is meant to provide an understanding of what potential hurdles the current GAP student population faces by asking GAP students if they were satisfied with GAP services and discover their level of awareness regarding resources available to them.

Statement of Problem

The community has seen GAP historically as an agency serving Latino students (GAP, n.d.). Established in 1967, GAP's main mission was offering various opportunities for Latino students in the areas of skills development, education, and personal growth. These Latino students were usually young high school dropouts living in the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota. However, the mission objectives have changes in the last decade. It has grown from assisting underserved Latino youth to assisting underserved students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In the last few years, the dominant population being served in the agency are Karen Refugees. The need arose to understand the potential factors that may attribute to some of the experienced difficulties by the GAP student population. A couple of these issues are transportation, language barriers (most speak the Karen language), and need for legal assistance, educational opportunities, and job assistance. By recognizing the needs of the GAP students, GAP staff also recognized the lack of resources needed to offer such assistance. Lack of resources means GAP students cannot accomplish goals of academic success. To fully assist GAP students in meeting the demands of current academic avenues and handle the stress of perceived barriers, action must be done to understand further the student population and improve existing services in GAP that consider limited resources.

Literature Review

The Guadalupe Alternative Program has changed in the last decade. Prior to the recent changes, it has met the needs of a majority Latino student population of Minneapolis, St. Paul. While GAP has achieved success in the past helping the student population, the influx of Karen refugees in the agency has led to some ineffective practices and hurdles for both GAP staff and GAP students. This literature review is meant to show the barriers faced by Karen refugees as well as what services can be improved to meet the needs of the current student population.

Understanding the Karen People

To understand the current GAP student population, it is important to understand what life is like for Karen refugees. Karen refugee women for example, have traditions they partake in that help them keep some of their culture they lost when they migrated from their homeland. One article notes the standing tradition of weaving among the Karen refugee women. Weaving provides social support, economic survival, and empowerment for these women and serves as a clue towards helping Karen refugee GAP students find purpose and connection to their culture (Stephenson, Smith, Gibson, & Watson, 2013). By weaving, it provides roots as well as a means of socialization that the Karen people treasure.

The next article details literacy practices among the Karen refugee women and their children. It offers incite in Karen family literacy practices both inside and outside the home. For example, Karen refugees practice literacy through participant observation, memorization, reading texts aloud (recitation), and computer use (Quadros & Sarrob, 2016). Because there is not much research on the Karen people, these practices can shed light on ways to improve literacy among GAP's Karen refugee student population.

Another aspect of Karen refugees to consider is the language barrier. In Australian-based study examining English language participation, achievement and education by the Karen people saw perceived difficulties from the Karen refugee women when it came to English language communication and proficiency.

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They also demonstrated additional barriers to education such as socio-political, cultural and gendered factors (Watkins, Razee, & Richters, 2012). To improve outreach to GAP Karen refugee students, GAP staff must become aware of their backgrounds, culture, and resettlement issues.

Karen refugees have endured a multitude of hurdles from war trauma, torture and these experiences have led to mental health distress among the population. One study notes the extent of torture among the population led to depression, PTSD and distress among older Karen refugee women (Shannon, Vinson, Wieling, Cook, & Letts, 2015). Counseling services offered at GAP may take into consideration these obstacles endured by the refugees.

These obstacles are frequent and make the population vulnerable. One article details the struggles and highlights the cause of the refugee status, a longstanding civil war with the Burmese government (Batholomew, Gundel, & Kantamneni, 2015). Through phenomenological examination, the authors noticed four themes. The most important from those themes is redefined selfhood and loss from oppression. These feelings and changes may play a factor in outreach and counseling efforts at GAP.

Improving GAP services

There are ways to improve outcomes for Karen refugee GAP students. Counseling services seem to be what is most needed among the Karen refugee student population (Block, Cross, Riggs, & Gibbs, 2014). Along with an improvement and strengthening of counseling services, GAP needs to improve their educational services. GAP staff must understand the literacy needs of the current GAP students. Literacy and language barriers are a main education-based problem for Karen refugee students. Introducing new literacy practices can help improve outcomes. One article noted the efficacy of literacy practices where students write out words and discuss them among classmates (Genlott & Gronlund, 2013).

