St. Paul, Minnesota is home to the largest concentration of Karen people in the country, but who are the Karen? (The name is pronounced “kah-REN”.) The Karen are an ethnic minority from Burma, though the military government changed the name to Myanmar. Because most refugees in MN still refer to the country as Burma, we do too.
The Karen community in Minnesota is the largest outside of Southeast Asia. Since 2004 approximately 2,000 Karen people have resettled here. They’ve come to escape persecution and torture resulting from a half-century long civil war with the Burmese military government. After fleeing through the mountainous jungles of Burma past the border into Thailand, the Karen found relief in refugee camps. Many families lived there for a decade or two before receiving the opportunity to resettle in another country. Approximately 1 million refugees are still living in Thai refugee camps.
The Karen community in St. Paul is vibrant and flourishing and more families continue to come from refugee camps and other states, often to rejoin family members. Most Karen come from an agricultural lifestyle and find great joy in growing produce in Minnesota. Although city farming is still rather uncommon, community gardens and opportunities outside of the city are a major draw for the Karen community.
The Karen also have rich artistic and musical traditions. Weaving with brightly colored threads is a tradition some continue to enjoy in Minnesota. At a Karen community celebration you might enjoy music with drums, singing and dancing, and performers wearing traditional Karen clothing. (Click here for a video of a Karen dance performance in Burnsville in 2011.)
Relationships are central to life in the Karen community. When you visit a Karen family in their home, it is likely you will find neighbors or family already visiting. Another place Karen people gather is at church. The majority of the Karen people in Minnesota are Christian, although of the total worldwide Karen population, about half practice Buddhism and 15 percent practice Animism. Large congregations include First Baptist Church and First Karen Baptist, both in St. Paul.
If you would like to get to know a Karen family by accompanying them through their first 4 months of life in Minnesota, consider joining a Taking Root or Church Co-Sponsorship team. We would love to partner with you in the ministry of hospitality!
A Minnesota Public Radio report on the Karen refugee experience
Three personal stories told by Karen refugees can be found in our book This Much I Can Tell You