St. Paul: For Karen immigrants, a 'big family reunion' this weekend

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Aye Mya Phyu feared for her children as she ran from Burmese soldiers and into the jungle.

She moved from various safe zones along the Myanmar and Thailand border and eventually made her way to the United States. Now a St. Paul resident, she has been helping other immigrants escape the violence of their homeland and adjust to life here.

"It was like finding my freedom," Phyu recalled thinking when she first arrived to St. Paul. "Now we have no more fear."

The steady trickle of Karen, an ethnic minority from southern Myanmar, has been immigrating since 2000. More than 7,500 now live in Minnesota, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota. It is now home to more Karen (pronounced "kuh-REHN") than any other state, with large populations in St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood.

But many still face language, education and employment barriers. They're struggling because they don't have education or know how to use the right resources, Phyu said. Which is why she is volunteering this weekend at the fourth annual Karen Churches USA meeting that helps fellow refugees as they resettle. The First Baptist Church in downtown St. Paul opened its doors Friday for the first of three conferences.

With many relatives still in Myanmar, most refugees here have been separated for years, Phyu said. Hundreds gathered at First Baptist, including leaders representing seven different regions of Maynmar, to discuss ways to help reunite families. Additionally, counseling was offered to women, youths and community leaders.

"This is like a big family reunion," said the Rev. William Englund, a pastor at First Baptist for 23 years. "Some haven't seen each other since they were in camps."

The Karen are concentrated in a southern Myanmar state bordering Thailand. Since the late 1940s, military tension has led to six decades of violence, including forced labor and other reprisals to quash Karen independence movements or counter demands for a more representative federal state.

Phyu, 40, and her daughter Zin Zin Htoo, 22, remember large crowds of Karen church members greeting them at the airport when they arrived in 2003. The community sticks together like a big family, Htoo said. The Hamline University senior also participates in the conferences, she said. And many have close ties to First Baptist because it harbored the first refugees in St. Paul.

The second conference will be Saturday at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2742 15th Ave. S. in Minneapolis. The First Trinity Church of God, 981 Marshall Ave. in St. Paul, will host the last conference Sunday.

Marcella Corona can be reached at 651-228-5556.
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