• The Karen are an ethnic group from Burma (Myanmar), many of whom fled Burma due to religious and ethnic persecution by the government.
  • 140,000 refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, are living in refugee camps in Thailand, some for as many as 20 years.
  •  Burma was colonized by the British, and gained independence in early 1948. Civil war broke out, and in 1962 military rule began, with constant fighting between the military government and various factions.
  •  In 2004, a ceasefire between the Karen and the Burmese government was brokered, but human rights abuses continue, including forced labor, village burnings, arbitrary taxation, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

Language, Religion, and Traditional Practices

  • Geographically and linguistically the Karen can be divided into three broad groups: Southern, Central, and Northern. These groups can be further divided into many sub-groups.
  • Although these groups share many cultural traits and traditions, their languages are for the most part mutually unintelligible.
  • The Karen speak several different dialects of Karen. 70% of Karen refugees speak Sgaw Karen, 7% speak Pwo Karen, and the others speak either Karenni or Pa-o/ Taung Su.  Sgaw and Pwo do not differ significantly in word root or structure, but differ in pronunciation so that a refugee who speaks one will not necessarily understand the other.
  • The Karen tribe was the first to convert to Christianity. Its people are often sent to other tribes as Christian missionaries.
  •  70% of Karen are Buddhist, Buddhist-animist, or animist. About 20% to 30% are Christian.
  • The nuclear family is the central family unit of the Karen.
  •  Karen trace their lineage through the female line.
  •  Men and women are generally free to choose their own marriage partners; after marriage strict monogamy is expected. Men assist with the raising of children.
  •  Important values include respect for elders, duty to parents, modesty and humility.
  •  White rice is a central component in the diet of the Karen, and is typically eaten at all three meals.
  •  Families generally eat together, without much chatting or fanfare, at meals taken on the floor three times a day.
  • Agriculture is the center of the Karen economy.
  • Karen use names and nicknames; there are no first and last names.

Adjusting to America

  • Often when answering a question that demands an affirmative answer, the Karen will say “no” instead of “yes.” This is a sign of modesty and politeness. Often the Karen are polite to a fault, and it can be hard to assess their needs.
  • Indirect eye contact is considered polite when conversing with someone, and it will take some time for the Karen to adjust to the American style of looking someone in the eye while speaking.
  •  The Karen have a strong work ethic and many have the long term goal of owning their own home.
  •  The Karen are quick learners, but many who have been living in the refugee camps for years will need to be taught how to use modern appliances and conveniences, such as running water, electricity, toilets and phones.
  •  Domestic violence is not uncommon and is often associated with the consumption of alcohol. Because of their extreme level of politeness, domestic violence may be very hard to detect and most often other Karen refugees will not come forward to report it either.

Further Reading
Books on the Karen