More than 1,500 refugees from Burma call San Diego home, but they don’t all share the same heritage. Burma, a country in Southeast Asia, is home to many ethnic groups, and the settlers here share their diversity.
These differences could worsen the usual challenges that immigrants face when they must adjust to American life. The Karen Organization of San Diego, named after the Burmese ethnic group known as Karen, offers extensive resources and support to help the refugees survive and thrive in a new land.
The organization serves more than 90 percent of newly arrived local refugees from war-torn Burma, also known as Myanmar, living in San Diego. The nation of 53 million has a long history of bloody turmoil worsened by natural disasters and deep poverty.
“My parents, who were born in Burma, are Karen and we have been involved in a civil war against the Burmese military regime,” says case worker April Moo, a refugee herself. “This regime is a classic example of a totalitarian government, completely controlling its citizens’ lives. We have been persecuted and discriminated against by the Burmese regime for over 60 years. Our plight has been so severe that it has been called genocide.”
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Support the 70 middle and high school students that are in the Youth Development Program at Karen Organization that encourages them to do community service, do good in school, practice a healthy lifestyle and make friends.
Moo lived for 15 years in a Thailand refugee camp before moving to the United States. Karen refugees like her began arriving in San Diego in 2006.
“There were very few Karen here when we arrived,” she said. “When we moved to San Diego, everything was new. We found ourselves living as a subculture in American society. We had to learn a new language, the way Americans dress, the food they eat, and how they interact socially and culturally.”
The nonprofit Karen Organization of San Diego was founded in 2009 to help Burmese refugees with their transition. Now, it supports a mix of refugees from the Karen, Karenni, Burman, Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups.
One of the major challenges: learning how to utilize the social safety net.
“We found the welfare system baffling,” Moo said. “I know that many Americans resent immigrant and refugee families coming here because they think we have come here to take advantage of the welfare system. There is no basis for this. When we arrived here, we had no idea that the welfare system even existed. It took us a long time to get used to it.”
The City Heights-based Karen Organization provides services in a wide variety of areas, including education, interpreting, job training and transportation to medical appointments. It also introduces Burmese culture to the wider community through events like song and dance performances.
As a case worker, Moo assists clients of all ages, but she’s focusing on helping the young refugees to adjust to life here. Among other things, the Karen Organization’s Youth Development program encourages community service and helps students year-round with after-school resources devoted to homework assistance, recreational activities like art and sports, and initiatives to combat childhood obesity.
“I am expected to provide Karen youth with the kinds of resources they will need to be successful in American society,” she said. “This will not be easy, but I am looking forward to the challenges I will face.”
Learn more about Karen Organization’s sponsor, SDG&E.