Minnesotans travel to Myanmar region to support persecuted Karen

Anti-coup protesters run around their makeshift barricade
Anti-coup protesters run around their makeshift barricade during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28.
AP file

With everything that's going on in the world, the coup that happened in Myanmar in February may have been forgotten by some. But for Minnesota's Karen population, the coup and the cascading events that followed are very much top of mind.

An ethnic minority in Myanmar, the Karen have been in conflict with the government there for decades over calls for independence. Post-coup, they are facing intense persecution.

Minnesota is home to the largest Karen population in the world outside of southeast Asia. Two Minnesotans who lead the Urban Village, a nonprofit based in St. Paul that supports the Karen community here, are currently in the Myanmar region. Their goal: to help Karen refugees dealing with displacement and mistreatment.

Those Minnesotans, Jesse Phenow and Ku Hser, spoke to host Cathy Wurzer before they left last Friday.

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Interview highlights

“I used to be one of those who had to run and [hide] in the jungles,” said Hser, who is Karen and from the Myanmar region.

Hser and Phenow agreed that the “staggering” level of violence in Myanmar right now is retraumatizing for the Karen community in Minnesota. “When bombs are dropped in Myanmar, they also figuratively land here in St. Paul,” Phenow said.

Hser recently had a nightmare about current events in Myanmar, and he feels called to go back and do what he can: “I want to be back with those people and be a supporter, be a helper and be a storyteller.”

Phenow first came into contact with the Karen community while volunteering with a resettlement organization in St. Paul. He was inspired to move to Myanmar for six months, and he now shares a duplex in Minnesota with the first Karen family he ever met.

“This community — the Karen and Karenni people of Minnesota — they’ve given me so much,” Phenow said. “They’ve taught me that my own liberation, as someone who’s not part of the community, is bound up with theirs.”

Hser and Phenow are traveling with a group of people from the Karen diaspora who now live all over the world. Together, they are working to support displaced people in the Myanmar region, who have been hit hard by famine. Hser is also sharing his video production skills.

Are Hser and Phenow worried about the dangers of the trip? “I think anyone who wouldn’t admit that would … probably not [be] being honest with themselves. But to us, it’s worth it,” Phenow said.

Through the trip, Hser and Phenow hope to spread awareness of the plight of the Karen in the Myanmar region. “If you’re a Minnesotan, we want you to know that this issue may seem thousands of miles away, but this has a deep and lasting impact on your neighbors,” Phenow said.

For those who want to help the Urban Village and the Karen diaspora group that organized the trip, Phenow recommends the Urban Village website to donate or get in touch.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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