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Monday, December 16, 2013

Our Karen Neighbors

Submitted by Councilmember Amy Brendmoen, Ward 5

The neighborhoods in Ward 5 have always been an area of Saint Paul where new immigrant communities choose to settle. Just drive down Rice Street or Payne Avenue to see the impact decades of immigrant communities have made; from German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Latin American, Hmong, East African and many others. The newest wave of immigrants to come to Saint Paul are the Karen, by way of refugee camps in Thailand, after escaping persecution in Burma (now Myanmar) in Southeast Asia. More than 7,000 Karen refugees have resettled in Saint Paul, making it the largest Karen community in the United States.

I have enjoyed working with and learning about the Karen community through the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM) which is headquartered in the North End. At the KOM Annual Gala, they shared this beautiful Karen proverb: The first generation plants the seeds. The second generation gets the shade. The third generation gets the fruit.

Coming to America is a dream for many refugees around the world, although when refugees finally arrive in Saint Paul, day-to-day life can be a challenge. Most Karen refugees come with little English language skills, little money, and little understanding about our systems of government, education, health care, criminal justice, etc. Many have lived through ordeals that most of us can only imagine and have had the tenacity to make it all the way here--with a dream of a better life for their families. KOM and other nonprofits in Saint Paul serve as an important resource for these new arrivals, offering them support and friendship as they build their lives (and plant their seeds) here in Minnesota.
The main issues facing the Karen in Saint Paul are adequate housing and jobs. I was shocked to learn that many of our Karen neighbors travel for over an hour each way to work in meat packing plants in Austin, Minnesota and elsewhere. I am committed to working with the Saint Paul Planning and Economic Development Department and the Saint Paul Port Authority to create jobs for our industrious Karen residents and many others right here in Saint Paul. I have also worked with our Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) to provide training to the Karen about best practices for finding housing, being a good tenant and expecting fair treatment from landlords.

Currently, I am proudly displaying traditional weavings from Karen artisans in my office in City Hall as part of my Ward 5 Featured Artist program. Reflecting on these beautiful, traditional garments each day reminds me of the rich history and culture the Karen and other immigrant groups have brought to our community. The cheerful colors, patterns and beads remind me of the courage and hope that our Karen neighbors bring with them to Saint Paul, and of the bright future we all share.

To learn more about the Karen, visit the Karen Organization of Minnesota's website at

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