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Mid-City CAN Blog

Karen Organization helps refugees find a place

From left, Karen Organization of San Diego Board Chairman Andrew Rae, Staff Member Eh Eh Wha, Executive Director Nao Kabashima and Staff Member Hsit Hsa Paw work to help refugees from Burma in four key areas: culture preservation, youth programs, community building and self-sufficiency. Photos by Adam Ward
From left, Karen Organization of San Diego Board Chairman Andrew Rae, Staff Member Eh Eh Wha, Executive Director Nao Kabashima and Staff Member Hsit Hsa Paw work to help refugees from Burma in four key areas: culture preservation, youth programs, community building and self-sufficiency. Photo by Adam Ward

 

More than 1,600 refugees have traveled from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to City Heights to escape one of the longest civil wars in the world. After those 300 refugees a year arrive and go through the initial resettlement process, the critical next step is working with the Karen Organization of San Diego, said Nao Kabashima, the organization's executive director. The Karen are an ethnic group from Burma.

"New arrivals almost 100 percent can't speak English," she said. "It is so tough."

The organization works with them to connect them to the community in San Diego, provide interpretation and find them jobs, in positions like mushroom farming or working at markets, she said.

Karen community leaders founded the organization in 2009 to support each other, Kabashima said. It focuses on four main areas: self-sufficiency, community building, youth programs and culture preservation.

"Basically all of the main programs are interconnected," Kabashima said. For example, "without self-sufficiency it is so hard to build the community."

Kabashima, who is Japanese, started as a volunteer board member shortly after arriving in San Diego herself. She emphasizes that much of the organization's mission comes from the refugees.

"They do have wisdom," she said. "They have passion, but they don't know how to read English, write the papers and documents [you need when] applying for grants."

However, staff and community members have been trying to improve their English skills, so that they can write grant applications, too, she said.

The office has three full-time and three part-time staff.

The Karen Organization's major funder is the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Kabashima said, but it also gets funding from Price Charities and The California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities Initiative. This initiative is a 10-year, $1 billion effort to change the way that health happens throughout California, by focusing on 14 sites – including City Heights.

The nongovernmental funding allows the Karen Organization to do things like inform people about Obamacare – or the Affordable Care Act – support its youth group and provide translation at Hoover-cluster schools in City Heights. The organization is also seeking other funding, and is a semi-finalist in Advance San Diego's youth and the arts category for its Karen weaving program.

The Karen Organization also offers summer school, where it teaches young people to speak Karen, Karenni and Burmese.

"This community is just so special because of that intergenerational-plus-community self-help model," Kabashima said. "This organization works with actual voices from the community -- leaders, elders and youth -- so that they can give us suggestions."

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