Another study aimed to identify a way to establish a framework for the delivery of health services to newly arrived refugee children (Woodland et al., 2015). The framework included identifying and assessing for any trauma or health problems among the refugees. This can be used by GAP staff. They can learn to identify and assess for certain conditions among the Karen refugee student population especially in regards to counseling services.

In terms of improving counseling services, one study set to expand on the importance of mental health literacy. Mental health literacy reduces stigma and improves health-associated decision-making (Wei, Kutcher, & Bagnell, 2015). GAP counseling services could benefit from expanding or embedding mental health/health literacy programs. These will help the GAP students realize what resources are available to them.

Another article aimed at improving the mental health of medical students saw the need to propose learning communities and instill mindfulness/resilience experiences (Slavin, Schindler, & Chibnall, 2014). These additions saw a reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression from participants. Improving health outcomes through inclusion of new practices can be a great way to improve existing GAP services.

This literature review highlighted the kinds of struggles Karen refugees face. It also provided a means of which GAP staff can help. Through use of improved mental health services and literacy interventions, the GAP student population may experience positive outcomes.


A. The problem is the lack of suitable resources and services available for GAP students and the need to assess GAP staff competency regarding meeting GAP student needs.

B. Hypothesis 1: GAP students are not receiving the level of service they need for positive academic outcomes (Quantitative) Research suggests barriers exist for Karen refugees in terms of their culture, literacy, and language (Qualitative)

C. The study offers quantitative and qualitative research methods. The quantitative method consists of a participant tracker (clients), their needs and how these needs were addressed by GAP staff. The qualitative was an open-ended questionnaire-based focus group with the prevailing theme of GAP staff competency. The variables were clients, GAP services, and they were measured in terms of efficacy and outcomes. Notes were used primarily with no real survey conducted rather than interviews and written responses. In terms of sample, the majority of participants were Karen refugees with some Somali and one Nebal client.

D. The information was recorded on paper and then later input into a computer. All responses were from GAP students that had Karen refugee backgrounds. The data was represented in numerical format with chart representations. While the.....

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Batholomew, T. T., Gundel, B. E., & Kantamneni, N. (2015). A Dream Best Forgotten The Phenomenology of Karen Refugees' Pre-Resettlement Stressors. The Counseling Psychologist, 1.

Block, K., Cross, S., Riggs, E., & Gibbs, L. (2014). Supporting schools to create an inclusive environment for refugee students. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 18(12), 1337-1355. doi:10.1080/13603116.2014.899636

GAP. (n.d.). Guadalupe Alternative Programs - GAP - Guadalupe Alternative Programs. Retrieved from

Genlott, A. A., & Gronlund, A. (2013). Improving literacy skills through learning reading by writing: The iWTR method presented and tested. Computers & Education, 67, 98-104. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.03.007

Quadros, S., & Sarroub, L. K. (2016). The Case of Three Karen Refugee Women and Their Children: Literacy Practices in a Family Literacy Context. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 10(1), 28-41. doi:10.1080/15595692.2015.1084919

Shannon, P. J., Vinson, G. A., 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. doi:10.1080/15325024.2014.965971

Slavin, S. J., Schindler, D. L., & Chibnall, J. T. (2014). Medical Student Mental Health 3.0. Academic Medicine, 89(4), 573-577. doi:10.1097/acm.0000000000000166

Stephenson, S. M., Smith, Y. J., Gibson, M., & Watson, V. (2013). Traditional Weaving as an Occupation of Karen Refugee Women. Journal of Occupational Science, 20(3), 224-235. doi:10.1080/14427591.2013.789150

Watkins, P. G., 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. doi:10.1177/000494411205600203

Wei, Y., Kutcher, S., & Bagnell, A. (2015). Mental Health Literacy in Secondary Schools: A Canadian Approach. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24(2), 233-244. doi:10.1037/e506852013-134

Woodland, L., Kang, M., Elliot, C., Perry, A., Eagar, S., & Zwi, K. (2015). Evaluation of a school screening programme for young people from refugee backgrounds. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 52(1), 72-79. doi:10.1111/jpc.12989

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