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Workshop gives insight into Karen culture

Workshop gives insight into Karen culture

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Karen people do not ask, "How are you?" Helena Asherin, a Karen refugee from Burma, said this is because they aren't doing well very often.

But hopefully that is changing.

More than 60 percent of Nebraska's refugee population are from Burma, according to Karen Parde, refugee program coordinator for the Nebraska Health Department, and many are members of the tribal group Karen.

While Grand Island hasn't had many refugees from Burma, almost 30 have moved here in the past month. The majority are Karen. To promote education about the new ethnic group in Grand Island, the Multicultural Coalition hosted a workshop about the Karen Wednesday.

"The Karen people are just wonderful people," said Parde. She presented the workshop, but also brought three Karen refugees with her from Omaha. There were two sessions at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. at the Workforce Development Building in Grand Island. About 30 local people attended the 1:30 session.

Asherin works with the Omaha Public Schools and translates for the Karen refugees there. Omaha has the largest Karen population, and Lincoln comes in second in Nebraska.

"I think most of the people in the U.S. don't know much about the Karen," said Asherin, who moved to the U.S. four years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.

She said that Karen people came to the U.S. for the same reason all immigrants come here: They wanted a better life. But with a refugee community, the motives are different. Most would like to still live in their home nation, according to Parde, but were forced to leave for many different reasons.

For the Karen, 50 years of constant fighting between the Burmese government and Karen nationals led to unsafe conditions. Asherin showed a video of interviews with Karen refugees.

In the video, some discussed the nomadic lifestyle the Karen people live in the jungle. They are constantly running from gunfire and searching for food. If they tried to grow crops — the Karen mostly eat rice — the Burmese would open fire on them.

Because of these conditions, almost 40,000 have immigrated to the United States, according to Asherin. But before immigrating here, they lived in Thailand in refugee camps.

"We hope this is going to be the last country (we live in)," Asherin said.

She lived in one of those camps, and talked about how their homes, which were more like shacks, were so close together that they could hear their neighbors' conversations. She said that one time a neighbor began singing a song in his home, but couldn't remember the next part, so her brother started singing. But he couldn't remember the ending, so another neighbor finished the song from another home.

In addition to difficult backgrounds, the Karen also have a unique culture.

Because the Karen were mostly farmers in Burma, many get their first job when they move to the United States. They also have never paid a bill. Asherin said many try to pay bills right away, because they are worried about being late.

They also do not shake hands, and men and women do not hold hands in public.

They have strict rules about marriage. Unmarried women and men are expected to abstain, and aren't allowed to openly date. Once a couple marries, they are expected to stay together.

Asherin is married to an American man, and she said that her mother used to cry every night. Her mother was worried that because the divorce rates in the U.S. are so high, the marriage wouldn't last. But Asherin said her marriage is working out, and she has a young son.

"They want to learn American culture while maintaining there own," Parde said.

It's also acceptable for teachers and parents to use violence to discipline children in their country, according to Asherin.

The Karen people are shy and quiet, she said. They also do not ask questions because teachers and doctors are well respected and expected to fully inform.

Asherin said that most Burmese refugees are Christian, but some are Buddhist and a small portion are Muslim.

They speak Karen and many speak Burmese. In the group that came to Grand Island, many understand English, but only a few speak fluently, said Carlos Barcenas, Multicultural Coalition director.

With a large population of Burmese refugees in Omaha and Lincoln, Parde said more could come to Grand Island.

With language and cultural barriers, Asherin said the new refugees will need help.

Barcenas is working to help the Grand Island Karen refugees find rental homes because they still are living in hotels after working at JBS Swift for four weeks.

In addition to help and community support, Asherin said, they want to be treated normally.

"They want to learn American culture, and they want you to understand them," Parde said.

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